This article explores the evolution of gifted education in Vietnam, particularly in the context of shifting political and economic landscapes. It delves into the historical success of Vietnamese students in international competitions and the development of schools for the gifted. The article highlights the changing motivations for pursuing education in the West and how this shift is impacting the country's educational landscape.
In 1972, communist North Vietnam (Democratic Republic of Vietnam - DRV) participated for the first time in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) and won its first gold medal. This achievement of the communist government soon became a political symbol for the DRV as the country’s former "enemy," the US, did not achieve the same success and went home empty-handed.
It was not a one-time success since the team won medals every year for the next six years. At the IMO in 1979, Lê Bá Khánh Trình gained a Special Golden Medal and became the first Vietnamese to reach the maximum score of 40/40 and receive international acknowledgment. Since then, the socialist model of gifted education became a "brand" for socialist Vietnam and has been promoted until today. These achievements briefly justify how schools for the gifted became the most successful educational system in socialist Vietnam.
Schools for the Gifted are public institutions designed for high school students to demonstrate their giftedness in the natural sciences, social sciences, and foreign languages. To meet the stringent standards of these institutions, teachers must have taught at prestigious universities and trained students who won medals at national and international Olympiads. The primary objective of these institutions was to educate specialists in vital subjects that contributed to the nation's growth. Nowadays, graduation from a school for the gifted indicates a high likelihood of admission to the finest institutions in the West and success in the job market.
This idea responds to the demands of global capitalism, of which Vietnam is becoming a part. As a result, wealthy parents are willing to spend an enormous amount of money on the so-called "shadow education," or "học thêm" – a local model of unauthorized extracurricular programs. These training programs provide advanced knowledge to individuals who pay for them, increasing their chances of admission to prestigious schools.
Using this service, parents hope that their children may have a chance to get into one of the gifted schools. According to the local newspaper Dân Việt, unauthorized extracurricular classes cost up to 1 million VND (approximately 43 USD). Some pupils take 10 classes per week; therefore, parents should spend 10 million VND (about 430 USD) every week and 40 million VND (about 1700 USD) per month. Given the average cost of living for a four-person household in Hanoi (37.6 million VND, or 1610 USD) and in HCM City, the gifted school admission exam is nearly unaffordable (40.7 million VND, or approximately 1736 USD).
School for the Gifted as the model educational institution
The reason why many parents are willing to pay that much to get their children into high schools for the gifted is that, according to Decision 959/QĐ-TTg approving the Proposal for developing high schools for the gifted from 2010 to 2020, this educational system is a role model of Vietnamese education in terms of infrastructure, teaching quality, and other educational activities.
Those eligible to enroll in gifted high schools have more opportunities to climb the social ladder. Their credentials from these schools are competitive advantages for success in the global market. Therefore, to enroll in gifted high schools, students must pass some of the nation's most competitive exams, with an average admission rate of 10% (1 seat for every 10 applicants).
This explains why numerous parents are willing to pay so much for their children to attend gifted high schools.
Unlike in the West, where giftedness is viewed as indicating certain innate capacities such as advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity, in Vietnam, gifted students are defined as those who both express their giftedness naturally and work hard enough to be proficient in standardized examinations in specialized subjects such as mathematics, physics, literature, English, etc.
This is because some educational scholars, including the nationally known pedagogue and professor Hồ Ngọc Đại, founder of the nation’s Center for Education Technology (Trung tâm Công nghệ Giáo dục - CGD) in 1978, assumed that the development of human traits had no root in the child's brain itself but rather in the child's socio-cultural interactions with others. Therefore, not only gifted but also hard-working students have the chance to enroll in gifted schools.
From a practical standpoint, in 1985, the pedagogue Lê Hải Châu, who significantly assisted in "the victory for socialism" (according to the Cuban delegation) of the Vietnamese representatives at their first international competition in 1972, stated that the goals of schools for the gifted were to identify students who were inherently gifted and to continue their education through specialized programs so that they would serve the country in the future.
Before and after Đổi Mới (Renovation), gifted students served their respective nations in fundamentally different ways. The Đổi Mới policy was launched by the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in December 1986 to transform the Vietnamese economy into a market-oriented and globally-integrated model.
Before 1986, educators were inspired by the pedagogical philosophy of "growing humans" (trồng người), popularized by Hồ Chí Minh. Instead of focusing on innate giftedness, they gave individual and group training priority. Therefore, regardless of one's socioeconomic status, the best education was intended for everyone.
Gifted students at the time were expected to be "New Socialist Men" (con người xã hội chủ nghĩa), or the Red experts (vừa Hồng vừa Chuyên) who developed a sense of patriotism and hatred for the enemy and internalized the heroic mentality of socialist education in their world perception. Medals at the IMO became living proof to show the world that the DRV was capable of building up and nourishing a scientific environment from the ashes of wars.
From 1986 onwards, gifted students have been facing different social expectations, which were less influenced by the politburo than market forces. Christina Schwenkel, a well-known Vietnamese studies scholar, describes the difficulties of Red experts in translating and applying socialist cultural capital after the Renovation through her ethnographic accounts. Due to the obsolescence of their specialized knowledge in a global market economy, they had to adapt their expertise to meet the requirements of a new socialist-oriented market economy.
Similarly, gifted schools have had to adapt to new social and economic circumstances. They went from receiving complete financial subsidies to being financially independent. In other words, they must find alternative sources of funding from the private sector, the majority of which are wealthy parents who benefited from the Renovation. Gifted schools attracted these benefactors through a variety of methods, such as opening extra classes for those who desired to pass the entrance exams with certainty, offering more specialized classes to increase the number of available seats, collaborating with study abroad services, and so on.
The marketization of public education
In July 2020, economist Nguyễn Đức Thành stated, "High schools for the gifted should be sold to private investors." He claimed that the wealthy have monopolized the race to enroll their children in these institutions, and wealthy families are prepared to spend a substantial amount of money to secure a spot for their children in gifted schools through "học thêm."
In the late 2010s, it seemed that the state had found a way to reduce funding for gifted public schools. "Financial autonomy" was used to emphasize the marketization of public education. In 2017, two public high schools for the gifted in Hanoi, Chu Van An and Hanoi-Amsterdam, began providing A-level programs with tuition costs that were several times higher than those for regular gifted classes: 30 million VND (1,280 USD) each semester compared to 320 thousand VND (13.6 USD). Despite the high tuition expenses, the two A-level courses continue to be considered public institutions. Specifically, they are partially funded by the state budget, as per Decision 4663/QĐ-UBND.
In fact, since the 1980s, warning signs of inequality in gifted education had emerged. As the demand for gifted education increased, pressure began to mount on high schools for the gifted. Diverse specialized courses were the optimal approach at the time. During the fall semester of 1991, several gifted schools began customizing their exams. Before this, students had only one test to take, and they attended different schools based on their scores. More opportunities and vacancies in gifted schools led to the development of "học thêm" programs.
The legitimization of "học thêm," long seen as a stigma of gifted education, can be attributed to the rise in popularity of study abroad counseling services. Using the invisible hand of the market, they met the enormous demand for standardized certificates in foreign languages, such as IELTS and SAT, among gifted students.
When the US-Vietnam reconciliation was accepted in 1995, the "study abroad fever" began to spread. In the past, gifted students were also drawn to further their studies in the Soviet Union. However, the motivation stemmed more from the state's objectives than from individual desires: they temporarily left the country to acquire valuable knowledge for the benefit of Vietnam, thus contributing to the collective goal of building communism. Nowadays, pursuing education in the West is driven more by self-improvement goals than by a desire to serve the regime.
Consequently, the survival of a somewhat outdated paradigm is advantageous to various participants in the modern education landscape, including various forms of shadow education, study abroad consulting centers, and "financially autonomous" public institutions.
Post-Reformation high schools for the gifted continue to train students based on labor market demand. Teachers and officials decided to adjust both the core qualities of giftedness and the goals of gifted education to preserve the legacy of communist Vietnam's most successful educational system. The transition from the intellectually and politically committed model citizen to a collectivist objective has led to the rise of individuals striving for personal achievement.
To remain relevant in a market economy, high schools must offer advantages to other participants in the education market who remain committed to the system's objectives.
Vu Hoang Long is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Humanities at Brock University. His research interests encompass comparative giftedness and gifted education, discourse and agency, critical pedagogy, posthumanism, new materialism, and the ontological turn. He is also an author of several books in Vietnamese.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
This article is a part of web-dossier "Vietnam in Motion", a collaboration between Phuong Phan and Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia Regional Office.