Vietnam's students perform mysteriously well on tests, and researchers have figured out why

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 tests.

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 TIMSS test, a modified version of which shows that* the Vietnamese vastly outperform people in other countries of similar GDP per capita. Check out the chart:

A 2014 paper by Abhijeet Singh analysed results from the Oxford Young Lives study that were comparable to the TIMSS 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 Education. “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 countries?”

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 maths scores versus per capita GDP:

Vietnam’s scores are way above what you’d expect — more on par with Finland and Switzerland than Colombia or Peru.

For maths, 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 maths section corresponds to “an entire proficiency” level, which represents about two years of schooling in the typical Organisation 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 maths, 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 centralised. 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.

*Correction: An earlier version of the post suggested that the results in Vietnam studied by Singh came from the official TIMSS program. The TIMSS adminstrators noted that the test is not given in Vietnam, Ethiopia, India, and Peru. Rather, Singh used data from the Oxford Young Lives project for those countries, in which select publicly released TIMSS questions were administered to students. Singh then applied a standard statistical analysis allowing those results to be compared to the official TIMSS results from other countries.

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