Short-term thinking leads to long-term education woes

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Students attend a ceremony to celebrate the new school year of 2013 in Le Hong Phong High School in Ho Chi Minh City

The World Economic Forum's new 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report ranks Vietnam's primary and university education sectors 97th and 95th, respectively, out of 148 countries recently surveyed.

That puts Vietnam behind other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand.

Former deputy minister of Education and Training Tran Xuan Nhi told Vietweek that the low rankings are because teaching methods, curricula and exam haven't been changed for years, even decades in some cases.

Vietweek: Why does Vietnam rank so low on the education index?

Tran Xuan Nhi: I feel sad with the assessment. Vietnam ranks behind many other ASEAN countries although local people have a traditional fondness for learning. The reason is that our education sector is too sluggish.

Regarding education methods, we have not updated our methods of teaching and learning, and neither have we changed the ways our exams are organized or the way we assess student abilities.

Meanwhile, other countries have improved their teaching methods often over the years. They have used the student-centered teaching method, helping them to bring their creativeness into full play. Our education method has not changed for years despite many plans to do so. Thus, our education quality remains poor.

Regarding examinations, other countries assess their students' performance several times throughout the year. Meanwhile, we assess it only once at the end of a school year via examination results. Thus, some weak students have committed fraud to get good examination scores.

Many parents' perception of their children's education is incorrect. They force their children to enter universities and think that the university certificate is very important. They should instead find out what their children's strengths are, and then decide what the children should study, instead of just rushing to universities.

As for curriculum, we study unnecessary things, but don't study other necessary things. The curriculum has not been updated. As a result, Vietnam has a low ranking.

I hope that the problems will be settled after Communist Party leaders consider [and approve] a plan on the fundamental and comprehensive renovation of Vietnam's education system. The quality of education will improve only after the education sector is comprehensively renovated. Poor education quality has seriously affected the country's socioeconomic development.

Why have things been so slow to change when we have recognized those shortcomings for a long time now?

Leaders of the education sector are hesitant to implement changes because they would have to work harder and think more carefully. Thus, old educational methods still remain in place. This is also because government officials usually think only in terms of their office term [i.e. short-term and inconsistent], a problem that is very severe in Vietnam.

Some argue that our poor education system is due to limited government spending. However, the World Economic Forum said that the financial issue and teachers' salaries are not the most important factors in the development of a good education system. Your opinion?

The issue is not whether the sum of money devoted to education is big or small, but whether it is used effectively or not. The effective use of funds is more important than the amount of money.

For example, if we shorten our primary and high school education systems by one year to 11 years, we could save a lot. In many other countries, students finish their fundamental learning by 9th grade. Then, in two years in high schools, they choose specialized learning programs that are put them on a path toward a job plan or the universities they enter in the future.

If we shorten the primary and high school education to 11 years from 12 years now, we could save one twelfth of the amount we currently spend on education. The funds saved from the cut could be invested in improving the material facilities in the education sector and increasing teachers' salaries"¦. These are the things that need to done for to improve the education system.

We have one million high school graduates each year. If high school students graduate one year earlier than they do now, they could contribute an additional 300 million working days to society. That amount of work could be worth some VND30 trillion ($1.4 billion). The figure is not small to Vietnam.

It's also not necessary to hold two exams every year - the high school graduation exam and the university entrance exam - each of which costs the state tens of billions of Vietnamese dong.

The ministry can abolish the university entrance exams to cut costs. It should instead improve the quality of the high school graduation exams, and universities can use those results as a basis for enrolling students.

Because of the limited funds available, we should have sought investment from individual private investors. But we have not done it properly. Private schools do not have any government support in terms of enrollment, land, and access to funds.

But if education here is so bad, why do such a high percentage of Vietnamese high school students graduate every year? The figure is over 95 percent annually.

It is because of our fondness of reporting good results. Thus, some exams may be easy. To improve the quality of education and training quality, we need to improve the quality of teachers and management methods, and develop relations between schools and society.

The rebuilding of the education system should start by deciding three things: how many years will students be in primary and high school programs? What are our new teaching methods? And how do we develop new textbooks?

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