There are two main problems with education in Haiti, both equally troubling in my mind. Only 30% of children finish the 6th grade. 47% of the population is illiterate and only 1% of the population has a college degree. Woman are disproportionately unable to access education, as are those who live in rural areas. Many schools are private, so if a family cannot pay, their children cannot be educated, which is a problem generation after generation.
The other side of this coin is that the schools that people can go to in Haiti are frequently quite awful. All age groups are shoved together into overheated rooms with no books and rows and rows of benches. It is common for teachers to just not show up for class and some schools are run for a profit, with the students education coming as a low priority. The conclusion of this is that parents do so much to try to pay for their children to go to school, but the education that they get is basically a waste of their investment.
Children pouring out of a one-room school house.
There is a problem with the philosophy behind education in Haiti. In the USA, educators use dynamic and varied lesson plans: think back to elementary school, when your desks were in “pods” and you were doing experiments, critical thinking exercises, and group work. You were challenged to find answers on your own and those lessons often stuck. In Haiti, all education is based on a system of rote memorization (think about how you learned your times tables). So French class means “copy these sentences off of the board,” biology means “Memorize these definitions word for word” and literature class means “memorize these famous quotations.” The first time I put vocabulary words on the board, my students all started repeating them back to me with no prompting: they were very comfortable with this style of learning. They were much less comfortable when I tried to make them do critical thinking questions about a reading passage in groups: repetition and memorization are easy for them, critical thinking is not.
Students lined up in rows during class. Uniforms are incredibly important to people in Haiti: it is a status symbol to be able to see your child walking around town, proving that he or she goes to school. They are so proud to be able to go to school and send their children to school
President Martelly’s top priority is education: the government is making some investments in the area and some private schools are now being nationalized and made public. The US Secretary of Education was in Haiti this week, pledging support from USAID to institute new schools and training programs. And specific schools are working hard to encourage critical thinking, among them the Episcopal schools on the Central Plateau where I went during the Tabasamu trip and the nursing school. As I look at the plethora of problems in Haiti, I increasingly come to the conclusion that nothing can help them but a stronger system of education.