This is a caption from the GRADE 7 government textbook, Tieng Anh.
There are many critics of one of Vietnam's most ambitious (I use that word a lot... but this example might be the most appropriate example yet) projects to date: the National Foreign Language 2020 (NFL2020) project. But to what are they objecting?
This project is a 10-year plan to modernize and build teaching and learning capacity (mainly English) and implement Government’s Decision 14001 (2008) “to renovate the teaching and learning of foreign languages within the national education system” (Article 1.1, Decision 1400).
Here's a quick summary of the project (see full English translation of decree at the end of this post):
These new policies include many aspects of teaching, assessment, and professional development, including:
Introducing English at grade 3 or earlier
Mapping outcomes to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) benchmarks
Establishing proficiency and professional standards for English-language teachers
The NFL2020 desires to address these policies through:
Textbook innovation (overhauling and digitalization)
Testing and assessment improvement
Establishment of Regional Teacher Development Centers
The decree came down from the Government in 2008, and by 2010 it resulted in the NFL2020 Project. It was immediately clear that the teaching capacity of Vietnamese teachers of English was broadly limited. While more and more teachers failed the basic English competency test (where they are required to achieve the equivalent of a 5.0/6.0 in the IELTS test), it was particularly scary that the teachers who scored the lowest were the older and most educated instructors, responsible for teaching at highly specialized and regarded schools and preparing students who went on to win national awards.
Seriously? That can't be good...
But first, some background on the education system in Vietnam.
Education for Vietnam is compulsory beginning at age 6 and includes five basic levels:
The national literacy rate among males and females is high - over 96% in both cases - and students study either English or French beginning at an early age - generally by grade 3 in cities and grade 6 in the countryside. However, many critics are skeptical of Vietnam's ability to achieve these audacious goals by 2020.
So what is the cause of concern for these naysayers? Why on earth don't they think they can get English education in shape over the course of 10 years?
The answer is relatively simple, although the problem stemming from it is highly complex. I spent one year in Saigon's public Primary/Intermediate schools... but never once did I teach a lick of grammar, writing, or reading (beyond incorporating very basic skills into games).
Vietnamese teachers of English are exceptionally well-prepared to teach grammar, writing, and reading, and Vietnamese students have a good command of rules and their application (like I said, super-Vietnamese), at least on paper.
For instance, instead of overhauling the schools and programs that trained these teachers in the first place, the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) simply asked them to redo their materials to "re-educate" these teachers. New classes of certifications were created, but they are simply descriptions of language ability, not any kind of standardized test that tracks to international standards (specifically the British Council, who MOET has partnered with).
This contains the seeds of a simple lesson for the American education system, to say the least: don't teach to the test.
National VN English exams revolve around mastery of grammar and vocabulary. The pedagogical schools that train teachers have focused on these skills to the exclusion of communication. Ergo, teachers have turned out students that are able to pass the exam... but barely able to speak more than "hello" or "goodbye," let alone engage in daily usage of the language, even after 6 or more years of language study.
Some say the program is slowly on the way to success. Some say it can't be done. Some say it could be done, but not within the timeframe given.
Then there are the government stalwarts. They effectively say that it has been decreed, and thus it shall be - as if the will of the Hanoi government was enough to execute something that includes at least six major urban centers as well as dozens of smaller provincial hubs and uncountable rural (and often disadvantaged) areas where traditional agricultural practices define communities. In many of these more remote provinces, the pass rate of teachers in the last competency exam was less than 3%.
But what do I think about this? I've been watching and working in the state school system for a year. It doesn't make me an expert, but I've seen (and occasionally and had praise for/griped about) how set in their ways the educational system is. The textbook most commonly used (Tieng Anh) is, at best, compost material, and at worst, actively detrimental. It's simply startlingly useless. Half the time allotted for this project has passed, and, in my opinion, to still be using this book is a poor sign of the project's health and relevancy.
This was a depressing post. Here is a picture of an
owl in glasses to make up for it (yay tumblr!).
To me, critiques (especially the blisteringly blunt essay in Tuoi Tre News... WOW) are spot on. The challenges are so myriad, and traditional education so rigid, that any changes would take a startlingly proactive and insightful government, in any nation. They would have to be inexhaustible, psychic, and fantastically well-funded to complete this project on schedule.
Even with 85% of the 450 million dollars allotted to this program going to teacher training, it would barely be enough to revolutionize English education in the six major urban areas, let alone serve to develop rural educators, who are essentially starting from nothing (according to the initial competency exams) when it comes to basic communication skills.
This is not like building a bridge, where you can progress simply by throwing more manpower at it (which Vietnam has in spades, and uses accordingly). This project will most likely need an extended timeline - even in HCMC, which has some of the highest educational standards in the country, only 15.5% of 1,100 teachers passed the initial competency exam in 2013. Jaw-dropping.
That is a frightening statistic, in a post full of bad news, and, with salaries for Vietnamese teachers of English still relatively low, there doesn't seem to be much incentive for these teachers going forward.
Teachers seeking further training often have to seek it abroad, or simply wonder what will happen if/when they fail a further competency exam proctored by the government. According to news reports, some districts have refused to take the (so-far voluntary) exam because they fear the basic communication component. It's unknown how the government will respond to this low level of education, but, given Vietnam's relatively heavy State hand, I assume we'll know sooner rather than later.
There are still 5.5 years left of this master plan, however, and I've seen enough of Vietnam to know that they're scary good at accomplishing things sometimes. English is currently a vital skill for inhabitants of the global community, and having the vast and awesome potential of Vietnamese youth confined to a single nation harms Vietnam more than it helps. I wish them luck in their undertaking... and hope that it's not too much, too fast.
Do you have experience teaching in Vietnam? What are your insights?