RISE in Vietnam

school children in Vietnam
©World Bank


  • In most areas of Vietnam – even in rural areas – parents send their primary-school-age children to varying amounts of “extra study”
  • The mix of public and “non-public” education as it is called in Vietnam is varied and complex
  • The engagement of Vietnam’s citizenry in education matters is striking

Vietnam - a country in which primary- and secondary-school students’ learning levels reach or exceed those of their peers in far more prosperous nations - will be the subject of an in-depth RISE project that seeks to understand how the nation “got it right” in its quest to help students learn. An experienced, multidisciplinary team of nine researchers within and outside of Vietnam will conduct the long-term project.

 “Vietnam is an incredible success story, and it is enormously important to understand how Vietnam produces high levels of learning success while facing many of the institutional and poverty-related challenges many other countries face,” said Lant Pritchett, Research Director of RISE, a new international programme that aims to find ways to improve learning on a large scale throughout the developing world.

Vietnam’s achievements in primary and secondary education over the last two decades are extraordinary. Out of 65 countries, Vietnam ranked 17th in maths and 19th in reading – surpassing both the United States and the United Kingdom – in the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the worldwide scholastic performance measure of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Vietnam’s primary school completion rate is 97 percent, and its lower secondary enrolment rate is 92 percent.

“Vietnam’s success raises key questions about how it reached such levels of learning, and whether its achievements can provide insights that help other nations,” said Paul Glewwe, one of the research team’s principal investigators. He has been engaged in research in Vietnam for 25 years, and is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. . “The project is very ambitious in scope, and it takes advantage of an incredible success story in education in developing countries.”

The £4.2 million, six-year RISE research project will undertake a systematic evaluation of Vietnam’s education system by analysing the status and impacts of past, current and upcoming educational reforms. The aim is to understand how policy levers made Vietnam’s exceptional achievements possible, and whether and how new reforms are able to build on its achievements.

Key questions are:

What explains Vietnam’s high levels of student learning?

Insights from the Vietnam experience are likely to provide lessons that can be used to improve the education systems of other countries. The team will undertake historical analysis of the underpinnings and evolution of Vietnam’s education. The system includes many distinctive features, among them a complex combination of public and private funding that has given rise to a “shadow education” system. That is, in most areas of Vietnam, even in rural areas, parents pay to send their primary-school-age children to “extra study.”

What impact will current and planned curriculum reforms have on student educational outcomes?

Vietnam is embarking on comprehensive, system-wide curricular reforms that are aiming to fundamentally change how teachers teach, and what and how students learn. Because one of the key reform programmes is already being used in more than 20 other countries, the researchers will be able to make comparisons about how certain changes work in different countries. Vietnam’s “next generation” reforms are aimed at building up students’ skill to emphasise problem solving and teamwork rather than memorisation. The team will evaluate whether these reforms affect student learning over time, and they will seek to understand why any boosts in learning takes place.

Vietnam’s push to continue to improve its educational system stems from the desire to address inequalities in education among certain populations within the country, and from the realisation that it will need to expand its supply of skilled labour in order to continue the nation’s economic growth, which has led to broad-based improvements in living standards over the past generation.

“Debates about how best to sustain growth and to improve living standards form the backdrop of efforts to reform Vietnam’s education system,” said Le Thuc Duc, a Senior Researcher and Head of the Section for Economic Forecasts at the Centre for Analysis and Forecasting, a policy-oriented institutional member of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

The Vietnam team includes nine researchers affiliated with institutions throughout the world. Principal bases are at the University of Minnesota, where faculty have been engaged with education research in Vietnam for decades; the Centre for Analysis and Forecasting, a policy-oriented institution within the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences, a think tank of the Government of Vietnam; and the Mekong Development Research Institute, an independent scientific research agency that focuses on public policy and social change.  Other affiliated institutions include Leiden University, University College London, the (UK) Institute for Fiscal Studies, the World Bank, and the University of Oxford. The team members offer expertise in fields that include  education, comparative and international development, economics, and political economy.