Improving Access and Quality in Haitian Education System
By Moise Derosier
On October 1, school will officially begin in Haiti. The Ministry of Education in Haiti projected that about 2.1 million excited and hopeful children will be headed back to school. Many of these children will walk several miles to attend overcrowded schools. Some will have to sit on rocks or under trees. Others will have to find a place under a couple of tin roofs standing on four sticks. Many parents will be selling their only or last goats or cows to finance the education of their children. Some parents will be borrowing money at very high and exorbitant rates from local money lenders to pay for school fees, uniforms, transportation costs, school supplies, and food. I am not being reminiscent of my own school days as a student thirty years ago, nor am I exaggerating. Here are some pictures of the so-called schools that I visited during my most recent trip to Haiti.
One of the things that keeps me awake at night is when I think about the quality of education that these excited and hopeful children are receiving. Is the Haitian education system preparing these children to compete in a globalized world in the 21st century? Like many, I know the answer to this question. It is a resounding, “No!” More than 30 years ago, when I was a primary school student in Haiti, I was very fortunate to have a little geography textbook from which I learned to memorize and recite this lesson: “La terre est ronde comme une boule, elle a quarante milles kilometers de tour.” Translated into English this lesson says, “The earth is round like a ball, and it has a circumference of forty thousand kilometers.” Unfortunately, the education system in Haiti has not changed much over the last 100 years. This little geography textbook is still in circulation. From it, students are still memorizing and reciting the aforementioned lesson.
I am sure that this book was published 40 years prior to my becoming a primary school student because my father learned his first geography lesson from the same little book. I am amazed that, 40 years later, the same book (cover to cover, fonts, graphics, and content) is in circulation. I was very lucky to have this geography textbook because for many of my other courses I relied only on teachers’ notes, and had no way of verifying whether the information they were teaching was factual. Many of the teachers taught from the notebooks that they had maintained when they were students. I relied heavily on the idea that my teachers were good note-takers! If you extend this line of thought, you can sense why I think a lot about the quality of education that Haitian children are receiving, and how I feel about Haitian parents who spend a major portion of their meager livelihoods hoping their kids are receiving a decent education.
Having studied education systems around the world, I understand that education systems are slow moving beasts, but in Haiti, it seems that nothing has changed despite the millions of dollars spent by both bilateral and multilateral institutions. Sometimes these institutions perpetuate, replicate, or even sustain failed systems. For instance, when you read published reports by institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and World Bank regarding education reform, you will observe that they have spent millions in the distribution of “school kits.” Can you guess what school children in Haiti are receiving in these school kits? The same little geography textbooks or history textbooks so that they can learn to memorize and recite lessons. Perhaps these institutions do not know about what goes into the school kits because some of the decision-makers at these institutions are never on the receiving end. This is why I argue that these institutions must have qualified Haitian professionals on staff. I believe the Haitian Diaspora has an important role to play in the development of Haiti, especially with educational development.
Around the world, education systems typically face two major challenges. The first challenge is lack of access to education. In March 1990, in Jomtien, Thailand, a global movement called Education for All began when delegates from 155 countries and representatives from 150 governmental and non-governmental organizations held a conference to reaffirm Article 26 of the Human Rights Declaration, which proclaimed education as a fundamental right. At the end of this conference, participants embraced six important goals to achieve over the next ten years. Two of the six goals were to increase universal access to education (access) and to focus on learning outcomes (quality). In April 2000, in Dakar, Senegal, delegates and representatives met again to give more impetus to education. Since 2000, many countries have made a lot of progress in increasing access of education to boys and girls, especially from vulnerable groups. For instance, from 1999 to 2007, the number of out-of-school children worldwide had declined from 105 million to 79 million. If this trend continues, by 2015, it is expected that there will be 56 million out-of-school children. According to the Global EFA Monitoring Report, the world net enrollment ratio has grown from 82% in 1999 to 87% in 2007.
Education Statistics for Haiti are hard to come by. I have been gathering bits and pieces from numerous government reports. Taken with a grain of salt, La Strategie Nationale D’action pour L’education pour Tous (2007) reported that the net enrollment ratio for the 2002-2003 school year was 76%. Haiti’s net enrollment has declined from 71% in 2006 to 68% in 2010 according to the Global EFA Monitoring Report and Haitian Ministry of Education data. While the rest of world is progressing in the area of access to education, Haiti is digressing. In Figures 2.7 and 2.8 below, I present evidence from the UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report to show how the rest of world has increased the access of education to millions of children.
Supporting the education system in Haiti
Access to education in Haiti has been grossly inadequate. One of the main reasons for this inadequacy can be explained by public underinvestment and mismanagement of the education sector. The scant statistics published by the Ministry of Education in Haiti have indicated that there are 500,000 Haitian children who have never set foot in school. There are two main factors that explain this high number of unschooled children in Haiti. The first factor is the insufficient supply of public schools. After all, the Haitian education system is a highly non-public system; 85% of schools are non-public schools. In addition, only 25% of these non-public schools are registered in the Ministry of Education’s official records. Only four other countries (Macau, Zimbabwe, Belize, and Aruba) have greater non-public ownership than Haiti (Rand, 2010).
The second factor is that the high financial burden of school fees for most Haitian parents is unbearable. Most parents spend a substantial portion of their income on their children’s education. For instance, the Haitian government spends an average of 1.1 % to 2% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education, while the amount that parents typically pay for education is about 7% of the GDP (RAND, 2010). In 2011, the Haitian government’s education spending was 1.81% as a percent of GDP (MOE Plan Operationel, 2011). To put this in context, around the world in 2011, the average amount that governments spent on education as a percentage of GDP was 5%. This means that the Haitian government’s education spending is too low compared to the rest of the world. As a result, Haitian parents spend too much for their children’s education. Additionally, this problem is compounded when one considers that Haitian families tend to be large (4.5 children on average).
Furthermore, the public underinvestment is clearly seen when one looks at the inadequate supply of public schools throughout Haiti. For example, in 2010, the Haitian Presidential Commission on Education under Preval published a report that revealed that there are 145 counties out of 570 where there are no public schools, and in 23 counties there are no schools at all. This means enrolling in public schools is a prized commodity for most students. This fact is part of the history of the Haitian education system. In the past, only parents who had connections with government officials could get their children enrolled in one of those prized public schools.
Solving the problem of access to education is not insurmountable. Building schools is not so difficult, especially if we are building the so-called public schools that I have seen in Haiti. Solving the problem of access to education, however, requires visionary leadership, a skill set that is lacking in Haitian society. The world is a laboratory of experiments. Since 1990, many countries have tried many experiments to increase access to education. Brazil (Bolsa Escola), Mexico (PROGESA/Oportunidades), and Colombia (Familias en Accion) are examples of government programs that have increased school enrollment because their governments pay parents to send their children to school. In Rwanda, the government conducts massive campaigns to encourage parents to send their daughters to school. Fortunately, in Haiti, parents want to send their children to school, and that’s why parents spend a major portion of their income on education. According to some estimates, Haitian parents spend close to a third of their income to send their children to school (Wolff, 2008; GTEF, 2009). The problem is that the supply of public schools is too low, and consequently, the school fees are too high relative to parents’ income. Many parents simply cannot afford to pay the school fees. This used to be a struggle for my own parents. To this day, I am grateful to Compassion International, a non-profit Christian organization, for sponsoring my education until the ninth grade.
Solving access to education is not as difficult as improving the quality of education systems. Despite the great improvements that countries have made over the last twenty years to increase access to education, the major challenge that education systems face today revolves around their level of quality. There are many measures of education equality. I am using learning outcomes as one of the measures of quality. Typically, students’ performance on national and international standardized tests is one of the measures of learning outcomes that I have in mind. More broadly, what are the kinds of skills that students need to succeed in the 21st century? A few of these skills are problem- solving, critical thinking, communication, creativity, organization, collaboration, and cooperation. Improving the quality of a country’s education system is terribly difficult. Even wealthy countries like the United States, which spent close to $11,301 in 2007 (USD PPP) per child, are struggling to provide quality education for its students. Imagine how difficult it is for a poor country like Haiti to raise the equality of its education system when it lacks both financial and human capital resources.
In regards to raising the quality of an education system, there are two important variables that we know from educational research. The first variable is the importance of the quality of the teachers themselves. This entails the educational backgrounds of teachers and their own cognitive and natural abilities. Teachers cannot give what they don’t have. For this reason, many countries around the world have tried to raise the caliber of people entering the teaching profession, such as Korea, Finland, and Singapore. For instance, in South Korea, only the top 5% of college graduates are recruited to enter the teaching profession, and in Finland, only the top 10% of college graduates are recruited (McKensey, 2010). Results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and other international rankings of the equality of education systems show that these aforementioned countries rank at the top of educational achievement.
The second important variable in improving the quality of education systems is about the quality of teaching itself. Countries that are highly ranked on educational quality tend to focus relentlessly on learning; that is, the pedagogical approach that teachers use to engage students in the learning process. As a result, teachers in these countries receive a lot of continuous professional development training opportunities to help enrich and improve their teaching craft. According to the Presidential Commission on Education in Haiti, only 20% of elementary teachers are qualified to teach at that level and 50% of teachers at the high school level are not high school graduates themselves.
This means that teachers in the Haitian education system lack both content and pedagogical knowledge. This is so critical because in most advanced societies today, teachers must at least be college graduates in order to enter the teaching profession. The highly ranked countries are very selective in the kinds of college graduates that they allow to enter the field of education. In Haiti, a low percentage of teachers have attended university or teacher training schools. At the primary level, only 5% of teachers are college graduates (GTEF, 2009, see Graphe 15 below). It is no surprise that the quality of the Haitian education system is low and the teaching methods used are outdated. The teaching methods most commonly used are recitation and memorization. While memorization skills are important, we know that these skills are not sufficient to enable students to compete in the 21st century.
When it comes to implementing two of the most important variables to improve the quality of education, Haiti is failing miserably. In 2012, for the annual national exit exams, only 30% of students passed the “Retho examination.” This exam is similar to twelfth grade state exit exam in the United States. In the thirteenth grade, 60% of students passed their exams. These passing rates are yet another indicator of the low quality of the education system in Haiti. I suspect a large percentage of the students who passed are those who attend a few highly selective and highly privileged schools. Now, imagine the disappointment of the poor parents who spent their meager livelihoods in the education of their children with the hope that their children will receive a decent education.
Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe has indicated that by 2030 he would like for Haiti to become an emerging country. For that to happen, the Haitian education system must be one of the most important pillars of economic and social development. Essentially, human capital resources are the most important assets any country. In 1964, Nobel Prize winning economist, Gary Becker, has provided great insights on the importance of human capital. It seems to be a mute point to argue that Haiti has to increase both access and quality in its education system. However, any thoughtless policy decision that increases access could deteriorate quality. For instance, if policymakers increase the number of students without a corresponding increase in the number of teachers and classrooms, then student to teacher ratio will increase. As most teachers know, class size matters. So, Haiti faces this conundrum: it must increase access while improving the quality of its education system.
Moise Derosier is COH Education Program Director. He has organized and facilitated professional development trainings for teachers and school directors in Haiti. Moise holds a Master’s Degree in International Education Policy from Harvard University, where he was named a Noel McGinn Fellow. Email Moise