Cut schooling by one year

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  A class at Thuc Nghiem School in Hanoi on the first day of the new school year earlier this month. Some 22 million students have begun the 2012-2013 school year. Photo: Reuters

A shortened academic program can help reduce financial burdens on poor families and students who want to seek jobs as soon as they graduate from high school.

As Vietnam prepares for a major revamp of its pre-college schooling system, replete with new programs and textbooks, Nguyen Minh Thuyet, former vice chairman of the National Assembly's Committee on Culture, Education, Youth and Children, says the project ignores tertiary and vocational education and argues high school education should end one year earlier.

Vietweek: What is your opinion about this project to overhaul our schooling system?

Nguyen Minh Thuyet: The Political Bureau and the Secretariat of the Communist Party of Vietnam's Central Committee have asked the government to prepare the project that will revamp Vietnam's academic programs and update textbooks. The project is scheduled to be discussed at the sixth meeting of the Party Central Committee in October. This is something that needs to be done to meet the demand for boosting growth and fulfilling the target of becoming an industrialized nation that is more deeply integrated into the world economy by 2020.

However, the project only mentions major renovation of academic programs and textbooks from first to 12th grades. It ignores university and vocational education programs. Three of our previous education reforms also failed to address university education and vocational training. This is not right. Primary and high school education is very important, but vocational training and university education are directly related to developing the nation's human resources.

What should Vietnam do, then?

Nguyen Minh Thuyet, former vice chairman of the National Assembly's Committee on Culture, Education, Youth and Children
Education reforms should be based on our socioeconomic reforms and human resource policies. If these do not change, educational reforms cannot be successful. Schools will not be the driving force for improving quality if our economy develops in an incorrect manner, which right now focuses mainly on assembling, outsourcing and service industries. Only economies based on creativity and innovation can improve education.

Do you have concrete proposals for project?

I think we should shorten primary and high school education to 11 years instead of 12. And only grades one through nine should be compulsory. Schooling for grades one through nine should be provided for free. After completing ninth grade, students should have the option of joining a two-year specialized program in their field of interest before entering higher education, or they can graduate after ninth grade and join the workforce.

Most countries in the rest of the world apply a 12-year program for primary and high school students. However, their economic situation is better than ours. In many other countries, a class has only 20 students, while the figure in our country may be 50 or 60.

A shortened academic program can help reduce financial burdens on poor families and students who want to seek jobs as soon as they graduate from high school.

I also think we should reconsider our educational goal, as different goals will lead to different academic programs. In other countries, academic programs are rather heavy, but students don't have to learn lessons by heart to ensure success in exams.

For example, in the US, fourth graders have to answer such questions like: "Would you decide to drop nuclear bombs on Japan if you were US President Truman? Was it necessary to use it to end the war?"

Thus, students have to seek information from books in libraries and the Internet for their essays or talks on the issue. This way of studying makes the students more creative and active.

We have to learn this way of teaching. However, we also face difficulties in doing this because of the large number of students in each class and the low salary of teachers.

How should we change our textbooks to suit the new needs?

We have so far changed textbooks four times. And the most recent change, in 2002, was implemented most methodically. Nearly 1,000 people, outstanding experts in several areas, participated in compiling and assessing the textbooks. However, these still have several shortcomings that are not very likely to be dealt with in the coming reforms.

Current textbooks are still not realistic enough, focusing more on theory than practice. Subjects are not integrated where possible and needed, for instance, history and geography.

In addition, foreign language is considered an optional subject because we do not have enough teachers. Although the subject is very important, not all students nationwide can study foreign languages. So, we have to deal with these issues.

Also, we now have just one set of textbooks issued by the Education Publishing House. While this promotes uniform teaching, it fails to be competitive. We should think about having many sets of textbooks, but these need to necessarily be issued in the first year of the renovation project.

How long will it take to implement these reforms well?

It will take several years to prepare the textbooks, so it will be difficult to have them by or just after 2015. The government should have an action plan until 2013, and then we need time to discuss the length of our schooling system, subject content and curricula and so on before starting to compile textbooks. Then, the new textbooks and academic program should be applied on a trial basis for around four years before it is mainstream.

Would it be possible to keep the academic program unchanged, but improve the quality of teachers?

It is possible. However, it is not easy to improve the qualifications of more than two million teachers nationwide. In fact, a new academic program can help improve teaching, so we do need to reform our educational system.

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