Vietnam is one of education’s biggest
outliers: It’s basically the only low-income
country that performs at the same level as
rich countries on international academic
There’s a clear positive relationship
between a country’s economic strength
and how well its students perform on
certain tests.
But Vietnam, with a GDP per capita that
is a fraction of the US’, actually performs
significantly better than you’d expect for a
country at its level of income, and no one
really knows why.
Researchers have studied two
internationally comparable tests in an
attempt to understand the “Vietnam
effect.” One is the TIMMS test, on which
the Vietnamese vastly outperform people
in other countries of similar GDP per
capita. Check out the chart:
A 2014 paper by Abhijeet Singh studied
the TIMMS results and found that
Vietnam’s advantage starts early –
Vietnamese children are slightly
outperforming those in other developing
countries even by age five, and the gap
grows each year.
The paper found that “a year of primary
school in Vietnam is considerably more
‘productive’ in terms of skill acquisition
than a year of schooling in Peru or India,”
Lee Crawfurd wrote in a blog post for
Research on Improving Systems of
. “The question this research raises – and
the Vietnam experience suggests – is:
‘Why is learning-productivity-per-year so
much greater in some countries than
others?’ Or to put it more simply, why are
schools so much better in some
Now, a new paper by World Bank
researchers Suhas D. Parandekar and
Elisabeth K. Sedmik is attempting to
answer that question. They studied the
Programme for International Student
Assessment, or PISA
, using scores from 2012.
Seven developing countries other than
Vietnam participate in the PISA, and at $
4,098, Vietnam has the lowest per capita
GDP out of all of them. And yet, Vietnam
still scores higher than the other
developing nations. Check out the chart
for math scores versus per capita GDP:
Parandekar and Sedmik
Vietnam’s scores are way above what
you’d expect – more on par with Finland
and Switzerland than Colombia or Peru.
For math, there’s a 128-point difference
between Vietnam’s score and the average
score of the other seven low-income
countries. Seventy points in the math
section corresponds to “an entire
proficiency” level, which represents about
two years of schooling in the typical
Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development country. That means
there’s a nearly three-year difference in
educational attainment between Vietnam
and the other developing countries that
took the PISA.
What’s going on?
The World Bank researchers used the
PISA data – which includes questions
about student backgrounds, learning
experiences, and school systems – to see
what about Vietnam makes its students
so much better than its wealth would
indicate. They found that investments in
education and “cultural differences” can
explain about half of the point difference.
A lot of the cultural differences had to do
with student characteristics. In general,
Vietnamese students were more focused
and took their schoolwork more seriously.
They were less likely to be late for school,
had fewer unexcused absences, and
skipped fewer classes. They spend about
three more hours per week studying
outside of school than students in other
developing countries. They’re less anxious
about math, and more confident about
how they’re going to use it in the future.
There are more differences. Parents in
Vietnam were more likely to be involved
in their children’s academic lives, and
help out or fundraise at the school.
Structurally, the education system is more
centralized. Teachers are less
autonomous – their performance is
monitored more, and there’s a higher
emphasis on student achievement than in
other developing nations.
But, importantly, Vietnam seems to invest
in education more than the other
developing countries, especially
considering its lower GDP. It has a lower
level of economic development the other
seven, the parents aren’t as educated,
and it has fewer schools in the cities and
more in villages and small towns – all
things that might not be particularly
conducive to a good education system.
Despite the economic disadvantages, the
quality of school infrastructure is better in
Vietnam, as are the schools’ educational
resources. And even though there are
fewer computers, they’re just as likely to
be connected to the internet, which the
researchers interpreted as evidence of
Vietnam’s increased investment in
schools. There also seems to be more
access to early education, as Vietnamese
students were more likely than others to
have attended preschool.
Of course, these factors together only
account for half of the achievement gap.
The rest of the Vietnam phenomenon
remains a mystery. But the results bode
well for education and economic
research, as we have a better idea of
what can make a relatively poor nation
perform just as well as a wealthy one.