Published on Let's Talk Development

Schooling in Haiti: Persistent Challenges and Glimmers of Success at the 1-year Anniversary

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 A school girl in Haiti.  Photo © World Bank
The one-year anniversary of Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake gives us pause to reflect on the progress of the reconstruction efforts, despite the tremendous challenges the country has faced.   The human tragedies (one million still homeless, about 150,000 infected with cholera) compounded by the ongoing political standoff can be despairing.  Still, there are some glimmers of success that provide some motivation for those of us working to transform and modernize Haiti.  The findings from our recent working paper provide a bit more confidence that we are heading in the right policy direction in Haiti’s education sector.  Given the country’s data-scarce environment, this kind of objective reassurance is hard to come by, and very welcome. 

Haiti’s education sector was already in crisis before the earthquake.  In 2005, only 83 percent of children 6-14 were enrolled in school, with large disparities in reaching grade 6 between the wealthiest and poorest quintiles, estimated at around 89 and 30 percent respectively.  The average age of students in grade 6 was 16 (that is, 5 years older than the mandated age).  Even for those lucky enough to attend school, the quality was usually very low.  An Early Grade Reading Assessment conducted in 2008 showed that, on average, children in grade 3 were able to read less than 23 words per minute (60 words is the standard).  For those studying in Creole, 29 percent were unable to read a single word.  The state’s role in education provision before the earthquake was very limited, with just 19 percent of students enrolled in public schools.   

The post-earthquake paradigm features even greater challenges, exacerbated by significantly diminished capacities for responding to them. An estimated 80 percent of the education infrastructure in Port-au-Prince was destroyed or damaged (approximately 4200 schools).  On the human scale, nearly 40,000 schoolchildren perished, along with 1,350 teachers.   The main complex of the Ministry of Education itself collapsed, with many still inside.  These losses compound the problems of a sector which already faced a shortage of schooling infrastructure, trained teachers, and effective governing mechanisms.

In the face of such daunting challenges, where to begin with the reconstruction efforts?  Looking at the data from the last 3 DHS surveys, and a school census from 2003, we learned the following: 

  • There has been significant growth in schooling.  The proportion of Haitians reaching grade 6 grew from 35 percent for Haitians born 1950-1954 to 88 percent for those born a generation later (1980-1984).  This increase is due to the expansion of private schools, as the share of public schools has steadily declined over the same period, falling to a low of 8 percent in 2003.
  • School fees are the number one reason why parents do not send their children to school.
  • Children are over-aged principally because they enter school late (on average 10 years old, instead of 6 or 7)

Looking at these findings, three conclusions can be drawn.  First, achieving universal primary education in Haiti requires working in partnership with the private sector, which represents the vast majority of schools.  Second, the underlying poverty that constrains families from sending their children to school must be addressed.  Third, special efforts need to be made in order to encourage parents to enroll children into the system on-time.

For the last four years, a Bank-financed program has been doing just that.  In 2007, the Bank helped the Government of Haiti establish a scholarship program with private schools in order to reduce school fees.  The ‘tuition waivers’ are financed through the Government’s Education for All (EFA) Project, a central part of the education sector strategy.  The program is now co-financed by the Caribbean Development Bank, the Canadian International Development Agency, and the Inter-American Development Bank, and is reaching approximately 180,000 students.  To qualify, students must be between the ages of 6 and 8 when they enroll in grade one.  The program is by no means perfect, but this public-private partnership does offer some hope for enrolling more children into Haiti’s schools. 

Over the longer-term, the supply-side constraints must also be addressed.  In particular, the number of schools in Haiti’s rural areas is low, and the quality of the instruction offered must also be raised.  Haiti’s strategy has a strong focus on both of these aspects.  For instance, the strategy calls for the establishment of small, low-cost schools with few classrooms – a potentially quicker, and cost-effective approach to providing basic education services to those most in need. This would likely require a community-based approach, given the historic low capacity of the public sector (further weakened by the earthquake), and the dearth of entrepreneurs and capital in these areas.  It would also require low-cost delivery methodologies such as the use of distance education (radios) that address the dearth of trained teachers in remote areas.  With regards to teacher training, the Bank financed EFA Project is implementing a reform that is accelerating the training and increasing the number of teachers.  The program is starting to bear fruit, with 1,800 teachers on the cusp of graduating this spring. 

Still, the road to universal – and quality – education in Haiti will be long and difficult.  Donors are beginning to step up to finance the country’s education plan.  Let’s hope that these small successes help to catalyze a long-term and sustained engagement to improving the opportunities for Haiti’s future generations.


Peter Holland

Lead Education Specialist, Africa Region, World Bank

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