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Why school enrollment is not enough: A look inside Haiti’s classrooms

Juan Baron's picture
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This page in: Haitian Kreyol
Students reading in class. Photo: ©World Bank

In Haiti, about 90% of primary school-aged children are enrolled in school.  While still falling short of universal enrollment, this is a big improvement over just two decades ago.  But enrollment is just the first step in building human capital – many children will repeat a grade, and about half will drop out before completing primary school, leaving the school system without having mastered even basic language and math skills.  Why does participation in school produce so little?

The Government of Haiti, supported by the Bank and the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund, carried out classroom observations to help shed some light on this question.  Using the Stallings classroom observation tool, observers sat in on classes in a random sample of 97 schools across Northern Haiti (one of the poorest parts of the country).  The results of this work (available in full here in English and French) point to some surprising insights about what is going on inside Haiti’s classrooms:

  • Teachers are present and teaching: Average time spent on instruction, at 76%, is 10-15 percentage points higher than in other LAC countries, as you can see in the figure below. This is consistent with results that show teacher absenteeism in this region of Haiti is lower than in other developing countries.  Both the low rates of absenteeism and high rates of time on instruction are explained in part by the somewhat unique set of incentives Haitian teachers face -- over 80% of primary schools are non-public, where teachers are essentially at-will employees, and potentially have better accountability mechanisms. Even in public schools, where job security is higher, assurances of being paid are not, which may also motivate teachers to come to work in the hopes of eventually receiving payment.
  • But their teaching methods are ineffective: Most instructional time is spent on lecturing or eliciting responses in unison from the class, and responses were often related to repetition and memorization. Teachers rarely acknowledged or corrected the many incorrect answers or lack of answers noted by observers. These methods have limited effectiveness in teaching children, especially young children, the foundational cognitive skills they need to succeed in school.
  •  Language is an issue as well as teaching methods: In Haiti, the mother tongue for most children is Haitian Kreyol, rather than French, and the Government’s official policy is to introduce reading and writing exclusively in Kreyol for the 1st grade.  However, French was nearly three times more likely than Kreyol to be the subject matter of the 1st grade classes observed (34% versus 12%).  This poses a problem for comprehension and learning, as both students and teachers appear to lack a mastery of French – only half of French reading or writing classes in the 4th-6th grades were observed being taught primarily in French. 
  • Consequently, many students are unengaged and not getting much out of being in the classroom: Only about 35% of class time was spent on instruction with all students paying attention, lower than many LAC neighbors, as you can see below. The rest of the time, at least some students were playing, sleeping, or staring off into space. The study finds that classes with a higher share of time spent on instruction with all students engaged also have higher reading skills, suggesting that teachers who are able to engage their students do boost learning.
Note: The averages for time teaching and for time with unengaged students are not nationally representative. See the study for details.

Beyond the many obstacles children and their families face in accessing school in the first place – costs (direct and opportunity) and other barriers (illness, natural disasters, lack of health and nutrition, etc.) – it is disheartening to learn that even when they surmount these and get to school, they are often not getting much out of it. These results make clear the importance of building teachers’ skills for effective teaching – in terms of pedagogical practices and content mastery (specifically language) – as a critical component of increasing educational achievement. 

The Government, with the coordinated support of national and international partners, is in the process of developing a teacher training policy that could make a difference in learning outcomes if effectively designed.  The ‘if’ is the critical part here – evidence from rigorous evaluations tends to show little impact of traditional teacher training programs, and the challenge is particularly large in Haiti where most teachers lack post-secondary degrees (and in many cases, secondary degrees). However, practical, specific, and sustained in-service training can substantially increase the effectiveness of teachers (see an overview of the evidence here). By taking the lessons learned from these experiences and developing approaches that work for Haiti, getting teachers to teach more effectively will be a big step towards making school worthwhile for the children who put in the effort to be there.

Camille Simardone contributed to this post.
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Submitted by Patricia Dillon, rjm on

This is true to my experience. However teachers are hungry for better ways to teach and learn themselves--using groups effectively, IT, etc.

Submitted by John mlowela on

Not only in Haiti, in Tanzania more than 3million primary scchool aged are out of school.We must fact up barriers faced our children.

Submitted by José Valenzuela on

If poverty relief could be a real priority for Governments, then the poorest students would have the best teachers and all the educational resources to maximize learning. In Chile, the Government priority is to have free terciary education, meaning that a lot of money from taxes will be spent on rich young people.

Submitted by Helen Abadzi on

It is very encouraging that the Bank is finally focusing on the memory events that are going on in the classroom. The instructional time comparisons are very significant, and it is important to acknowledge the leadership of Barbara Bruns, who retired last November.

The blog correctly points to a lack of feedback as an impediment to learning. But other teaching recommendations are incorrect from a memory standpoint. Why?

Young and poorer students rely a lot more on implicit memory. That does require repetition and memorization, particularly memorization of useful chains. It is otherwise impossible to create high-level skills.

The authors cite the Australian professor John Hattie. He analyzed studies from first-world countries of relatively sophisticated students, dealing mainly with semantic memory and higher-level concepts. None of the interventions he rates deals with low-level basic skills, such as instant letter identification. (The closest category he has are references to special education.)

This confusion is common and results from limited knowledge of how memory operates. One common result is recommendations to give early explanations and complex concepts. But the Bank can do better. There is good cognitive science, and a few people know it.

Submitted by Mr. Nicholas Abaitey on

Why School Enrollment Is Not Enough:
It is really a basic truth that all developing countries like Haiti etc, needs to develop and build a reliable, viable and honest human resource base as assets for achieving both the Millenniun Development Goals and the newly adopted and signed on Sustainable Development Goals.Regarding the Sustainable Development Goals with "Formal Education" as one of the major goals, it is very appropriate to invest and focus much attention on developing and building sustainable, reliable, viable and honest human resource base, good quality infrastructure, good quality curriculum with the required learning and teaching materials which are livelihood sustaining career and employment centered , good quality educational policies, good incentives(especially residential accommodations, transportation, adequate social security benefits etc,) with good wages to motivate the developed and employed human resource base. Just because the students within all the formal educational institutions ranging from the basic schools through-out the tertiary institutions are all potential human resource base who are also needed for the sustenance of all the National and International Developments.
Therefore it is prudence when enough investment and attention is focused toward achieving the goal for Formal Education within a lawful and transparent atmosphere where even individual human rights and freedoms will not be infringed on, "what come may".

Submitted by JoA Zuberi-Clark on

I agree but what is usually left out of these conversations is the part of the necessity for reinforcement of memory & cognition training at home. The parents literacy must become a crucial part in the sustaining factor of Elementary educational training. In many areas of the US in impoverished or rural communities the academic decline of its students can be linked strongly to the time needed for repetitive training once children are home. If adult literacy is in question and 70% of memorization can not be reinforced once home many of the efforts of in school training will be impeded due to the childrens parents or guardians lack of basic education fundementals.

So no matter how many systems are in place if this one Fact is included which is common amongst the educational elite or those who either themselves have come from a legacy of parental or hired education support systems this pattern regardless to money will continue its repeat.

All Children who are born without some form of cognitive deficits have the ability at a high level to learn multiple applications when there is reinforced memorization in place by their Primary Caregivers as these are their primary influences through age 10.

My point we really need to assist the heavily burdened teachers and academia with programs that parents and caregivers can use at home to strengthen their own aptitude which would coincide with Elementary & Primary School learning which will help them strenghthen their childrens learning capacity.

Each Nation is still only as strong as its weakest link and this area of weakness is where we can strenghten if any of us are to be competitive in our local ir glibal economy otherwise we will all in the next tyrn of the Century be subject to the largest Cast systems of indentured slave workforces which are not beneficial to any country long-term just look at India as an example- this system in the new millennium is a set up for Civil War as Syria is currently experiencing. A well educated population fosters Hope and Promise!!

Submitted by Kati Kate on

Completely agree with your point that it all begins with providing excellent short of universal enrollment, this is a big improvement over just two decades ago. Read More

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