Alternative Ed in Vietnam is for Those Who School Differently
“Cost”. “Competition”. “Choice”. “Commitment”. “Care”.
These words echo throughout the statements of parents in HCMC who’ve decided to take their children out of the traditional school system.
The alternative paths range from homeschooling, following a structured curriculum in a home environment, to unschooling, no school structure at home or otherwise. Parents are also selecting to enroll their children in what adherents call “world schooling”, allowing children to be educated by the world around them through travel.
Parents in HCMC are often divided into two camps: those who choose to educate their children themselves because of the high cost of private schools and those who consider it to be a philosophical decision. The concept is still new in Vietnam but a few parents frustrated with the long hours, costs, and rigidity of classic educational systems are following suit.
Cost and Competition
Khoi Nguyen began a group in Saigon for Vietnamese homeschoolers, in order to meet other parents with similar child-rearing philosophies but he soon realised that many of the Vietnamese interested in joining the group assumed homeschooling meant supplementing their children’s schooling with private tutoring. In Vietnam, educating a child at home is such a foreign concept that many people have never heard of it. Alongside his job as a computer engineer, Khoi now works as a homeschooling counsellor and educator for other parents.
Khoi didn’t start out expecting to homeschool his kids. The decision happened organically. “My wife runs a company that does exercise classes for kids from three to 15 years old. Most of her students are from international schools because they have shorter days”, he explained. “The kids in public schools are the ones who need us the most but they don’t have a chance to attend the classes. They don’t even have weekends. That’s very bad for kids.”
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For their own children, Khoi and his wife looked at their choices – either going to public school or paying the high premium for private school. Neither option suited their family. Instead, Khoi decided on homeschooling with strict lesson plans. He chose the Calvert curriculum, which claims Barack Obama as an alumni. Calvert is one of the priciest online curriculums available but Khoi insists it’s worth it.
Families in Vietnam “have all of these options on the menu”, Khoi said, “this year they can pick a very high-end school but in five or ten years can they still support that fee? It’s unsustainable. They might have to downgrade and the system in Vietnam isn’t compatible”.
The cost argument is concrete. In HCMC, the average price of an international school is VND341 million per year and, according to a report by VietnamOnline, the average salary for a Vietnamese worker is VND38.4 million per year. For the majority of Vietnamese families public schools seem to be the only option. On the other hand, expat families in Vietnam sometimes feel that international schools are their only choice because the public structure may seem too foreign for non-Vietnamese speakers. However, many expats work in companies that will pay a stipend for schooling.
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This is the case for Kristi Cruz*, an American mom with three children. Cruz’s husband’s company offers its employees an educational allowance, yet the couple refuses the aid. Cruz, a passionate unschooler, “lives as if school doesn’t exist”. She feels her children will learn when they’re ready and that they will be more competitive in the workforce because they’ll follow their true interests.
“Technology and the world are changing so fast. Schools are already outdated”, she said. “They can’t keep up with the jobs our kids are being prepared for. Now, everyone is spending their energy learning the quadratic equation, and guess what? I have a calculator to do that for me. These days they don’t need the quadratic equation drilled into their heads.”
Kim Nguyen* was born and raised in the U.S. to overseas Vietnamese parents. After getting married she and her husband decided to move to Vietnam to start their family. As a mother, Kim finds herself in the unique position of having both Vietnamese and U.S. influences. Unlike Khoi, she doesn’t have to worry about Vietnamese education laws but she’s still susceptible to the weight of her cultural heritage, which puts strong emphasis on the importance of formal education. When Kim’s son was born she initially followed the peer-pressure of society. “We put him in school not even really thinking”, she said. “It’s just what everyone his age was doing.”
She tried out a public pre-school but Kim realized it was the wrong choice for her family. Now, Kim manages a children’s play area, which gives her the luxury of spending her day with her son and allowing him to socialise with other kids. The fact that her son has dual nationality also gives him the freedom to continue his schooling in the US later on.
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“Our boy is always curious, always asking to learn”, she said. “So far he’s able to spell a few words. To be honest, I’m unsure if he’s a genius, average, or below average for a three-and-a-half-year-old but I don’t care. I just love being part of the process. For the rest of his life he will have the stress of meeting this bar and that bar. For now I just want him to be a kid.”
Choices and Curriculums
At a kid-themed café equipped with a labyrinthine climbing structure, Kristi Cruz met up with Angee Floyd, another unschooling mom.
Like Cruz, Floyd is also American and is raising two children in an unschooling environment. Unlike Cruz, Floyd is doing it completely alone. A single mom with a degree in teaching and what she described as “insurmountable student loans”, she decided to move to HCMC to reduce her living expenses. Floyd is able to teach less and spend the rest of the time with her kids. According to both moms, having the freedom to follow the needs of their children has created a deeper family bond.
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With the shouts and laughter of her children playing in the background, Floyd clarified her choices. “[In America] I went back to work after 6 weeks. I took my little, tiny baby and I was like ‘here’”, Floyd said holding out her arms. “I paid 1,200 US dollars a month to give my child to someone so that I could go back to work and then basically work just to pay for childcare. That’s why I can’t do it.”
Therefore, the question arises: what exactly do parents do when traditional school is not part of the equation?
Letting the Child Lead
The philosophy behind unschooling is that learning should be child led. A fascination with dinosaurs might provoke an investigation into palaeontology, while the routine process of paying for something at a store can teach basic math skills. A child in a world schooling family might learn Spanish by visiting Spain. There are no rules for what or how to study. Each family figures it out as life unfolds. Just as a baby learns to speak, a child will, for example, learn to read when they’re ready.
“When you spend your childhood being told what to do you’re not given the opportunity to make choices”, Cruz explained. “Then you turn 18 and you’re like ‘now what’? You’re on your own. You don’t know.”
“I like [this method] because it teaches my kids how to think”, Angee added. “They ask me questions and I say, ‘How can we figure out that information’? Versus when they were in school and it was like ‘the answers are in your book’.”
In contrast, homeschoolers follow parent-guided curriculums. Anne Hudson*, a US national and mom of three, initially enrolled her older children in Vietnamese pre-school but Hudson felt the schools were too strict and that the days were too long. “It’s too much pressure”, she said.
Hudson follows two curriculums with her children, a program for her son that keeps learning fun with drawing, games and songs, and a separate method for her daughter, who has a learning disability and needs a more structured approach to her lessons. Their typical day starts with outside play from 7:30am until 8:30, followed by homeschooling from 9 until 12. Extra activities, such as music or art, are saved for the afternoon.
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“I never wanted to be a teacher before. I was an exercise physiologist”, Hudson said. “There are some days that honestly I’m just pulling my hair out but mostly I’m surprised by how much I like it. There’s something special about it. You’re with your child and you really know the strengths and weaknesses of how they think.”
The modern homeschooling movement began in the 1970s when an educational philosopher named John Holt launched a campaign to “do away with the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves”. Initially, Holt tried to rework the codes of traditional education - rote memorisation, forward-facing classrooms, the godlike reverence towards teachers - by testifying about his theories before the US Congress, but later he decided school in any form was inutile. His resulting newsletter, “Growing Without Schooling”, increased both his followers and his sceptics.
Holt may seem like a pioneer to some and an eccentric to others, but in reality homeschooling existed for centuries before it was given an official title. The precedents for alternative schooling vary from country to country. In the founding days of America children were expected to work alongside their parents. The trend towards self-directed learning was not so much a leap forward as a look into the past.
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In contrast, in Vietnam skills were passed on through ‘masters’. According to a 2010 report by WorldBank, “In the Feudal and Colonial periods, teachers were seen to have more importance than parents; their position was only lower than the king.”
Edmond Yee wrote in his book, “Confucian Education: A Moral Approach”, that Confucius taught the belief that “everyone has the same potential to be educated, and therefore education should be available to everyone. Vietnam was therefore constructed to be a collectivist country, meaning that individuals are less important than the whole.” These core Vietnamese values make the alternative education concept more foreign than in a country where children were historically schooled at home because of the community’s needs.
The online resources we queried showed that out of 77 countries with published educational regulations, 41 allow for alternative education but, depending on the country, families can be subjected to strict regulations.
Homeschooling is prohibited in 30 countries and in six, including Vietnam, the law is unclear.
The Vietnamese constitution is just abstract enough for homeschoolers to fit between the cracks. According to the Vietnamese education law, “Families have the responsibility to create conditions for their members in the defined age groups to learn in order to obtain the level of universalized education”.
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Homeschooling is not specifically mentioned, nor is it forbidden. However, this loophole doesn’t mean homeschooling families are free from difficulties. Once a student is taken out of public school their placement in the system is effectively ‘frozen’. Online courses are not recognised by the government so a child who wants to re-enter school will have to return to the grade they left. In addition, there is no homeschooling equivalent to a high school diploma in Vietnam. Children without a diploma cannot pursue higher education in Vietnam. The options are therefore narrowed down to going to university in another country, trade school or starting over in Vietnam. Vietnamese families who choose alternative education have to be fully committed to seeing it through for the long term.
The Dark Side of the Debate
Homeschooling has recently become a subject of controversy because of the case that shocked the world: In California,13, supposedly homeschooled, children were found to be brutally neglected by their parents. Cases such as these are few and far between but lawmakers are now demanding more oversight of children educated at home. Many countries have already installed rigorous checks of homeschooling families.
In Vietnam, children also slip through society’s cracks. “The government tries to encourage kids to go to school but obviously not every child in Vietnam does”, Khoi said. “You go to the streets and you see children everywhere. There’s no real law.” However, even if parents aren’t breaking Vietnamese law by schooling their kids at home they are breaking tradition and they are subject to intense judgment as a result. All the parents interviewed, whether expats, overseas Vietnamese or locals, spoke of the pressure from the outside world and especially relatives.
“My mom is probably the biggest critic about what we’re doing”, Angee said. “[Her] main concern is how will they go to college? How will they get a job? If they choose to go to college there are a hundred pathways to do that. In fact, a lot of unschoolers and homeschoolers outperform kids in traditional schools all the time.”
Yet, even within the alternative schooling community there can be divided camps. One homeschooling parent mentioned knowing “some [older unschooled] kids who haven’t started reading yet. How does that happen? Once they’re reading there’s a lot of stuff that they can do. But they need those basics.”
What do the statistics say? In a survey for Psychology Today of 75 adults who’d been unschooled as children, the adults described “dealing with others’ criticisms and judgments of unschooling, some degree of social isolation and social adjustment” as being their biggest challenges. However, for 72 of the 75 respondents, “the advantages of unschooling clearly outweighed the disadvantages”. 62 % of these adults went on to pursue higher education in some form and the majority were employed at the time of the survey.
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Regardless, of the debate about whether or not alternative education programs are successful, Vietnamese families have an added difficulty – most of the available curriculums are in English. “My family is not an English speaking family”, Khoi said with a sigh. “That’s the biggest challenge. I try hard but it’s only me who can follow the curriculum. Most of the families I talk to can’t get past the English gate”.
For other parents the biggest complaint is a lack of time. One parent has to be available to guide the children. It’s difficult to pursue a career at the same time. However, most families feel the sacrifice is worth it.
“[The judgment] doesn’t bother me”, Kristi said. “I’m very comfortable being a mom. People ask what I do and I’m like “I’m a mom” and I’m good with that. People act like it’s not good enough but children have rights and choices. You have the choice to pursue your career but when you choose to be a mother you have a responsibility to be a mother too. Children have the right to have a present parent.”
Nellie and Gavin, American parents of 3.5-year-old Lucy, have lived in HCMC for 7 years. When Lucy was diagnosed with severe hearing loss the couple looked into their schooling options in both America and Vietnam, and even tried a private pre-school in D2, but in the end they decided on homeschooling.
“Lucy is a completely developmentally normal kid; she just needs special attention”, Nellie said. “I went to the US and I looked at the schools there … I was impressed with the deaf schools but the mainstream options … it’s like … who cares? Who actually cares about my kid? I do. But does anyone else really care when a student might be the difficult student? You know, the one who can’t hear the instructions so isn’t following. So in the end it’s up to you to figure out what your child needs.”
For parents of children with special needs individualised care has added weight. Anne’s daughter has an auditory processing issue -- she struggles to process information as it comes in. Angee’s daughter started getting test anxiety when she was in public school to the point that she started having panic attacks and refused to read anything.
“Even though their former teacher was a good teacher she couldn’t see the issues that I could see from observing”, Anne said. “There are 14 other kids, so the teacher can’t keep her eyes on one kid that closely.”
Nellie, Anne and Angee all feel that despite the general stereotype that care is not as extensive in Vietnam as in the States they actually have a stronger community and more affordable options in Vietnam. “There’s also a great community of homeschoolers here”, Nellie said. “We always have things that we can do.”
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However, the fact remains that Vietnamese families, even those with special needs children, may have a harder time making the decision to stop traditional school. “International parents have less pressure”, Khoi said. “For the Vietnamese, the pressure is enormous. It’s everywhere. People in general just don’t understand what this thing is.” Yet, he holds out hope that education in Vietnam may be in the process of changing. “Right now there are some voices in the Ministry of Education starting to talk about homeschool”, Khoi continued. “They demand that we open up the system. I think in 5 years things will change. If they don’t we’ll be left far, far behind.”
Regardless of what happens in Vietnam’s scholastic future, families choosing alternative education have one thing in common -- they believe they’re doing what’s best for their children. As Kristi put it, “It’s a lifestyle. And school will not add to that lifestyle. It will take away.”
*This name is a pseudonym
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