HANOI — Dao Quoc Huy and his wife joined other anxious parents camped outside Thuc Nghiem primary school at 3 a.m.
When the sun came up, the crowd pressed against the metal entrance gate until it fell - then stampeded, hurdling bushes and losing flip-flops in a frenzied rush to grab coveted application forms.
The school is one of Vietnam's only public institutions emphasizing American-style learning instead of rote memorization. About 600 kindergartners from around the capital were vying for the 200 or so spots available this fall.
"It's like playing the lottery," said Mr. Huy, 35, who hoped his daughter would be among the chosen. "We need luck."
The recent stampede, which resulted in a few minor bruises but no arrests, underscores a problem experts say weighs heavily on Vietnam's graying communist leadership: Nearly four decades after the Vietnam War, the country's education system remains so corrupt and backward that it's impeding economic growth.
And the rising middle class is now desperate for alternatives.
In this Confucian nation where education is a national obsession, schools at all levels are hampered by cheating, bribery and a lack of world-renowned programs and researchers. As a result, a surging number of Vietnamese students are attending international-style private schools and later overseas colleges and universities.
Although average income here is just $1,400, more than 30,000 Vietnamese were studying at foreign higher learning institutions last year. Vietnam ranks fifth-highest worldwide for its student enrollments in Australia, and eighth for enrollments in the U.S., placing it above Mexico, Brazil and France.
A crisis in education
The number of Vietnamese studying in the U.S. has increased sevenfold from about 2,000 over the past decade.
Most of the nearly 15,000 who were studying in the U.S. last year were not on scholarships to well-known schools, but instead attending community colleges paid by their families, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.
Unlike universities in neighboring China where communist leaders enacted sweeping reforms in the 1980s, Vietnam's schools are not keeping pace with an increasingly globalized world, experts say.
The government instead has preserved a system promoting inefficient central management and a lack of critical thinking. Up to 10 percent of course work remains devoted to the teachings of Marx, Lenin and late Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh.
Vietnam's educational model is "one size fits all," and the country's leaders "should have done more to make education one of its assets," said Mai Thanh, a World Bank senior education specialist in Hanoi. "I see it as a missed opportunity."
As Vietnam's annual growth rate holds at 6 percent despite having one of Asia's highest inflation rates and an economy burdened by stagnant state-owned companies, analysts say the education crisis threatens to stunt the domestic workforce and further hinder the country's development.
Intel, the world's largest computer chipmaker, has struggled to recruit skilled workers for its manufacturing facility in Ho Chi Minh City, researchers from Harvard University's Kennedy School have said.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi has said Vietnam's "human resource infrastructure" does not support its rising education demands, and the Harvard researchers say reform in the country's higher education system has been "glacial" since it embarked on economic reforms and liberalization in the mid-1980s.
Although Vietnam invests more in education as a percentage of gross domestic product than many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the researchers say, the problem is less about lack of investment than a failure of governance.
Corruption in the classes
"The government is keenly aware that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of the education system, among economic and political elites as well as at the popular level," said Ben Wilkinson, co-author of a critical 2008 report and associate director of the Kennedy School's Vietnam Program in Ho Chi Minh City.
He added that it's too early to tell what effect the migration of students to overseas universities will have on the country's future.
Another problem is that parents bribing teachers for high marks and degrees has become commonplace. In a 2010 report, Berlin-based Transparency International concluded that education was perceived as the country's second-most corrupt sector after law enforcement.
State media regularly report on education-linked scandals, including a recent case at a private high school in northern Bac Giang province where a proctor handed out cheat sheets during a national high school graduation exam. After a student filmed the incident with a hidden camera, six teachers and staff were dismissed.
Earlier this month, Vietnam's National Assembly passed a law designed to give more autonomy to the country's universities, but education reformers remain skeptical.
"Many universities are just interested in recruiting as many students as possible," National Assembly Deputy Dang Thi My Huong told state-controlled media in May. "Where graduates go and whether they can get a job is their business."
The Foreign Ministry did not respond to written questions submitted by the Associated Press.
Middle-class Vietnamese now are wondering how to help their children shine in spite of a broken school system. One strategy is to sign them up for night classes often run by public school teachers who earn around $250 a month.
Unlike high-ranking Vietnamese officials, most families simply can't afford private schools and overseas colleges.