VietNamNet Bridge – Viet Nam has a long-standing tradition of venerating teachers as people who provide knowledge and mould future leaders and quality citizens.
At a recent meeting held to review the 2016-2017 academic year and set tasks for the 2017-2018 academic year, Minister of Education and Training Phung Xuan Nha admitted that many teachers had failed to meet demands of education reform.
So it was shocking to learn that a position held in the highest esteem in society requires the lowest pass marks in a university entrance exam.
As per the latest announcement of cutoff marks released by many pedagogical institutions, high school students virtually failing the entrance exams qualify for admission to become teachers, at just nine out of 30.
To say this is shocking would be to put it mildly.
Vietnamese 12th graders took the national exam in June with separate tests in math, literature, English and basic sciences. Their total scores in three of these tests are used to determine which university or college, if any, will accept them.
This paper recently carried poignant stories about really bright children missing out on a college of their choice by a fraction, and many people questioning the preferential treatment given to students from rural areas and poor families.
Now, it turns out that as long as you score just three out of 10, yes, you heard that right, just 30 per cent marks in an exam qualifies a student to train as a teacher.
A high school graduate needs a near perfect score to enroll in military or police schools. So we need bright students to become soldiers and policemen, but the least bright can become teachers.
There is something very wrong when bad students are selected to become future teachers, not that these are mutually exclusive categories per se.
The success of an educational system, ultimately, depends on the teachers it employs.
J.A. Comenxki, an Czech great teacher, once said teachers are those who transfer the torch of civilization. The society gave teachers the most noble and important task than any other sectors.
Famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote that educating a man will achieve a man, educating a woman will achieve a whole family, and educating a teacher will achieve a whole society.
In every society and in every development period of each country, the education has a main purpose of educating to prepare a new generation in placing for the old one and the teachers play a key role in fulfilling that target.
At a recent meeting held to review the 2016-2017 academic year and set tasks for the 2017-2018 academic year, Minister of Education and Training Phung Xuan Nha admitted that many teachers had failed to meet demands of education reform. He cited as an example the failure in applying a new model of learning and teaching called the Viet Nam Escuela Nueva (VNEN).
The minister stressed that the model, implemented from 2013, had to be suspended because of the unequal capabilities of teachers and inadequate infrastructure.
In this context of an education sector trying to reform and improve, how will lowering the bar to the level of failure help?
Many experts have called the low benchmark a “disaster” for the country’s education sector.
Pro Dinh Quang Bao, former president of the Ha Noi University of Education, was stating the obvious when he told Infonet (online newspaper): “If we set the bar too low, we won’t be able to provide quality teachers”.
Former Deputy Director of HCM City Department of Education and Training, Nguyen Van Ngai, said he had already seen many teachers of such low quality that they were unable to avoid even basic errors. Some actually compiled wrong math tests that students could not find the answers for, he said.
Again stating the obvious, he said low-quality input into teacher training institutions would result in low-quality output.
Of course, test scores cannot be the final denominator of a student or a teacher’s quality; and top coaches have not been top players, but if we want to motivate bright students to become teachers and pass on the torch of civilization, will requiring them to score just 30 per cent in a test help? What is the message that this sends?
In many developed countries, only 10-30 per cent of high school graduates with the highest scores are eligible to enter teacher training institutions.
In Singapore, a nation with a recognized high-quality education system, candidates have to undergo strict tests to enter the National Institute of Education, which specializes in training teachers for the country.
Candidates must have high scores in tests based on UK standards and succeed in a later interview with the enrollment board in order to enter the institute.
Quota & funding
The current situation reveals another problem. Education institutions trying to enroll enough students in order to get Government funding tend to lower the admission bar, focusing on quantity rather than quality of students.
Meanwhile, there is already a high unemployment rate among teachers. Every year, around 4,000 students who graduate from teaching schools are unable to find a job, and the surplus is expected to reach 70,000 by 2020.
Students at teacher training institutions get free tuition, so when they are unemployed or ending up doing other jobs, it is a loss for the State exchequer. Nearly VND500 billion (US$22 million) from the State Budget was to pay tuition fees for students at teacher training institutions in 2014.
Many localities even have to downsize teaching staffs, particularly low-qualified teachers. This is one among results of low-quality training from teacher colleges.
As if all these problems aren’t enough, the low salary teachers are paid in the country is enough to demotivate the most idealistic student.
Public preschools in Viet Nam pay fresh graduates around VND2 million (less than $100) per month to take care of 15-20 toddlers, which is less than the average annual income ($2,200 in 2016).
Many public teachers are paid less than VND10 million ($440) a month after spending decades on the job, a salary described as “just enough for a couple of trips to the grocery store.”
In remote, mountainous provinces, many young teachers have to climb mountains and cross rivers every day for much lower incomes.
It is high time that quality of education, and therefore, of teachers, is placed at the heart of our education reforms.
It is not enough that we pay lip service to teachers and give them flowers and presents on Teachers’ Day. We should ensure they get an income commensurate with their work. In training future teachers, the emphasis must be on quality as much as quantity. We cannot afford half-measures in dealing with this problem, because we are dealing with the future of our country.
As late President Ho Chi Minh said, a bad worker can spoil a product, bad architecture can damage some construction projects, but a bad teacher can spoil a whole generation.