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Haiti’s educational moment

Jeffrey Puryear and Michael Lisman

In addition to killing hundreds of thousands of people, the tragic January 2010 earthquake in Haiti destroyed countless schools. Rebuilding those schools —and establishing new ones— clearly deserves high priority. Yet, it may be just as crucial to consider an overhaul of the education system to help it produce the learned and skilled citizens Haiti so desperately needs.

Developing countries whose populations are poorly educated seldom have the human resources and institutions necessary to break the cycle of poverty and sustain economic growth. Haiti is one of those countries.

Haiti is the country with the least-educated citizens in the Americas. Approximately half the population can neither read nor write. School enrolment rates are low at all levels and only two-thirds of those who start primary school complete it; the limited information available on student learning also points to its poor quality. Government spending on education is roughly two per cent of GDP —among the lowest in the world. By most measures, Haiti’s schools are closer in educational quality and quantity to those of the poorest countries of Sub-Saharan Africa than to any of its neighbours in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Haiti’s schools also stand out for another reason: they are mostly private. The country is one of very few worldwide that educates most of its students in private schools, with 80 per cent of primary and secondary enrolments compared with just 20 per cent in public institutions (the higher education sector is small and roughly two-thirds public). These private schools include church, community and for-profit institutions. Some are better and others are worse than the public schools, which tend to be overcrowded and poorly managed.

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Private schools have emerged over the past several decades because the government has failed massively to meet the growing demand for schooling. Private spending has filled this gap: at more than six per cent of GDP, private expenditure on education in Haiti is among the highest in the world. Estimates suggest that many poor families invest as much as 30 per cent of their scarce resources in education. Clearly, Haitian parents are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices to educate their children.

The predominantly private character of Haiti’s schools is unlikely to change any time soon. The government’s ability to manage its social services, inadequate enough prior to the earthquake, has been devastated. It would have to more than quadruple its education spending just to enrol the children currently attending private schools, and would still have the lowest per-pupil expenditure in the hemisphere. That kind of spending increase is not going to happen.

This may be a pivotal moment for Haitian education, an opportunity to look beyond the short term crisis and set the long term foundation for what is to come. Beyond the massive challenge of reopening schools, Haiti and its partners should consider systemic changes that may do a better job of educating the poor than the pre-quake schools. Central to that process will be recognizing the predominantly private character of Haitian schools and building upon it.

There are, of course, no quick fixes, but several ideas ought to be on the table. First, donors should be willing to help any school —public or private— that serves the poor and is willing to improve the quality of its education system. In the short term, direct support for private and community schools that serve the poor may be the most productive approach, as long as their administrators agree to meet reasonable standards and be accountable.

In the longer term, emphasis should be on helping Haiti convert its de facto public-private education system into a properly managed, de jure one. Donors should work not only with the government, but with the private sector as well, recognizing the comparative advantage each brings to the table. They should take a lesson from successful public-private education initiatives worldwide, particularly in countries such as Bangladesh, Belgium, the Netherlands and Pakistan. The goal should be to create a system that, although diverse in its methods, is subject to common standards of performance and united by its aim to educate all children, including the poorest.

Several components of successful education systems ought to be considered. A good step forward would be to establish modern learning standards that specify what students ought to have learned upon completing each grade. These can be limited at first to reading and mathematics which are relatively easy to test and are essential skills for all other learning. Then, a simple but rigorous student testing system can be implemented to assess whether students are attaining learning standards or not. Haiti already has considerable experience with national student achievement tests. A testing authority need not be lodged in the government, but could be quasi-public or fully private, as is the case in many other countries.

Donors could help private school associations regulate the performance of their membership and support efforts to raise quality of education. These associations should rethink ways to attract, train and retain qualified teachers, and provide incentives to serve in poor schools.

To reach more remote and underserved populations, the government and donors could explore proven approaches such as radio schools, which do not require sophisticated management or infrastructure. Radio education is a documented success in many countries and is usually cost-efficient. Haiti already has experience with radio schools and may be able to expand them rapidly.

The government and donors could expand existing small and experimental scholarship programs that provide families in need with funds to attend private schools, and consider rolling them into a multi-purpose conditional cash transfer program that reaches a significant portion of these families.
Finally, the government’s role in education should also be restructured to concentrate on setting and enforcing standards, assessing quality, promoting equity and providing parents with user-friendly information on how well their children’s schools are performing.

By investing their meager funds in private schools, Haitians have dramatically demonstrated their demand for education. Haiti’s government and the international community should respond by rethinking how the system works, and helping guarantee that all schools, public and private, do a better job of serving their students.

Jeffrey Puryear is the Vice-President for social policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and Co-director of the Partnership for the Revitalization of Education in the Americas (PREAL). Michael Lisman is the Education Associate at the Inter-American Dialogue and Co-ordinator of Central America and Caribbean programs for PREAL. For more information, readers can download Education in Haiti: The Way Forward (PREAL / Inter-American Dialogue, 2008): http://www.thedialogue.org/page.cfm?pageID=32&pubID=1600.


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