Schoolchildren in Bwa Leta, artibonite, haiti/bernard chérélus

Education in Haiti: Does the Push for More Students Lead to Less Learning?

Anyone who has been to Haiti has seen swarms of young boys and girls walking to school every morning. It makes for great pictures of radiant and smiling children neatly dressed in brightly colored uniforms and stresses one of the major transformations in Haiti during the last 50 years: School enrollment has steadily increased. World Bank data show that between 1980 and 1997, the share of children in primary school in Haiti increased from 36 percent to 57 percent. This trend is likely to continue as the Martelly administration is pushing for universal enrollment by subsidizing school fees.

Haiti’s case is hardly unique. School enrollment and completion are on the rise in the developing world, and the vast majority of countries, including Haiti, will surely meet the primary school Millennium Development Goal targets by 2015.

As pointed out by researchers at the Center for Global Development, however, more children in low-income countries may be going to and staying in school, but few students are meeting basic competency levels in reading, math and science. In Guinea-Bissau, for instance, while the school enrollment rate was 73 percent, one survey showed that “only 27% of the children were able to add two single digits, and just 19% were able to read and comprehend a simple word.”

The situation in Haiti is likely to be similar, but moreover, there is mounting anecdotal evidence that the increase in enrollment and school completion has been done at the expense of the quality of education provided.

Take Haitian nursing schools. Fifty years ago, you needed only to have successfully completed 9th grade to register for the entrance exam. By the 1970s you were required to have completed 11th grade. Today, you can’t get into the entrance exam room without a high school diploma. But a few years ago, the graduating class of the largest nursing school in Port-au-Prince went on strike because the state-licensing exam was deemed too difficult. Even though nurses were spending more time in school, the vast majority of them couldn’t pass an exam their counterparts from 20 years ago would easily ace.

Ten years ago, my own mother was hired as a French teacher for 12th grade in what is considered one of Cap-Haitien’s best Catholic schools. She didn’t complete 12th grade herself. In the 1970s, she finished 9th grade and then enrolled in a “normal school,” which trained primary and junior-high schoolteachers. By 2003, there had been such a decline in the ability of Haitian students to clearly express their ideas in written French that someone who completed only 9th grade a couple of decades ago was able to teach a remedial class to students who were about to graduate.

By the 1980s, the few normal schools around the country were no longer recruiting future teachers with 9th grade educations. The quality of students declined, and a high school diploma has become the minimum requirement. If you talk to a veteran director of a normal school, however, she will also tell you that the applicants who completed 9th grade 40 years ago came better prepared than the current ones who have high school diplomas.

The decline in teacher quality may have been a major cause behind the swift decline in the quality of instruction received by students. As enrollment increased, more teachers were needed each year. These new teachers had to come from a bigger pool of newly minted graduates, which on average was of lower quality than the previous one.

Other factors also contributed to the dearth of qualified teachers. Under the nearly three-decade Duvalier regime that lasted until 1986, many of the best educators left for Québec and francophone Africa. Moreover, as qualified professionals became harder to find, the higher the salary a young qualified graduate could get by working in a non-teaching job.

The international development community and governments tend to think about educational progress in a linear fashion. It goes something like this: First, focus on enrollment, then, as the country gets richer, put greater emphasis on the quality of instruction. From what I’ve witnessed in Haiti, however, the focus on putting kids in schools makes the search for quality in the future even more elusive.

A first step to help improve the situation could be to recognize the serious trade-offs between school enrollment and quality of education. Low-income countries like Haiti may have reached a point where it makes sense to shift resources from increasing enrollment to improving quality. If not, many more 12th graders may soon find themselves enrolled in remedial classes.