Good learning, Vietnam!

An authority on Vietnamese education I don't pretend to be, but a recent trip yielded a couple of surprises.

First, even Vietnam, still in many respects a doctrinaire communist nation, is opening up its education system (both elementary/secondary and postsecondary) to competition and privatization, including for-profit providers. A natural consequence, most likely, of the country's accelerating efforts since 1986 to liberalize its economy in order to be more effective on the world market. (See here and here.) Like those who run its immense northern neighbor, Vietnam's overlords seem to think they can have it both ways: capitalism sans political freedom.

Second, even Vietnam, which still tends to ration access to certain opportunities and services according to people's rank (and Party membership), is moving toward uniform national academic standards that all students must meet at the end of secondary school--via a standard national test--in order to gain access to any of the country's proliferating (but still scarce) institutions of higher education.

Mine was a touring holiday, not a professional expedition, so most of what I gleaned about education in Vietnam came from looking out the van window, talking to our guides and reading the local English-language morning newspapers.

I learned that Vietnam has a very high rate of basic literacy, thanks to free and compulsory primary education (through fifth grade) and the even more consequential fact that most Vietnamese parents take their children's education seriously. (The latter pattern is common in East Asia, as the late Harold Stevenson explained two decades ago, and is on vivid display among Vietnamese immigrant communities in the U.S.)

I also learned that families must pay school fees for secondary and tertiary education, and that by local standards these institutions are not cheap. (One of our guides, himself a university graduate, estimated that college costs about $600 a year in a land where the GDP per capita is around $800--and both numbers are rising.)

Thus access to post-primary education hinges on having some financial means as well as suitable institutions nearby. Which means it's inequitably distributed across the population--and particularly difficult for Vietnam's millions of rural farmers and village dwellers.

Yet demand exceeds supply. Many schools run double sessions (and we heard of triple sessions), and the papers were full of talk of teacher shortages--the latter also owing to abysmal salary levels in government schools.

Now the government, which (after disastrous collectivization policies from the mid-seventies to 1986) has twenty years of experience inching toward market mechanisms, seems to have concluded that the next stage of education development calls for private-sector help. Hundreds of privately-operated colleges and schools have sprung up, mainly in urban areas, and the papers contained ads for people to staff them.

So far as I could determine, the government provides minimal financial assistance to such institutions and they are largely tuition-dependent, though regulated in regard to core curriculum and teacher credentials. Part of their appeal, however, is that they can offer more than the government curriculum and that non-certified people can be hired to teach the extra courses and subjects. (Teachers can also be paid extra.) Such schools may develop specialties and occupy distinctive market niches. (One, for example, advertised that it offers "western education" and "eastern values." Another touted its American-style curriculum.) In return, their operators invest capital to launch the schools, adapt them to local conditions and market demands, and shift most if not all of their operating costs from state to family.

I was reminded of James Tooley's seminal research on the burgeoning role of private education in the developing world. (See here.) His most interesting finding, however, is that unsubsidized private schools serve poor as well as prosperous families--and often serve them better than nearby government schools. I couldn't determine whether private schools for the poor are part of the current picture in Vietnam. But privatization surely is--this in a land that twenty years ago made people queue to procure meager quantities of moldy rice from state-run stores and obtain government-issued coupons and ration tickets for everything from sandals to radio batteries to spare parts for one's old bicycle.

As many U.S. states and other nations have found, with privatization and diversity in education comes the challenge to devise mechanisms for enforcing some sort of uniform or minimum performance standards. In Vietnam, this will now mean new national standards and exams for university entry. Here's an excerpt from the January 12 issue of Viet Nam News:

"The Ministry of Education and Training is making the general entrance exam mandatory for all students attending post-secondary institutions in 2007....The announcement was made on Tuesday by ministry officials during a teleconference connecting about 350 post-secondary institutions....All senior-secondary school students must take the exam to make sure they meet new national standards that are in the works....The ministry expects the exam will promote a sense of fairness and eliminate the need for post-secondary institutions to conduct their own testing. The multiple choice format will be applied to four subjects: chemistry, physics, biology and foreign languages. The ministry is expected to use the testing method for mathematics, history, and geography in the future."

That being all I know, I dare not declare that standards-based reform cum school privatization and choice is sweeping modern Vietnam. All I can say with confidence is that this approach to education change has gained a toehold there.

Vietnam, by the way, repays a visit. With the world's 13th largest population, it boasts one of the planet's fastest-growing economies and fastest-changing societies, not to mention chaotic traffic, fantastic food, manageable prices, a good tourist infrastructure (at least in the high spots), lovely scenery, fascinating sites (and sights) spanning two millennia, and friendly people. Though it's still far from free by world standards, people are getting more rights. To a tourist's eye, it doesn't look like a police state. Its historic wariness toward its giant neighbor (a frequent invader and conqueror over the centuries) is turning it into a nascent U.S. ally in containing Chinese ambitions. And the rapid spread of capitalism and consumerism across the land surely complicates one's picture of the communism that America dedicated so many lives to repelling. "South" Vietnam today is visibly the country's liveliest, most prosperous and most market-driven region, but the north is bustling, too.

Then you visit the remaining (museum-like) portion of the bleak Hanoi prison where John McCain and other captured U.S. pilots were held and sadistically tortured for years. You notice that the rest of the land under that grim old French-built penal institution now supports a spiffy modern commercial skyscraper. You drive past today's "Hanoi Hilton," a five star hotel operated by the eponymous U.S. chain. And you come back to Washington and see the wreaths, letters, photos, and tens of thousands of names engraved on the Vietnam War memorial. Yes, it's complicated. But 32 years after the painful end of our military involvement there, you, too, may want to visit this ancient and fascinating land. And if you learn more about their education reforms, please get in touch.

by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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