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Archive for February, 2010

Should we force students / families to buy school uniforms?

Are uniforms worth the cost? (photo credit: globalgiving.org)

For the past three years, I have worked in a high school in the Bronx (New York) that requires students to wear uniforms—white collared shirts, black dress pants, and black shoes. The stated rationale for this policy is threefold:

  1. Our students will act more professionally if they dress the part, and will see themselves as a team.
  2. It cuts down on gang violence and related issues because kids can’t wear the popular gang colors (red, for instance), and also removes the competition between students to see who has the nicest (meaning most expensive) clothes and shoes.
  3. It helps us identify our students quickly when in a crowd or when we see them wandering the halls…the other schools in the building have different dress codes (though some have no uniforms at all).

Uniforms in the United States are definitely in the minority (though many charter schools and new schools are bringing back the trend), but internationally, uniforms seem to be the norm, especially in Africa and other former-colonial countries. My question is: when so many parents and families already struggle to pay for books and school fees, should they be required to pay for something that, truly, isn’t a necessary part of an education? School fees pay for the teacher’s salary and building expenses, and obviously books and materials are required for most courses, but uniforms contribute nothing to the actual education itself. Though much of the evidence is anecdotal, several studies and reports have shown that from Kenya to Haiti, students are missing the opportunity to go to school due (in part) to their parents’ inability to purchase uniforms (and pay school fees, of course).

My genuine query is this: should uniforms be phased out in impoverished areas, where enough hurdles to education exist as it is?  Or, should there be uniform subsidies (as some schools in South Africa have) or alternatives for poorer families?  …or, should we persist with the status quo?

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Other people’s plans for Haiti…

The Sacramento Bee has an interesting article about long-term development needs and goals in Haiti. http://bit.ly/bNioQ9

In general, I think the article gets many things “right,” about Haiti, namely that:

  • “Just throwing money at the problem isn’t enough.”Aid from above, without buy-in from the bottom, doesn’t work.
  • “In the past, well-meaning countries and aid partners lost interest or just gave up far too soon. A few years is too short a time to fix all the things that are wrong.”This can’t be a part-time, short-term effort, or it is doomed to fail before it begins.
  • “Over the decades, those who have sought to help Haiti win a better future have learned a bitter lesson: the road to failure is paved with good intentions and worthy plans.” —  The international community–and “development groups” in particular–share much of the blame for Haiti’s current lack of governance, infrastructure, and progress.  Our “good intentions” have not been enough, and our “plans” (hatched in office buildings thousands of miles away from Haiti) have not brought about the change that was promised…so something’s gotta give.

…there were several things in the article that sounded alarms for me, however, and I am hearing these things repeated in articles and newscasts around the world.  Though they are often touted under the guise of “new reform” I fear that it is just so much of the same old .

  • “Governance. Haitians might balk at surrendering any measure of sovereignty, but some sort of international authority must have a strong say in guiding the aid effort and making decisions about where the money goes and avoiding corruption.” — Who will “run” Haiti (temporarily, of course)?   On what basis will aid be distributed / according to who’s principles?  When will Haiti regain its “sovereignty”?  Six months, a year, five years?
  • “Orphans. Some 1 million children are orphaned or lost one parent. The government is right to call a halt to large-scale adoptions by foreigners at this moment, but ultimately these children will need homes, many outside of Haiti.” — Children / teens make up nearly half of Haiti’s population…how can the country ever rebuild if it’s future citizens are sent (or smuggled) away?  Also, where will they go?  Will they be sent to any couple / country that has interest and means, or will someone enforce “standards” (like requiring democracy, free-trade, etc.)?
  • “Security. Partisan rancor seemed to have abated in the last year, but U.S. forces will be needed to keep order while there is a humanitarian crisis, and the pre-existing U.N. force will need reinforcements over the longer run.” — Haiti has experienced the U.N and U.S.’s “security” measures before (whether under the name of “development,” “national building,” or “coup”) and the people haven’t seen much benefit in the past; indeed, many innocents have lost their lives in the last few years, all in the name of “Security”.  How will this be any different?  Should we not work with the Haitians to provide security and enforce their laws, rather than forcing them to accept our rules and methods of “securing the peace”?  …just a thought.

Bottom line:  There are many theories, beliefs, and passionate opinions when it comes to Haiti, and international development in general.  As no one has found a one-size-fits-all plan for success in the past dozen decades or so of “development,” (especially when one considers countries like Haiti, or most of Africa) I think it is safe to say that (at least as of this writing) there isn’t one! There are several methods and mechanisms that have worked in small ways, but nothing has come around yet that has led to the “holy grail” of development:  scalable, sustainable growth, and alleviation of poverty on a massive scale.  We must learn from our past failures (and there have been many) as well as our specific, but important successes.  Haiti will be worse off in ten years than it is now if too many people try to implement too many plans that benefit the egos of the planners instead of the people on the ground.  They are the ones, after all, that will actually live in that country and need to be at the head of its progress and future.