Region focus: Asia
India’s achievement is unique because of its size, but many countries in the world have made similar progress. The number of children out of school has decreased in every single region in the world. Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the most children out of school of any region, has cut that number by almost one quarter since the turn of the millennium. Over the same span, the global gender gap in primary school has closed considerably, from 6 percentage points to 2 percentage points.
I celebrate these successes, but they are just the start of the work, not the end of it. Educated people are more prosperous, healthier, and even happier. Educated nations enjoy rapid economic growth, declining child mortality, and peace and security. However, these benefits accrue not when students enter the classroom but when they leave it having learned basic skills. Countries like India have almost completed the first part of this equation: getting students in the door. Now they must turn to the second part.
In India, according to the Annual Status of Education Report, only one quarter of third grade students can read and understand a short story with a few simple sentences or subtract one two-digit number from another. The Indian government’s own National Assessment Survey also shows that a high percentage of children have low learning levels. In Kenya, according to an assessment called Uwezo, only half of third grade students know that 20+2=22.
Fortunately, as the outlines of the crisis have become clearer, learning has started to get the attention it requires, both inside and outside of India. From Prime Minister Modi to the Ministry of Human Resource Development to pioneering state governments in Delhi and Rajasthan that are instituting reforms, Indian leaders are putting learning outcomes on the agenda. The World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report focused entirely on the issue of educational quality.
Unfortunately, the pathway for improving school outcomes is not as clear-cut as the strategy for improving school access. We have seen many individual innovations that work for students. For example, Teaching at the Right Level, a pedagogical method pioneered by the Pratham Education Foundation, groups students by what they know rather than by age or grade. The method has consistently improved students’ performance on tests. Another innovation that has had an impact is Mindspark, an adaptive learning program that helps teachers provide personalized instruction in an online environment. In a study, students who spent 20 weeks using Mindspark scored 200 percent higher in math and 250 percent higher in Hindi than students in a control group.
However, achieving system-wide improvements in learning is hard, and there are precious few examples of success at scale in low- and lower-middle income countries. Vietnam, however, stands out as an exemplar. Though the country’s GDP per capita is only slightly higher than India’s, Vietnam’s 15-year-olds outperform students from wealthy countries like the United Kingdom and the United States on international tests (U.S. GDP per capita is 27 times greater than Vietnam’s). As you can see above, when test scores are plotted against GDP, Vietnam is an extreme outlier in math, reading, and science.
Research in Vietnam and other exemplar countries is ongoing, but it is possible to identify some key traits. In Vietnam, there are very clear expectations about the foundational skills in math and reading that every primary school student should master. Teachers believe that all children, no matter how poor, can and must learn, and they hold themselves accountable for results. Finally, schools analyze data routinely to track progress and change course when necessary. If countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa make foundational learning by third grade their number-one priority, it will lead, ultimately, to a prosperous future.
Cat Thao Nguyen
A teacher offers classes in his home during summer vacation. (Hoa Lợi Commune, Vietnam)
I’m on my way to Tra Vinh province in the Mekong Delta region, home to a large population of poor families of the Khmer ethnic minority who came originally from Cambodia. My assignment is to figure out why Vietnam consistently gets such impressive results on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In 2015, Vietnam was the poorest country to participate, but its students ranked eighth in science, 22nd in math, and 32nd in literacy out of 72 countries—outscoring the United States and the United Kingdom in both science and math. Vietnam also ranked first for science in share of students who perform well despite coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, again way ahead of the United States and the United Kingdom.
When I arrive in Hoa Loi Commune, I head past giant bags of recycled trash into a storage facility to meet 31-year-old Ni. She sits among bare-chested men, separating caps from plastic bottles and removing the labels. A 1-kilogram bag of empty plastic bottles will fetch her 2 cents. She can do an average of 100 bags a day. Her husband sells lottery tickets on the streets for, at most, US $4 a day.
Ni is Khmer and officially labelled by the government as “Ho Ngheo”: poor. As a result of her status as Ho Ngheo, Ni receives an allowance of $4.40 a month if her children—ages 3, 6, and 9—are enrolled in primary school. “I get the allowance per child from the government and free health insurance,” Ni says, “but I still need to pay personal accident insurance for the children. If I don’t have time to make breakfast for them, one small portion of sticky rice is 20 cents. After a month, that allowance is gone just on breakfast.”
Writer and philanthropist based in Vietnam
The Khmer hamlet chief tells me that every child in the hamlet, including Ni’s two older children, attends or has completed primary school. The authorities work with communities to ensure full enrollment. Data is provided to the chief from the local authority about how many school-aged children in the hamlet are enrolled. He meets with any families whose children aren’t in school to find out why; usually, it’s because their parents can’t afford it. The chief then shuffles through his personal network of business people, government officials, and friends to raise money to support the children to achieve the 100 percent target.
In Vietnam, primary education is free, as is mandated in the constitution. What’s more, this free education is extremely good. Vietnam’s literacy rate is 97 percent. Compared to the average 4.3 percent of gross domestic product spent on education by lower-middle income countries, Vietnam spends 5.7 percent.
At the small porch of Ni’s house, I sit on a red plastic stool, the same kind the family uses to prop up their old cathode-ray-tube TV. She refuses to sit on a stool, preferring to sit on the ground in deference. Her children, playing inside the mosquito net on the wooden bed, scurry away as I approach. The one fluorescent light sits above one of three altars and shrines; despite the lack of solid walls and, sometimes, basic necessities, the family always ensures that each vase at the shrines and the Buddhist altar has fresh chrysanthemums.
Ni’s oldest son, Men, is 9 and heading into grade 4. He’s a great student with an outgoing personality and a cheeky smile. Her second son, Cuong, 6 years old, is heading into grade 1. He’s a contemplative introvert. He loves art and came in first in a school drawing competition. They both love school, she says, and are sad whenever holidays come around.
Ni and her elder son, Men, stand in front of his primary school. (Hoa Lợi Commune, Vietnam)
“I’ll keep them in school for as long as a I can,” says Ni. “But if they want to drop out and go to work during high school, that’s their choice. I will do my best.” I sense the desperation behind her stoic calm. The future beyond the next few days is an uncertain abyss. In Ni, I see my mother, sewing in a sweatshop in our home at 3 a.m. with overdue bills plastered on the wall above the sewing machine.
As I arrive at the home of Khmer grade 5 teacher Minh and his wife, Tram, in Cau Ke district, Minh is using a long bamboo rake to collect ripe coconuts from one of his trees in the yard. They live in a hamlet about an hour’s drive from Tra Vinh city; here, even households that don’t meet the “Ho Ngheo” criteria will receive benefits, because the entire hamlet is classified as rural, remote, and poor. Moreover, because there are at least seven families who are recognised “heroes” for their contributions in the wars against the Americans and French, Cau Ke has been prioritized by the government for school renovation and connection to the electrical grid.
Since it’s summer and school is out, I hop on the back of Minh’s bike to visit some of his students with him. Some of their neighbors have come over to hang out, and local rice farmers have parked their bicycles, resting at the back at the house. “I taught him, his siblings, and his kids,” Minh says, pointing to one man. The man’s grandmother comes out and pours us some tea. The grandfather’s eyes have early signs of cataracts, a common feature I notice among the poor families I visit.
As a teacher in a rural community and one of very few Khmer teachers, Minh is respected. He grew up in this community. His father was a teacher and his mother a rice farmer. In addition to being a grade 5 teacher, he is the commune school’s head of student affairs. Much like the hamlet chief, once he receives statistics from the local authority and realizes there are some kids not in school, he personally visits the families to understand the issues and work out a plan. The same goes for students who consistently miss class.
The Vietnamese culture deeply respects teachers. There’s a dedicated national holiday in their honor, and a common Vietnamese saying—“food from father, clothing from mother, knowledge from teacher”—marks the teacher as the third most important person in a child’s life. Here in Cau Ke, I can see that it’s true: When Minh gives me a tour of the temple where children go to learn the Khmer language, we’re passed by dozens of his students. Each one stops to fold their arms, bow in respect, and call out “Greetings, teacher!”
There have been times when Minh has personally tutored students for free at his home or on weekends (on top of working in the paddy fields after school and on weekends with his wife to get extra income). But now, with assessments showing that 50 percent of his class underperformed last year, he has had to think of scalable ideas. He has arranged for underperformers to sit with better students. Each Friday, he has a session where better students teach the class, explaining concepts to their classmates under his supervision. He does minimal teaching of subjects where students aren’t underperforming, such as art and music, and focuses more attention on the common problem areas.
I wonder aloud: If it’s not mandatory for teachers to do this unpaid extra work, why do they do it? “It’s my responsibility as a teacher,” he says, “to my students and to society. I have a conscience too. If I do a poor job and my student doesn’t know how to read properly but completes my class, that’s not good. Also, the parents will inform the principal that I didn’t do anything to support their struggling child. We all want to maintain a good reputation and sense of professionalism.”
At the end of the school year, if teachers have achieved the targets that they set, they get a small bonus—about $15. But the bonus is not important to Minh. “It’s not about the money,” he says. “My greatest joy is when my students can complete grade 5 with strong learning outcomes and go into grade 6.”
Still, Minh says, poor students face a lot of obstacles. “There are policies to support poor people, but the administration is a burden. To get the poor-student monthly allowance, they have to get five sets of their residence registration and Ho Ngheo registration photocopied and notarized. After I chased one of my students for this, he said his grandpa was too sick to bicycle to town to the photocopy service. If they went by motorbike taxi, it would cost them $1.70. Each set of photocopies is $1 and they have to then wait half a day at the public notary office. Their first month’s allowance is gone!”
In spite of these inefficiencies, the efforts of Minh and the hamlet chief are a testament to Vietnam’s approach to education for younger students. But when it comes to secondary school, the story changes. Primary school is free, but fees are levied in kindergarten, lower secondary (grades 6–9), and upper secondary (grades 10–12). Even though poor households are exempt from these fees, many children drop out after primary school. In fact, on the PISA test, Vietnam had a coverage index of only 49 percent, the lowest among all participating countries, indicating that it had low enrollments for the 15-years-olds. “The kids see that they can get work in factories,” Minh says. “They know how poor they are, so they will work if they can to help their family and be less of a burden.”
Students receive extra help with their schoolwork. (Hoa Lợi Commune, Vietnam)
Poor Khmer kids who are very good students, on the other hand, receive significant support from the government. “There is one upper secondary boarding school in Tra Vinh city for poor Khmer students who pass the school’s entrance exams,” Minh tells me. “Students come from the district-level Khmer boarding schools”—where everything, including fees and meals, is taken care of—“so they are already good students. To get a spot at this school means a very bright future. But it is incredibly tough to get a place.” These students help explain Vietnam’s high scores on measures of social equity.
I ask what worries Minh about his students, who are still in primary school. “Even if they make it to university and graduate, which is a really small chance, they can’t get decent jobs,” he says. “I have students who graduate and still end up in factories. Watching students come back with tertiary qualifications working as laborers is sad. It’s heartbreaking.”
Ni is coming back home from work. Instead of the motorbike, she is riding a bicycle to save on gasoline expenses. She cooks the cheapest rice she can get, 50 cents a kilo, known as “charity rice.” It doesn’t stick together like Thai rice. During summer, her oldest son, Men, follows his father to sell lottery tickets on the street. It’s a pair of hands that can fetch an extra $1.50 a day. But Men has slept late today, having stayed up at his uncle’s house to watch the World Cup soccer final. He’s still jubilant from seeing his favorite team, France, win the tournament. A teacher in the community saw him selling lottery tickets and volunteered to tutor him for a couple of sessions a week during summer. The kindness of strangers is alive and necessary.
Ni’s husband is washing the clothes at the back by hand, and I am reminded of the bitter winters when my family was too poor to buy a washing machine or use a laundry service and I washed our family’s clothes in biting cold water. In Tra Vinh province I have walked into a reality not much different from my past. These faces and these stories remind me how much government investment in my education changed my life.
The sun descends quickly as the light fades. Ni smiles gently. “Next year, all three of my children will be in school, with my youngest starting second year of kindergarten. We couldn’t afford for her to be in kindergarten last year. But this year is different.” A piece of tile protrudes from above the mobile gas stove, supporting an incense holder, another vase with fresh chrysanthemums, and a glass of water for the spirits.
Given that her sons are excellent students, I ask whether she thinks they could get into the Khmer boarding schools. “Maybe.” Despite my own family’s poverty and often crippling sense of helplessness to alleviate our suffering, I got a full government scholarship to study two degrees at Australia’s oldest university, eventually becoming a lawyer. It was a radical circuit breaker. Ni, just like my own mother, lives on quiet hope. With the efforts of a dedicated community led by people like Minh and the hamlet chief, this may just be enough.