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Dispatch from Afghanistan: the start of the school year

Posted by Peace Action West on April 14th, 2011

From our partners at Peace Action West

Our friend Dr. Zaher Wahab, a professor at Lewis and Clark College who grew up in Afghanistan, is on his 14th trip to the country since early 2002. He travels back frequently to train teachers in the only graduate level education program in Afghanistan. He is a passionate and powerful advocate for ending the war in Afghanistan and investing in the people, and attended our district meeting with Sen. Jeff Merkley in Oregon last year.

Zaher has been sending updates from his trip and I asked his permission to share an excerpt, which paints a dire picture of the Afghan education system:

Monday March 22, marked the nouroze (new day) of the Afghan New Year–1390.  Usually, this is a day of picnics, celebrations, festivities, visiting relatives, kite flying, and farmers showing/doing their stuff.  Big festivals occur at the tomb and shrines of Imam Ali, Islam’s fourth caliphate, cousin and son-and-law of the prophet Mohammad, in Mazari-Sharif and Kabul.  This year, fear of violence, bombings, explosions and trouble kept most people away from public gatherings, though due to exceptional security measures, the day passed without any major incident.

As usual, there were many messages on the radio stations for the missing loved ones.  To “celebrate education,” schools did not start on the day after New Year, instead they started on Wednesday, March 23.  President Hamid Karzai rang the starting bell and gave a speech at the Amani School (first-twelfth grade) very near the urg, the presidential palace.  Since he hardly ever ventures out, people call him a prisoner, the mayor of Kabul and/or the clown, and out of touch with the country.  Needless to say all the talk on Thursday March 23 was about education.  Officially eight million children, 38% of them girls, will attend 14,000 schools taught by 190,000 teachers.  Since 65% of the country’s population is under 20, about 7 million school-age children will not be in school.  Half of the schools have buildings.  There are no girl’s schools in half of the country and there are very few, if any, women teachers outside the cities, where 75% of the people live.  Urban schools operate 2, 3, or even four shifts per day, reducing the school day to about 4 hours and the school year to about five months at best.  Only a fourth of the teachers are considered qualified.  Many children lack textbooks.  There are no labs, libraries, cafeterias, athletic facilities, technology, indoor plumbing, or even electricity.  School curriculum is old, bloated, and largely irrelevant to the needs or realities of Afghan life.  Teaching consists of dictation, memorization, regurgitation and examination.  There is little or no homework.  Class size can range from 30-100.  There is an explosion of private schools, 450 schools and 36 tertiary institutions nationwide, without effective government oversight or quality control.  As for “higher” education, there are 22 public postsecondary institutions enrolling some 90.000 students, 20% of them women.  There is an explosion of private tertiary institutions too, again without any quality control by the ministry of higher education.  Karzai chastised the substandard private sector.  An estimated 1% of the population is enrolled in higher education.

The school year has begun, but the government has yet to announce the results of last year’s university entrance exam (the concore), or the allocation of entrants to various institutions.  120,000 took the entrance exam, but only 60,000 will enter.  Higher education too is beset with large classes, under-qualified faculty, lack of facilities and resources, old, incoherent, bloated and irrelevant curriculum, lack of funds, centralization, poor quality, lack of academic freedom, ethical issues, corruption and nepotism, and unequal access.  Again, the occupation forces have been here for about ten years, spending $370 billion so far and $3 billion per week.  The education system, the country’s only sure hope, is itself a disaster zone, and the millions of young Afghans with no education, employment or hope, a time bomb.

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