The University of Newcastle, Australia

Education for everybody

Professor Jim Albright’s research aims to improve education for disadvantaged communities and has a special focus on English education in Vietnam.

Image of Professor Jim Albright

As one of the first in his family to attend university, Professor Jim Albright is well aware of the impact that education can have on disadvantaged populations.

“Many kids have miserable educations and that is just wrong. Education is one of the

few remaining means by which people can improve their lives,” Albright said.

Professor Albright has an interest in equity issues and approaches education research from a unique sociological perspective. One of his recent research collaborations focuses on in-school stratification in Australia and how it affects education outcomes.

“In-school stratification streams and/or groups students into differentiated curriculum and teaching based primarily on the students’ previous academic achievement,” he said.

Professor Albright has collected survey and interview data in a pilot study of 50 local schools to determine in-school stratification practices. Jim says it is an under examined area of education equity.

“Historically studies of in-school stratification from North America show that poor students get poor education, sometimes as a result of being placed in a slower stream and/or groups and that placement remains fairly permanent over time. It’s often very hard as a student to get out of the group you’re placed into,” he said.

His initial review of literature will be published in a forthcoming chapter in a book he is co-editing with School of Education colleague Associate Professor Jim Ladwig.

“Our literature review shows that school stratification doesn’t generally lead to better outcomes for weaker students. If all you teach is the basics you are never going to get more out of your students than the basics. And teaching the basics tends to be a lot less interesting than other kinds of curriculum. For example, some Israeli studies show that if you present low performing students with more engaging work their progress improves,” Professor Albright said.

Examining education in Vietnam

Jim spent 22 years as a high school English teacher in Halifax, Nova Scotia before he decided to enter academic life and do his PhD. Fast forward 24 years and Professor Albright is now supervising PhD students himself, many of whom are from Vietnam.

Professor Albright says that education in Vietnam is facing a range of challenges in terms of infrastructure, large class sizes, limited curricular material and teachers’ limited pedagogical repertoires.

“Vietnam is an economy in a hurry, it has a faster growth rate than even China and has a young population with many people of school age,” he said. “The Vietnamese government has put a lot of effort into English education in order to bolster its economy and engagement with the world.”

However, Jim says there have been challenges in this rapid expansion in English education and unevenness in curriculum pedagogy and assessment.

“There is some criticism by policy makers and scholars about the quality of English education across Vietnam. There is a broad range of systemic and capacity issues all through the Vietnamese education system, which is part and parcel of a system in a hurry. These issues are being addressed through the research of many of the Vietnamese

PhD students I supervise.”

“One student has addressed professional development in teachers, their working conditions and the fact that they are not well paid in Vietnam. Other students have studied aspects of quality assurance, another the kind of text books used in English for special purposes classrooms in Vietnamese institutions. Another student, Nam Lam, studied tertiary oral assessment practices across the country and contributed a chapter in a 2019 book I published.”

The book English Tertiary Education in Vietnam documents the significant progress and challenges in the realisation of Vietnam’s English language policies as they are enacted in the higher education sector and features chapters from Albright’s PhD students as well as other Vietnamese scholars in Australia and Vietnam.

“Changes to Vietnam’s higher education system remain uneven, subject to some policy churn, and suffer from insufficient support. This book provides insights into how recent Vietnamese government policy is attempting substantial and comprehensive renewal of Vietnam’s tertiary education as part of their 2020 plan,” he said.

Jim leads the Faculty of Education and Arts International Strategy - Vietnam Team and visited Vietnam in 2019 to visit past PhD students and see how their Newcastle doctoral education is being put to practice in their home country.

“It’s heartening to see many of our Alumni moving into roles of responsibility in Vietnam. They take with them the educational expertise acquired in Newcastle and disseminate that into their own institutions. In this way they are working to help meet the challenges the Vietnamese education system is facing,” he said.