Some thoughts on Vietnamese education after listening to Diane Ravitch’s talk at Lehigh University

The talk by Diane Ravitch at Lehigh University made me reflect on Vietnamese education system. Though I have been working as a teacher in Vietnam for 12 years, attended numerous training courses, and listened to a myriad of talks about education reform in Vietnam, I have never had an opportunity to listen to any educators who can vehemently express disapproval of the current education policies. What I heard about school reform in the US in Diane Ravitch’s talk brought me a refreshing experience and helped me better understand Vietnamese education.

Since “Doi Moi”(renovation) process in 1986, together with the economic reform, Vietnamese education has undergone significant reforms in education and has seen certain achievements. However, teachers and students who implement and are supposed to benefit from these reforms are almost always voiceless. There are articles in the media criticizing some aspects of the education system. However, in Vietnam, it is nearly impossible to find an education activist like Diane Ravitch or Sir Ken Robinson who can overtly criticize national education reforms, arguing they are killing students’ inquiry, creativity, and critical thinking, and propose that drastic measures should be taken to transform education rather than reform a failing system. There was once a high-school teacher in Vietnam who quite often publicly fulminated against the corruption in the Vietnamese education system. However, his debating points were not well-received by most people who were used to taking the negative sides of the public education system for granted. After several years of being the lightning rod of criticism, his voice in the fight against education corruption is no longer heard.

Quite different from public education in the US, Vietnamese public education is not threatened by educational privatization because public schools are recognized to be of higher quality than private ones.  However, there is still a need to protect public education as the ‘civil rights issue of our time’ in Vietnam. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by UNESCO,  which was passed nearly seven decades ago, states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.” However, that right is not entirely ensured in Vietnam. Because public schools are underfunded, some students cannot enjoy free K-12 education.  Tuition and other hidden fees can become a burden for many households of students, including even primary students. The dropout rate after primary education is high, especially among students in rural, mountainous areas because their families cannot afford their education and/or child labor is more valuable than school attendance. Diane Ravitch is absolutely right when stating that poverty is among the root causes of low education standards.

Though there are no incentives and sanctions imposed on schools and teachers based on the results of high-stakes standardized testing in Vietnam. These tests not only drive teachers to teaching to the test, cause hierarchy among subjects, and lead to feeling “shame” and further marginalization among marginalized youth (Rich, 2003), but also make most students resort to purchasing private tutoring and consequently create “teacher corruption” (Dang, 2007). Unlike the US where low-performing students are offered free tutoring, private tutoring is a thriving market in Vietnam in which students (and their parents) – whether they are low achievers or high achievers – are the eager buyers of tutoring services, hoping to enhance their children’s academic performance and teachers are enthusiastic sellers, aiming to supplement their low income (Dang, 2007; Kim 2013). Private tutoring in Vietnam is not borne by the government’s encouragement to enhance the quality of public education like in the US. Its existence instead may threaten the quality of mainstream education. Private tutoring may “create disaffection” at school because students are bored with over-learning or they have learn the contents in advance during tutoring lessons. In addition, tutoring can decrease the effectiveness of teachers. Teachers may teach less during the school day to save their energy for the after-school tuition (Buchman, 1999) and students may have to attend lessons to please teachers (Dang, 2007). High-stakes standardized testing in Vietnam indeed directly or indirectly creates a fertile ground for private tutoring, which deepens the social inequalities between the rich and the poor, the rural and urban areas, and becomes a financial burden for many families.

I am totally convinced by Diane Ravitch’s argument that testing is “undermining education” and students’ academic performance and achievement should be evaluated through a process of learning rather than merely the test scores.  In order to improve education, we need to enhance the quality of teachers’ professional lives and increase their salaries rather than threaten to fire them. Above all, tackling poverty-related matters is the key to improving educational standards.

Sources:

Buchman, C. (1999). “The State and Schooling in Kenya: Historical Development an Current Challenges.” Africa Today, 46 (1), 95-116.

Dang, H. A. (2007). The determinants and impact of private tutoring classes in Vietnam. Economics of Education Review, 26(6), 683-698.

Kim, H. K. (2013). An analysis of the causes of shadow education in the era of the schooled society. The Pennsylvania State University.

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. NY: Basic Books.

Rich, W. (2003). Historical high‐stakes policies relating to unintended consequences of high‐stakes testing. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice,22(1), 33-35.

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Widespread Culture of Private Tutoring in Hong Kong

The course “International Education Policy” under the Master’s Program of Comparative and International Education at Lehigh University has broadened my view in various ways. One of them is the area of private tutoring, which has also been referred to as “Shadow Education” by Dr. Mark Bray.[1] Dr. Bray is the UNESCO Chair Professor of Comparative Education in the Comparative Education Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong whose research focuses on private supplementary tutoring.[2]Before taking this course, I had an impression that private tutoring primarily existed in Southeast Asian countries. However, I have learned that it has been very common in many parts of the world, including Europe and the United States, but just in different forms. It reminds me of many interesting scenarios about private tutoring in Hong Kong, which I will examine in this blog.

Mainly, there are two types of private tutoring in Hong Kong. One is held at home and the other one is held in the education centers, which operate as businesses. For the former one, numerous online websites serve as a bridge between students and private tutors to match the requirements or criteria of both parties.[3]  For the latter one, there are significant numbers of education centers with a wide variety of choices for the public, including classes in musical instruments, dancing, artwork, languages, sports, martial arts, or even actuarial science. Some people may refer to these classes as enrichment programs. Evidently, many learning centers also offer classes in academic areas, like English, Mathematics, Chinese, while some of them purposely assist students tackle local or overseas public examinations, including SAT and TOEFL.  

Many factors contribute to the flourishing industry of private tutoring in Hong Kong. First, Hong Kong’s examination-oriented education system has put too much emphasis on the students’ academic results, which can alter their future academic and professional trajectories. The recent shift from two to one public examination due to education reform from the British to American model further accelerated the explosion of private tutoring as students have much more pressure to only have one chance at succeeding on the exam.[4] However, being a good student does not mean that you can be successful in these examinations. What students need are the techniques and strategies to predict accurately the topics or questions in the upcoming exams according to the pattern from the past papers, as it is almost impossible for students to study all of the materials that teachers provide in the curriculum. By paying tuition for private tutoring, students hope to perfect the specific skills that they cannot learn in public schools because regular schoolteachers are deprived of comparable resources or the time to do that.[5]

Second, Hong Kong parents have the mentality of pushing their children to achieve excellently in academics due to the great influence of Confucianism.[6] Because the birth rate of this city is one of the lowest in the world,[7] “tiger parents” often place all their hopes in one child to become a “Dragon” – an almighty creature in Chinese culture.[8] Before the babies are born, mothers already think about which kindergartens, primary, and secondary schools their children would need to get in, so that they could attend the top universities and have good jobs at the end. Parents also believe that private tutoring could assist their children in learning extra information, so that they could succeed on public examinations. In addition, parents expect their children to become competent in all areas, including languages, art, music, sports, and martial arts. They do not want them to lose at the starting point. As a result, they force their children to enter this vicious cycle of competitions and occupy their free time with many private classes – no matter whether they like it or not, often as early as only one or two years old. Sometimes, kids are tired and cannot enjoy their childhoods due to excessive external study. We can imagine how much academic stress Hong Kong’s next generation needs to bear, especially those who fail in this system. This pressure has been blamed for a growing suicide rate among students with poor academic record.[9]

Third, being a private tutor in Hong Kong can be a lucrative career. I used to be a part-time private tutor for primary school students when I was an undergraduate student to help cover living expenses. Some tutors can even make a living from tutoring services. Recently, Hong Kong has experienced a new phenomenon of some private tutors from education centers becoming famous celebrities like kings or queens. The most successful one is Richard Eng who has become a multi-millionaire! He founded Beacon College and he is considered to be the firstcelebrity tutor in Hong Kong. He wears lipstick for photo shoots and all classes are broadcast live through closed-circuit television.[10] With this career, he is able to drive a half-a-million-dollar Lamborghini car as well as dress himself up with brand-name clothing and manicured hair. [11]

5. private tutor billboard

6. private tutor billboard

Fourth, there is a lack of governmental regulations of private tutoring and many tutors operate no differently than entrepreneurs. The most fascinating phenomenon is the emergence of giant billboards in the most popular places where teenagers go. This creates the image of private tutors as pop stars. Besides, millions and millions of advertisements go online. Glossy brochures and impressive promotional videos are seen everywhere. Some tutoring schools will have full-page newspaper advertisements and television screens in railway stations and on buses to catch youngsters’ attention, claiming to transform failing students into A-grade pupils.[12]  Some tutors even have their own teams of stylists, fashion designers and photographers to make them look perfect and attract students.[13] Lately, with the advancement of technology, students can have additional purchases such as personalized interaction with the star tutor or the tutor’s assistant via Facebook or email.[14]

3. private tutor billboard

1. private tutoring ad. on the bus

Research in other countries suggests that private tutoring is a manifestation of privatization in education. According to a recent study conducted by the Asian Development Bank and the Comparative Education Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong, private tutoring will aggravate social inequalities, divert needed household income into an unregulated industry, and generate inefficiencies in education systems. [15] Sadly, the private tutoring phenomenon also demonstrates how little confidence parents and students in Hong Kong have in public education to lead the achievement of our next generation.  

 

[1] Bray, M.(2009). Confronting the shadow education system: What government policies for private tutoring? Paris, France: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.

[2] The University of Hong Kong (2014). Faculty of Education – About the Faculty – Professor BRAY, Mark. Retrieved on April 12, 2014 from http://web.edu.hku.hk/staff/academic/mbray

[3] Hon, H.N. (2010). Hong Kong’s Shadow Education: Private Tutoring in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Anthropologist,  4 (10).

[4] Sharma, Y (2012, November 27). Meet the “tutor kings and queens”. The BBC. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-20085558

[5] Lui, M. (2007, January 28). Hot for teacher in Hong Kong. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/28/news/adfg-sexy28

[6] Ho, E.S.C., LAM, C.C., and WONG, N.Y. (2002). Parents’ Beliefs and Practices in Education in Confucian Heritage Cultures: The Hong Kong Case. Journal of Southeast Asian Education, 3(1), 99-114.

[7] The World Bank Group (2014). Fertility Rate, Total (Births per women). Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN

[8] Ministry of Culture, P.R. China (2003). The Almighty Dragon. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_chinaway/2004-02/25/content_45896.htm

[9] Takoaka, N. (2013, December 12). Asian students still ace world rankings. Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved on April  13, 2014, from http://asia.nikkei.com/print/article/8662

[10] Ng, Y.H. (2009, June 1).  In Hong Kong, Cram School Teachers’ Image Rivals Pop Stars’. New York Times. Retrieved on April 13, 2014,from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/business/global/01iht-cramside.html?_r=0

[11] Corren, A. (2009, November 10). Hong Kong’s ‘celebrity tutors’ turn millionaires. Cable News Netowrk. Retrieved on April 13, 2014 from http://edition.cnn.com/2009/BUSINESS/11/08/hong.kong.celebrity.tutors/index.html

[12] The Independent (2011, June 5). Exam-obsessed Hong Kong makes celebrity tutors rich. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/examobsessed-hong-kong-makes-celebrity-tutors-rich-2293297.html

[13] Lui, M. (2007, January 28). Hot for teacher in Hong Kong. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/28/news/adfg-sexy28

[14] Sharma, Y (2012, November 27). Meet the “tutor kings and queens”. The BBC. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-20085558

[15] Asian Development Bank (2012). ADB Study Highlights Dark Side of ‘Shadow Education’. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.adb.org/news/adb-study-highlights-dark-side-shadow-education

Turkey’s Private Tutoring Sector Shutdown: Blessing or Chaos?

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On September 9th, 2012 Turkish Prime Minister R.T. Erdogan announced his proposal to shut down all after-school private tutoring institutions within a year, and possibly turn them into publicly funded private schools. There are over 4,000 institutions that offer private prep courses, known as the dershane sector, which serve over 1.2 million students every year. The dershanes employ over 100,000 people, over half of them being teachers, and bring in an estimated revenue of $2 billion annually. (Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, 2011).

This announcement, of course, generated a heated debate amongst the educators and broader public across Turkey. Interior Minister Nihat Ergun commented on the issue saying, “the dershane system has become unsustainable, and has almost replaced the regular school system” (Hurriyet, 2012). During the last year of high school especially, in order to prepare for the Access to Higher Education Exams (YGS-LYS), students will often only worry about their dershane studies, and neglect their regular school work. In fact, it is quite common for students to stop going to school a few months before the exam just to make more time to cram and memorize as much as they can. Students usually begin going to these private tutoring centers as early as middle school, to begin preparing for high school entrance exams for prestigious high schools. 

In response to this, the Ministry of Education had announced in 2004 that high school GPA’s would have a larger significance in the amount of points added to the final exam score. This was done in hopes to increase the significance of formal schooling in a setting where private tutoring takes priority. Unfortunately, this move didn’t do much in terms of lessening the pressures of the YGS exam, nor did it really affect student’s attendance levels during the second half of the school year.

So how exactly did Turkey’s educational policies come to be this way in regards to exam-driven learning and this push toward private tutoring facilities? There are many facets to this issue, but one way to look at it is by questioning the quality of the public education system in place.

“In the developing countries, deficiencies in the educational system such as inadequate number of universities, large class sizes and low public educational expenditures are often cited as the reasons for the high demand for private tutoring. As such private tutoring can be regarded as a market response to the mediocrity in the public school system” (Kim and Lee, 2001). Because the public school curriculum does not provide adequate tools to prepare students for the selection exam, students who wish to attend college are forced into private courses, assuming they can afford it. While nearly 2 million students take the YGS every year, less than 300,000 are awarded spots in schools. Of the students who take the exam, over 50,000 receive a zero. We can deduce the intensity of competition when taking these figures into consideration. When looking at PISA levels, it was found that in Turkey there is a “high level of correlation between the student’s socioeconomic background and her/his achievement in the test. This is the highest value among OECD countries after Hungary and Belgium.” (Blanchy & Sasmaz, 2009) If there is a persistent lack in the system in supporting students who come from underprivileged backgrounds, those students will continue to remain at the bottom of the spectrum, lacking the skills and competencies necessary to succeed. 

If the government chooses to close down the dershanes, won’t students who come from higher socio-economic backgrounds still find ways to obtain private lessons, turning these prep courses into some sort of underground ordeal? Perhaps they wouldn’t be to the full extent of 15-20 hours/week lessons that the dershane provides, but either way shouldn’t it be up to the family to decide whether or not to send their child to prep classes? While I agree that dershanes do create inequality in opportunities, it should be taken into consideration that perhaps they aren’t the cause of the problem, rather the result of the bigger underlying problem that is the quality of education in public schools. Students who live in less economically advanced regions and have limited access to educational resources will have even less of an opportunity to attend college if dershanes are shut down without an effective system in place to narrow the educational gap.

It is obvious that the issue is much deeper than the inequalities that may arise from the dershane system; rather, the issue is with the failure of the public education system across Turkey in and of itself. Without fixing the foundations upon which the public school system stands, the need for after school prep classes will not subside. Taking away the choice or freedom to educate your children, however you see fit, certainly isn’t the solution, not in the short term, at least. If public schools cover the topics necessary to pass the college entrance exams, over time students will rely less and less on after school private courses. Eliminating them altogether without a serious plan to reform public school curricula would only bring about chaos.