A pilot programme to teach natural science subjects in English at high schools for the gifted has proven ineffective because of a lack of qualified teachers, standard textbooks and unclear salary policies and assessment criteria.
Under the programme, which is part of an Education and Training Ministry project on high schools for the gifted for the 2010 – 2020 period, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and computers are taught in English at several high schools for the gifted nationwide.
The main purpose of the ministry's pilot programme is to familiarise students with specialised terminology in English, which would help students read a wide source of English-language materials, improve their self-study skills, and apply for international study abroad.
Started in 2010, the programme has faced a number of challenges as many high schools lack standard textbooks and qualified teachers who are unable to teach effectively in English.
Last year, the Tran Dai Nghia High School for the Gifted in HCM City's District 1 taught maths and physics in English, but was faced with writing its own textbooks in English.
Pham Quoc Viet, vice president of Tran Dai Nghia High School, said Viet Nam had no such books, and as a result, staff were sent abroad so they could help write new textbooks for teaching natural science subjects in English.
The city's Education Department makes the final decision on whether the books are approved.
A lack of qualified teachers is another problem.Veteran teachers know their subject area but lack English ability, while younger teachers have a higher level of English but are inexperienced.
Because of the shortage, Viet's school hired two young Vietnamese teachers who majored in maths and physics from reputable universities in the US to teach at
However, Viet said the school was still looking for people who could teach chemistry in English.
Another problem facing the pilot programme is the lack of regulations on scheduling courses taught in English.
Because class schedules are full, this additional class has burdened students at Tran Dai Nghia High School who are already overloaded with many assignments.
Viet said the school had decided to cut one weekly 45-minute class session taught in Vietnamese to allow teaching in English.
Although the pilot programme applies only to grade 10, the school might extend it to grades 11 and 12 if results are satisfactory.
Another programme participant, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai High School in HCM City's District 3, is teaching maths and physics in English for grades 10, 11 and 12.
However, it cannot find high-quality English textbooks. A representative from the school management board said the school relied too much on textbooks or materials brought back from teachers who went abroad under training programmes.
Le Qui Don High School in HCM City's District 3 takes part in the pilot programme, but because it has a training cooperation with a UK-based college, the challenge of finding qualified teachers and English-language textbooks was not that critical.
But the students' level of English is another barrier, according to Pham Van Phiet, principal of Le Qui Don High School.
He said the school offered grade-10 courses in math, physics and chemistry taught in English.
However, only two out of 15 classes in grade 10 are taught in English. The number of students dropping out of the classes with instruction in English has gradually increased because of the students' low level of English.
Phiet said that many students did not want to learn or were not capable of learning English, so the course was offered only on demand.
He said that if the pilot programme was expanded to most high schools across the country, there would be a huge shortage of teachers qualified to teach the subject in English.
Worse still, if qualified teachers were not paid well, they would move to private schools, he added.
Many education officials agree, saying that the ministry's programme goals are worthy but not feasible.
Phiet recommended that the Ministry of Training and Education develop short-term projects on improving teachers' English ability, and publish quality English-language textbooks on academic subjects taught in high school.
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