Income vs. Education: Experts puzzled by science, math scores of Vietnamese students

 Foreign experts puzzled by science, math scores of Vietnamese students
Students from a local middle school in Hanoi. Photo by AFP

The 10 pct of disadvantaged children in Vietnam do better than the average American child.

The very strong performance by Vietnamese teens, including those from low-income families, in a recent global education survey has left experts worldwide scratching their heads.

Vietnam ranked eighth out of 72 economies in science performance in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which was released by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on December 6.

The ranking came above the U.S. and many European nations in the survey, which assessed 540,000 students that represent about 29 million 15-year-olds from the participating countries. Vietnamese students also came 22nd in mathematics and 32nd in reading.

Professor Paul Glewwe from the University of Minnesota said at a conference in Hanoi on Thursday that he was surprised by Vietnam’s high scores.

Vietnamese students joined the exam, which was held every three years, for the first time in 2012 and they made a good first impression – eight in science, 17th in math and 19th in reading.

Glewwe said PISA rankings usually correspond with the country’s GDP and prosperity, but Vietnam has been an exceptional case.

His research found that parents of the Vietnamese students taking part in the exam also have much lower educational background and less wealth than their peers in other countries.

Vietnam shows that one does not need a well-developed economy to have quality education, he said.

“We really don’t know what is going on,” he said.

OECD education director Andreas Schleicher said at a press briefing earlier this month to announce the PISA results that Vietnam’s progress was “quite remarkable” as the country came ahead of Germany and Switzerland in science, and ahead of the U.S. in science and math.

American students ranked 25 in science, 39 in math and 23 in reading.

“The 10 percent of the most disadvantaged children in Vietnam — and they grow up in very poor households — those children do better than the average American child,” German-born Schleicher said, as cited by CNN.

The average income of a household in Vietnam is around $5,000 last year, compared with $53,470 for the U.S.

Speaking at the Thursday's conference, Phung Xuan Nha, Vietnam’s education minister, said Vietnamese people take education very seriously and they will not let low income get in the way.

“Vietnamese parents can sacrifice everything, sell their houses and land just to give their children an education,” Nha said.

He said that is kind of an Asian tradition and can also be seen in China or Japan, but not common in western countries.

Vietnamese education experts also said that Vietnam’s high scores should not be a surprise, because the education system is exam-oriented.

Le Kim Long, the rector of the Hanoi-based University of Education, said taking exams is a strength of Vietnamese students. They focus more on natural science, and they have more math knowledge than students in other countries, he added.

Full article