Executive Perspective                                     Page 43


Appreciation of Our Schools

From Vietnam 



 Daniel Domenech

Jeff Bain was 22 years old when he was shipped to Vietnam in March 1969. He had wanted to get into helicopter pilot school, but that did not happen. Instead, he volunteered to be the gunner on a Huey helicopter crew. Over a period of nine months, Bain flew more than 50 combat missions and lived to tell about his experience.

As president of the Virginia School Boards Association, he received an invitation to participate in AASA’s International Seminar to Cambodia and Vietnam, but he was not sure he wanted to go. Many of his friends and fellow soldiers had perished there, and he still carries vivid memories of his experiences in combat. But with the support of his wife, Susan, he decided to make the trip, along with 28 other educators and companions in early November.

Private Alternatives
We began the journey in Hanoi, and the first thing that struck Bain as we traveled to the hotel was the heat. Vietnam was just as he remembered it. The rice paddies were still the same and so were the people.
Back home, the Vietnam War still holds many unpleasant memories, both for those who fought in it and for those who bitterly opposed it. But in Vietnam the war is a distant memory. We learned that more than 70 percent of the population was born after the war. We are greeted with warm salutations.

On our first day, we visited the Doan Thi Diem Primary School, a private school housing grades 1-5 and accommodating almost 3,000 students. After years of economic turmoil, Vietnam followed in China’s footsteps and moved toward a market economy. It is still a Communist country, but its growing market economy has given rise to an emerging upper socio-economic class composed of government officials and business entrepreneurs.

Individuals in the upper crust of Vietnamese society want their children to have the best education possible; consequently, private schools have been established to provide their children with a superior education to that available in the public schools.

Next, we visited the Ly Thai To Secondary School. This is a private school established by the largest construction firm in Vietnam with the purpose of affording the children of the firm’s employees the best education possible.

We found it highly ironical that in America, a capitalist country, we endeavor to offer all children the highest quality of public schooling while in Vietnam, a communist country, the public schools struggle with little government support while the well-to-do send their children to private schools.

Limited Freedom
We also visited an exceptional public school catering to the best and brightest, regardless of parent income. The Foreign Language Specialized School is housed within the campus of Vietnam National University, and every year, following a highly competitive admissions process, the school admits about 1,300 students from all corners of Vietnam.

The students there were highly fluent in English, and we were surprised to learn that many aspire to study at American universities. Currently, more than 13,000 Vietnamese students attend postsecondary institutions in the United States.

Bain smiled as he recalled a question asked by a young woman in the class he visited: “How is it that your students don’t study as hard as we do, but your country is so successful?”

 heck of a question that perhaps was answered during the briefing we received at the American embassy in Hanoi. Vietnam wants to attract our country’s best colleges and universities to open campuses there. The discussions end when it becomes apparent that academic freedom is not permitted in Vietnam. The Ministry of Education and Training dictates the curriculum at all levels, and there is no tolerance for deviation.

When AASA President Pat Neudecker asked about what English literature the students were required to read, she was informed the students were allowed to read only English translations of the accepted Vietnamese dogma. Many students confessed their fluency and diction came from watching American movies on the Internet.

Creativity Lacking
What is obviously lacking even in the highest-performing Vietnamese schools is the academic freedom, the creativity, the right to question and analyze, the collaboration and collegiality that provide our students with the extra dimension that goes beyond rote learning and unwavering discipline.

As is so often the case, we have to travel abroad to realize how truly great America’s public schools are. Jeff Bain was glad he made the trip. He is at peace with his role in the war and with our current attempt to work with our former enemy.

“I am leaving here with a whole different concept,” Bain said. “We hear so much about how well the Asian country’s schools do, but you know what? Back home we’re doing a heck of a job. I’m looking forward to going back to the good old US of A!”

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail:


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