Pygmalion effect unlikely to propel Vietnam's English upgrade plans

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Vietnam aims to achieve in 7 years something that took Singapore three decades

Students and parents pray for luck in the university entrance exams at the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first national university, in Hanoi on July 2, 2013. An ambitious government project aimed at churning out an English-savvy young workforce by 2020 has failed the enthuse experts who doubt Vietnam will be able to accomplish in 7 years a task that took its better-off neighbors several decades. PHOTO: AFP

Hundreds of thousands of students sitting for their university entrance examinations this week would have been surprised to know that many of their teachers were sharing their acute anxiety. 

"I just feel extremely nervous," said Nguyen Duc Nghiem, a junior high school English teacher in Ho Chi Minh City. "The upcoming test is wearing me down," he told Vietweek.

Nghiem is among some 86,000 English teachers across Vietnam who are taking European standard exams aimed at gauging if they are competent enough to churn out an English-savvy young workforce by 2020 as part of an ambitious government project. The tests for the teachers are being carried out gradually until 2015 and those who fail the screening can face dismissal.

"I only wish we had more time to get prepared for such tough tasks," Nghiem said.

The timeframe of the project has been severely criticized by independent experts, who doubt Vietnam will be able to accomplish a task that took its better-off neighbors several decades. Other things about the project do not add up as well, they say.

"If we look at the quality of English teaching in Vietnam and the lack of support in terms of salaries, resources and in service training, I would have to say that the targets do not look very achievable to me," said Dennis Berg, who has worked as an educational consultant in Vietnam for over 20 years.

"Without faculty development and changes in teacher training programs, the project will never meet its goals," Berg told Vietweek.

Grand ambitions

The project, with a budget of VND9.4 trillion (US$443 million), was approved in 2008 by the government.

It envisions that by 2020 "most Vietnamese students graduating from secondary, vocational schools, colleges and universities will be able to use a foreign language confidently in their daily communication, their study and work in an integrated, multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment, making foreign languages a comparative advantage of development for Vietnamese people."

With English becoming a compulsory subject at the third grade onwards, Project 2020 will affect 200 million students and 85 percent the $443 million budget will be spent on teacher training, according to the Ministry of Education and Training.

Retrained teachers, required to pass tests measured by the Common European Framework of Reference, are expected to be able to deliver new English-focused curriculum in 70 percent of third grade classes by 2015, the ministry said.

The curriculum should be applied nationwide by 2019.

By 2015, English-teaching hours would double and math would be taught in English in 30 percent of high schools.

But red tape has dragged things, and it was only until last year that provinces and cities across Vietnam began implementing the project.

"We were already four years behind schedule," said Nguyen Ngoc Hung, the outgoing executive manager of the project.

As of June this year, Hung said 12 provinces in the northern mountainous region and the Mekong Delta had not prepared a plan to implement the project. 

"Still, I think it is not too late," Hung, who retired on July 1, told Vietweek.

Independent experts, however, are not that upbeat.

"The objectives [of the project] are too colossal considering our own capability", said Vu Thi Phuong Anh, director of the Department of Research and International Relations at the HCMC-based University of Economics and Finance.

"The way the authorities are carrying out project just doesn't add up," Anh, who has extensively researched Vietnam's education system, told Vietweek.

Experts have criticized the plan to carry out the project in all 63 provinces and cities in Vietnam, saying it was unrealistic.

"Proponents of the program say doing so would ensure fair treatment across the country," Anh said. "But how can you ask for such "˜fair treatment' while the social gaps have never been bridged?"

Left behind

With two-thirds of Vietnam's population of around 90 million born after 1975, Project 2020 is expected to usher in an English-proficient workforce that can propel the country to rub shoulders with its neighbors when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forms a regional community in 2015.

With combined economies worth $2 trillion and a youthful population of 600 million, Southeast Asia is considered a rare bright spot in the global economy. Despite its own economic woes, Vietnam has remained a magnet for foreign investors.

But according to a 2008 report prepared by the Harvard University's Kennedy School, Intel, the world's largest computer chipmaker, said only 90 candidates out of 2,000 Vietnamese IT students passed its standardized assessment test and of this group only 40 individuals were sufficiently proficient in English to be hired.

The report's authors said this was "the worst result" Intel has encountered in any country they had invested in.

But some headway has been made since.

"In the years since, thanks in part to the various programs that Intel has implemented, these gaps have closed and we now don't see any big challenges in our Vietnam hiring plan," said Nick Jacobs, a spokesman for Intel Asia-Pacific.

A number of foreign English teachers, tour operators and company executives here in Vietnam that Vietweek spoke to also confirmed that the English capacity of Vietnamese students has improved quite a bit over the last several years.

"Even compared to just two years ago, the competency level is much higher," said an American teaching English at a university in Vietnam.

Experts have attributed this to the increased access to resources such as cable TV and the Internet and movies in English with subtitles. More students are learning the language in an English-speaking environment by studying at high-quality foreign language schools, they say.

Meanwhile, a rising number of the nouveau riche, as well as some middle and upper income middle class families in Vietnam, where the annual per capita income was around $1,555 last year, are opting to send their children abroad for higher studies.

Given this, experts say perhaps the most obvious stumbling block for Project 2020 is that the quality of teachers has not kept pace with that of the students. 

"There are many English teachers who are behind their students in terms of capability," said Berg, the educational consultant.

He recalled teaching a graduate research class for Vietnamese majoring in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL); and in the back row was a group of students with their translators next to them.

"When I asked if they wanted to be English teachers the answer was heavens no. But it was the only major they were admitted to so they were trying to earn a master's degree.

"Vietnamese nonsense like quota and channeling has to stop if the country is really going to reach for the target."

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese English teachers trained to have their students focus heavily on grammar, reading and translation are subject, under Project 2020, to screening based on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), a move that has caught almost all of them off guard.

Under the new framework, teachers will need to achieve level B2 in English, which is equivalent of grades ranging from 5.0 to 6.5 in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), an international standardized test. School leavers are expected to get B1, equivalent to 4.0 to 5.0 in IELTS, a level below.

As part of Project 2020, Vietnam conducted CEFR-adapted tests on English teachers in June 2012, and the results were shocking.

The English skills of an overwhelming majority of English teachers in Vietnam fell behind international standards, the results showed. A whopping 97 percent of high school teachers and 93 percent of elementary and secondary school teachers failed the tests. Worse still, 17 percent of elementary school teachers tested only showed beginners' level proficiency.

The results were recorded in 30 provinces and cities that had taken the tests by then. Rates were especially low in some provinces in the Mekong Delta.

Even in HCMC, considered the hub of high-skilled teachers, more than 84 percent of 1,100 surveyed teachers failed. Many of them are heads of English departments at famous schools. Hanoi faced the same situation with only 28 out of 150 surveyed teachers passing the tests.

As many as 40 percent of 129 English teachers in Hanoi's Ba Dinh District last April skipped a CEFR test out of fear they would fail.

For Nghiem, the HCMC-based teacher, the test was a punishment.

"During a listening test, I was not able to get even a single right answer," said Khiem, who teaches eighth and ninth grade students at a junior high school in District 11.

Experts say Project 2020 is being implemented with high hopes but deep-seated problems that have bedeviled Vietnam's education system for years still stand in the way.

"Most of the teachers in the public school system put in extremely long hours and don't have a lot of time," said Anh, the Vietnamese researcher.

"The teaching profession pays so little that top students do not normally want to be teachers. So it will be extremely difficult to implement [the project] countrywide."

A newly-graduated teacher earns just VND2 million (US$95) which only doubles after 20 years of work experience, according to the labor ministry. 

No turning back

Experts say that English proficiency in Vietnam is below its better-off neighbors like Singapore or Malaysia, and it takes decades, not years, to improve it across the nation.

It took Singapore, with a population of around 5.3 million, almost three decades to achieve significant results in English language literacy nationwide.

In 1987, English was officially designated the main language of instruction within the local education system in the city-state. The use of English in schools is also reinforced by the fact that Singapore is the only non-native speaking country that has adopted English as the working language for the whole government.

As a result of its efforts, the proportion of Singaporean families using English as their main language in the homes has risen from just 8 percent in 1980 to 48 percent in 2010.

Given that it took so long for Singapore despite its long history of engagement with English as a former colony of the British empire, experts reiterate that Vietnam's seven-year timeframe for Project 2020 looks highly unrealistic.

But there is no intention of setting less ambitious and more realistic targets.

Experts say that project managers in Vietnam can afford to take such stances, because the most difficult part of a project is getting the go-ahead, and how it will deliver is less of a concern.

"That is because the buck stops with no one when it comes to the efficiency of the project," Anh said.

Hung, the outgoing manager of Project 2020, admitted that such a loophole exists, explaining that a major national project spanning many years would have different officials at the helm at different times.

"[But] until the project concludes, it will be strictly monitored by different government agencies," he said.

But education industry insiders do not buy into this assertion.

In any major education project, "if there is money, there is corruption," said a former director of a public education research center.

In such projects, equipment purchases or the production of study materials that would require the disbursement of large sums of money is always fertile ground for corruption, she said, declining to be named.

"The authorities never oversee the quality of those products. The only thing they do care and ask about is the invoices and documents acknowledging their sheer existence.

"It is the people that will bear the brunt of such inefficiency and unaccountability."

Anh said that when Project 2020 wraps up, the English proficiency of local teachers and students is likely to improve slightly no matter how it delivers.

"But do we need VND9.4 trillion just to "˜slightly improve' their English capacity?" she said.

"I'm sure we could have done that with much less money."

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