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Learning in Laos: Meeting challenges with innovation

When EdNC contributors travel abroad, we ask them to share what they learn about education. Read on for Katy Clune’s first-hand experiences in Laos, a developing country working to improve its school system for a new era despite immense challenges. Laos celebrates International Children’s Day on June 1.

Laos is a country on the brink of major development — change is everywhere. In Vientiane, the capital city, a group of hand-hewn boats serve as homes for fishermen on the banks of the Mekong River directly across the street from a sparkling new Chinese development project. In mountain villages, satellite dishes rise from the roofs of woven bamboo houses. Juxtapositions like these are common in a country rapidly catching up to the world economy. Between my visits to Laos in August 2014 and December 2015, I witnessed growth measured in new roads, shopping malls, and construction of the country’s first high-rise.

Beyond buildings, education is a key means for Laos to assert itself as a developed nation. However, poverty, lack of infrastructure, and childhood malnutrition provide very real obstacles.

What is public education in Laos like? Can we learn anything from this country’s challenges and successes?

Education in the midst of unprecedented growth

Laos is a small country, roughly twice the size of North Carolina. Compared to neighboring Thailand (population 68 million), its population is just under 7 million. Following the takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao party in 1975, the country was largely closed to the world economy. Beginning in the late 1980s, the government began to adopt economic and social development projects and free market policies. The nation had catching up to do. In 1995, the literacy rate in Laos was just 43 percent, and only half of all six- to nine-year-olds attended school.1


Historically, education in Laos was centered in the Buddhist temple. Young boys entered the monkhood and learned Buddhist philosophy — and to read and write — as they lived in dormitories and worked as caretakers. While some families continue to enter their young sons into the monkhood, the practice is now more spiritually motivated.

According to Education for Development Foundation-Lao (EDF-Lao), there are roughly 8,676 primary schools (grades one through five) and 1,572 secondary schools (grades six through twelve), and five public universities. Families who can afford to often send their children to private schools, but this group constitutes less than two percent of the country’s students.2 Data on enrollment and graduation is hard to find and verify, but according to the Education Policy and Data Center roughly 15 percent of students enroll in postsecondary school programs. While schools in Laos are state-run and tuition is free, families must pay for school supplies, uniforms, and other everyday essentials — hidden costs which can be insurmountable.

Today, Laos is one of the fastest-growing economies in East Asia, and the literacy rate has increased to 79.9 percent.3 However, the country is still classified as a Least Developed Country. The greatest challenge to ensuring that every child graduates from secondary school is access. Some of the poorest communities in Laos are located in areas with very little infrastructure, and schools can be few and far between. Everyday costs of attending school are insurmountable to some. To help Laos integrate even further onto the world stage, the United States funds a variety of development initiatives including building public schools in rural areas.

“Education is key to the social and economic development of every country.” –Daniel Clune, U.S. Ambassador to Laos

“We are proud to be working in partnership with the government of the Lao PDR to help provide educational facilities for students throughout the country,” explained Ambassador Daniel Clune in a recent Vientiane Times article. In February 2016 alone, two groundbreaking ceremonies for U.S.-funded schools took place in southern Laos.

Snapshots: Sala Aebae Primary School and Nakhouay Secondary School

My connection to Laos is my parents, Ambassador Daniel Clune and Judy Clune. Visits to rural schools are among their favorite official responsibilities. In October 2015, they visited Sala Aebae Primary School primary school in Udomxai province in the far north. Judy remembers, “locals made all the playground equipment, plus a picnic table with an umbrella, out of saplings.” The community was predominantly Akha, one of the hundreds of ethnic minority groups in Laos, and the Clunes visited on a Wednesday, when students are encouraged to wear traditional dress to school.

“In Northern Laos, ‘ethnic minorities’ are actually the majority of the population, consisting of primarily Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Hmong-Yao language speakers.” 4 Public education must address the needs of all of these communities.

At Sala Aebae, many students face debilitating malnutrition. This is the reality in Laos. The US is helping address the issue by providing annual funding for the World Food Programme’s School Meals program. At 10:00 a.m., with the help of volunteers, students are served cornmeal, banana, and soy patties with added nutrients. In addition to addressing serious stunting issues, this meal help boosts school attendance.

QUICK FACTS: Sala Aebae Primary School 5
Grades 1- 5
60 students (28 girls)
6 classrooms
Electricity connection since mid-2015

This December, I visited a school just outside of Vientiane in Nakhouay. This district borders on the countryside, and its name reflects the scenery (na means rice field, khouay means buffalo). However, Nakhouay Secondary School is exemplary of one of the country’s better-funded urban schools. While the Lao government recommends a 35-to-1 student-teacher ratio for secondary schools, this school has a 25-to-1 ratio and enjoys a 95 percent graduation rate.

QUICK FACTS: Nakhouay Secondary School 6
Grades 6 – 12
869 students (435 girls)
36 teachers
16 classrooms
Roughly 60 students per class
25 – 1 teacher ratio
95% graduation rate

As I walked with Principle Phommy Xayasan, who wore an olive-green Pathet Lao Party uniform, students turned from their books to wave and pose for the camera. With so many students to engage in each classroom, the teacher’s voices rang loudly from open windows.

In this school, as in most in Laos, lessons are drawn from state-printed textbooks (often in short supply) and chairs are oriented to the blackboard at the front of the room. Subjects include Lao language and literature, mathematics, science, English, social studies, and practical skill-building lessons in technology and agriculture. Students typically walk or ride their motorcycles home for lunch, but a noodle and snack stand serve as cafeteria for those who stay. Classrooms open out into a field for recess and physical education. During my visit to Nakhouay, a few teachers were playing volleyball, delighting a crowd of watching students.

Nakhouay Secondary School  enjoys a major advantage above most public, and even some private, schools: a technology lab with 15 computers funded by EDF-Lao.

EDF-Lao: School-By-School solutions

Education for Development Foundation-Lao (EDF-Lao) is a private organization founded in 1997. Its projects include scholarship funds, programs to give bicycles to students to ease commutes, and a rural teacher training program, among others. In 2012, EDF-Lao became part of Laos’s first group of state-recognized nonprofits. Philanthropy is in its very beginnings in Laos, and EDF-Lao is poised to take advantage of the nascent trends in individual giving and corporate social responsibility.

EDF-Lao President Khamhiane Inthava and Jamie Cheun Bouddy (public relations and fundraising manager) organized my school visit and welcomed me to their downtown Vientiane offices. In the face of so many challenges, I asked Inthava, “How do you even begin?”

Without a pause, he expressed that every small step toward building education in Laos is an investment in the country’s future shared prosperity. Today, EDF-Lao addresses education issues school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher. But Inthava and his staff are working toward a revolutionary idea: to introduce a foolproof, fun, and inexpensive tool to teach English in every public school in Laos.

“Without education, we cannot do anything to make [the poor’s] lives better. We try to bring them education.” –  Khamhiane Inthava, President of EDF-Lao

The idea is ingeniously simple. Using donated used computer parts, EDF-Lao hopes to bring international educator Martin Momoda’s curriculum into even the most bare-boned schools. Momoda’s Momosign and Momobooks teach English using sign language and call-and-response activities. According to the website, the program is “especially effective for low-resourced classrooms and minimally skilled teachers.”

“We’ve solved the problem of too much garbage,” says Inthava, in reference to the donated used computers, “and we’ve solved an education problem.”

To unite these two resources, EDF-Lao is seeking a $75-$100 mini TV PC box per school. Connect this USB-sized device to a monitor and keyboard, load it with the Momosign software, and all one needs is electricity to get a classroom of students engaging in high-energy English lessons.

“Usually after class students are tired. With this program they are excited, it’s like a game,” says Inthava.

Inthava is thinking big. “I want to change Lao education with this device,” he explains. The Ministry of Education has approved import of 10,000 devices, and has invited EDF-Lao to present the device and the Momosign curriculum at state-run teacher training programs. He hopes to eventually develop a Facebook network of teachers using this tool to provide updates and support across the country — thereby utilizing another free resource.

Laos is facing rapid development and an immense need to lift its people out of poverty. It is innovations like this — transforming inexpensive tools into educational resources — that carry the greatest potential for impact. Despite being twelve time zones and 9,000 miles away from North Carolina, perhaps our state can take inspiration from the creative problem-solving helping to develop public education in Laos. 

Photos of Sala Aebae Primary School by Judy Clune, all other photos by Katy Clune.

Show 6 footnotes

  1.  Martin Stuart-Fox, The A to Z of Laos (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010)
  2. Interview with EDF-Lao President Khamhiane Inthava (December 16, 2015)
  3.  Literacy defined as age 15 and above able to read and write. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, “East and Southeast Asia: Laos,” accessed March 2, 2016
  4. Language group information from an exhibition panel on display at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center, Luang Prabang, Laos.
  5. Fact Sheet provided to US Embassy Vientiane by World Food Programme for the field visit to Phongsaly Province, October 20-21, 2015
  6. Interview with Principal Phommy Xayasan, Nakhouay Secondary School (December 16, 2015)
Katy Clune

Katy Clune is engaged in cultural communications — writing, design, and multimedia storytelling — for a variety of freelance clients. She has interviewed people from Boone to Ocean Isle and assisted with curating the Carolina Food Summit (2016) and “North Carolina: The New North American Heartland” (2017) for EducationNC.