How to succeed in PISA

Vietnam outperformed many nations of comparable economic status in the latest PISA assessment. Zoe James says that a focus on basic skills has been one vital element of its success.

Three schoolchildren writing on blackboardVietnam was a star performer in the most recent OECD PISA study, ranked 17th out of the 65 countries and economies that took part, and outperforming the UK in maths. For one of PISA’s few participating low or middle income countries, with expenditure at the primary level of just $207.58 per pupil in 2008, this result is perhaps a surprising one. It stands in contrast to other PISA participant countries at comparable levels of economic development, such as Indonesia or Peru, which languish towards the bottom of the table. What lessons, if any, does Vietnam’s experience offer for other so-called ‘developing’ countries?

Achieving universal access to good quality basic education is a key priority for Vietnam, as it is for other rapidly developing countries. Vietnam appears to have benefited from focusing on the basics. It makes use of targeted government programmes aimed at improving learning opportunity for all by focusing on reaching minimum quality standards, especially in disadvantaged areas.

In a recent survey of 3,500 grade 5 pupils conducted by the Young Lives research team at the University of Oxford, findings suggest that Vietnamese schools and classrooms are characterised by focused and disciplined work; the effective teaching of a clearly defined curriculum, meted out by well-trained and competent teachers; and a focus on learning for all, not just the high achievers. Furthermore, both children and teachers were found to be absent on average for less than two days per academic year. This is in contrast to many other developing countries, where estimated absence rates for both pupils and teachers are sometimes as high as 25 per cent. The same survey carried out a value-added analysis which found that differences in school quality do not appear to strongly favour urban or wealthier sites.

We know that in Vietnam, a majority of pupils reach learning levels in maths and reading which are comparable with high income countries, on curriculum-related assessments. This occurs despite particularly low formal instructional hours and relatively low teachers’ salaries, as well as relatively low expenditure per capita by international standards.

But challenges remain. High achievement on standardised tests may indicate success in little more than just that: Vietnamese teachers are good at teaching to tests, and Vietnamese children are good at studying for them. Assessments such as PISA are able to offer only limited insight into those ‘soft skills’ such as communication, creativity or critical thinking, which may arguably become more important for the labour market as Vietnam transitions to a knowledge-based economy. Emerging evidence for this challenge may be borne out by the data. A new report concerning the skills needed for the Vietnamese labour force highlighted the fact that employers there have identified a lack of graduates with communication and teamwork skills as a key issue for the future.

Furthermore, as noted in a blog by Christian Bodewig from the World Bank, a significant proportion of children leave school by (rather than at) the age of 15 in Vietnam, and the PISA results are collected from children at the age of 15. They may therefore constitute a distinct selection of pupils, in contrast to the more global samples from which the UK or US results, for example, may be derived. Evidence from Young Lives longitudinal household surveys, presented in a background paper for the recent UNESCO 2013-14 Global Monitoring Report, demonstrates the potential impact of this factor. Drawing on data from a cohort of 1,000 children surveyed longitudinally since the age of eight in 2002, it is evident that 48 per cent of Vietnamese children in the lowest quartile of achievement on a maths test at age 12 had dropped out of school by age 15, compared to just 20 per cent of children who fell into the highest quartile of achievement on the same test at the same age.

Vietnam has achieved astonishing success in terms of educational development and learning, particularly when placed in comparative perspective. Its ‘minimum standards’ approach may therefore be instructive to other low and middle income countries looking to bolster learning achievement in particular domains. But it is clear that Vietnam may face significant challenges in the future if it is to transform into a true knowledge economy.

Zoe James is Education Research Officer with the Young Lives project, based at the University of Oxford.

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