Why is Arne Duncan visiting Haiti?

Arne Duncan (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP) Arne Duncan (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan travels a lot around the country as the Obama administration’s school reform chief, visiting classrooms and talking up federal education policies. There’s nothing unusual about that — but a trip he began on Monday is.

Duncan is visiting the impoverished country of Haiti, at the invitation of the education minister there, to talk about school reform and visit some schools, according to this piece by my colleague Lyndsey Layton. And he is taking eight — yes eight — department staff members on the two-day trip, which is described on his official schedule like this:

Secretary Duncan will visit Haiti at the invitation of Vanneur Pierre, Haitian Minister of National Education and Vocational Training, to see the education system in Haiti firsthand. While in Haiti, Secretary Duncan will announce a new education investment in Haiti as part of USAID’s Room to Learn program. Along with this announcement, Secretary Duncan will visit three schools, meet with national leaders and share insights aimed at helping the Haitian Ministry of Education implement its reform agenda.

In addition to the school visits, Secretary Duncan will hold two diplomatic meetings with senior Haitian officials, participate in two roundtable discussions with education leaders and the community, and visit the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP), which provides university scholarships to top students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Layton notes that the department won’t say how much the trip costs, other than to estimate that it is about the same as a domestic trip except for extra money for security and translators. Which means it isn’t the same as a domestic trip; it’s more.

One big question revolves around what Duncan could share about school reform with Haiti — the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the world’s most impoverished — that could be in the slightest bit helpful.

Most schools in Haiti don’t have anything resembling an adequate facility, including the absence of toilets. Many don’t have running water, and more than half of the teachers have no training or inadequate training to do their jobs. The Education Ministry has so little money to invest that most students don’t attend public schools but rather pay to go to private schools  despite the fact that 80 percent of the country’s population lives in abject poverty; the average annual family income is about $760, according to the World Bank.

Duncan’s education reform efforts in the United States have been focused on holding teachers and schools “accountable” for how well students perform by using standardized test scores as the chief metric for evaluation. It’s hard to see how this approach is going to do much good in Haiti — but, then again, it hasn’t been successful in the United States either.

This isn’t, incidentally, Duncan’s first trip overseas; he’s been to other places, too. In 2010, for example, he flew to London to meet with education ministers and then went to Paris to address the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · November 4, 2013