Learning to See Clearly

Jamie Clearfield's Musings on Evaluation and Development


Thoughts from the Field: An Uncomfortable Truth

An uncomfortable truth – education is not free. I say uncomfortable because many of us in the development world and in broader society want it, wish it, trust it to be so. I say this working with a “free” girls’ high school in the Kibera slums (Kibera Girls Soccer Academy). While the school is free for the girls attending, that does not mean that there is not a constant battle, headache, and heartache to raise operating costs, pay teachers something close to a livable and respectable wage, and provide for the equipment and supplies our students need to thrive. KGSA has always pushed for providing not just sufficient but quality education. Slowly, surely through a lot of work, sacrifice, and dedication they are doing it. Graduates are entering university and thriving there. They are coming back and working in their communities to provide other girls and children with similar opportunities….

I digress, and it is so easy to digress when discussing our passions and stories of programs that are succeeding. Yet for every KGSA, Shining Hope for Communities, or Educate!, there are many other community-based and independent schools and organizations struggling and simply disappearing. Within the United States, while education is a protected civil right, it is likewise not free. The continuing saga (rather than debate since there has yet to be any real dramatic shift except perhaps the emergence of charter schools in how the United States finances public schools in decades) over school finance means that while every child in America has the ability and must attend school, the quality of their education is dependent on zip code and their own parents’ ability to be their advocate.

While I don’t advocate for equating money with quality, success, or respect, it is hard to achieve those three values without investment of resources, both human and capital.  Yet it is at times a confusing struggle. As a young student I fervently believed that education must be free since it is so crucial to our existence, to ending poverty, and creating a more just and equal world. I still believe fervently in the power of education, but realize now that we live in a very complicated world. A world where there are very few straightforward corollaries. Politics, power dynamics, the human psyche all play a fantastic role. Working in Kibera and Arusha and small villages, time and time again I heard from people there, “If something is free, it has no worth.”

Poetry Workshop

In Uganda, the kids would chant, “Bazungu give me my money,” (Note: this was the only place I had traveled where kids actively chanted for money). They didn’t necessarily understand fully the English words, but it wasn’t hard to understand why they said them. The village had a lot of aid dropped in from abroad, mostly in the form of school buildings with little follow-up. Thus the secondary school was majestic yet students and families were still struggling to pay school fees, equipment was hard to come by, and teachers continued to struggle to make a living. Another major consequence: parents – largely subsistence farmers – were intimidated by the school compound and only came to the school if summoned to pay school fees. Instead of place of unity, it became a place of separation and differentiation, and while many parents were proud to have their child attend, they did not think they could be involved in their child’s education, or for the child to remain involved in daily life on the farm.

It is an uncomfortable truth – education is not free. I am struggling to fully understand this and what this means in the development and evaluation worlds.  As I reading the mounting frustration of teachers in America as regulations and evaluation to some extent undermine their legitimacy and field and as I continue to read the moving memorials to Anne Smedinghoff, and think of so many who are continuing the good fight in the classroom and elsewhere, both in the United States and abroad to encourage, enlightened, learn, and create possibilities, I am troubled, I am inspired – where do we go from here?

Thoughts? Comments? Have you come across any uncomfortable truths in your work? Let’s broaden the discussion, and find a path forward together….