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Big test for Afghanistan education

To boost Afghanistan education standards, 42,000 teachers take an exam Sunday to establish a pay scale and woo international funding for higher salaries. Three in four teachers haven't studied past high school.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 2009

Abdul Kabir, a local teacher in Parakh, Afghanistan, stands in front of Bezorak High School on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009. Of the 35 teachers there, he and two others are the only ones with more than a high school diploma.

Ben Arnoldy/Staff

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Parakh, Afghanistan

On Sunday, 42,000 teachers across Afghanistan will sharpen their pencils and sit for an exam. A first of its kind, the test will evaluate their competency and set them up for pay raises if they score well. It could also pave the way for a badly needed boost in international funding for education here, where only one in four teachers have studied beyond high school.

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With pay so low that many teachers need a second job to make ends meet, most educated Afghans have gravitated away from the classroom. The government is unable to provide higher salaries itself, and so far international donors have been leery of subsidizing higher salaries without greater transparency about how skilled the teachers truly are.

Improving teachers is crucial for achieving peace in Afghanistan – and not just in the obvious long-term sense of creating economic opportunity for the next generation. Teachers make up two-thirds of the civil service and are crucial links between a weak central government and the countryside.

"If the life of teachers is good, they are thinking of themselves as a part of this government and they will advise the people not to make problems. It will help security," says Sediq Amarkhil, spokesman for the Ministry of Education. "You can eliminate the distance between the people and the government."

A cool head in Panjshir

Abdul Kabir, a teacher in Panjshir Province, demonstrates how an educated teacher can impact local security.

Wearing a pokol – an Afghan beret – and a black jacket with pinstripes, Mr. Kabir explains that only two other colleagues out of 35 at Bezorak High School have bachelor's degrees. For the 1,200 high school students here, it's mostly the blind leading the blind.

The school sits in Parakh, the capital of one of the most peaceful provinces of Afghanistan and just a two-hour drive from the educated population of Kabul. However, things are suddenly tense in the Panjshir valley due to widespread anger over the reelection of President Hamid Karzai.

The central government has ordered all schools to be closed for three weeks, ostensibly because of swine flu. However, Kabir and others say the decision – announced one day after Mr. Karzai's rival quit – is an effort to prevent students from organizing protests in the wake of the disputed election.

Despite Kabir's own dislike for how the election progressed, he has steered away from talking politics in school.

"I really try my best to teach students their school subjects because I don't want to waste my time on these things," says Kabir, sharing a plate of dates. "Afghanistan has passed through two decades of war and now most of the people are uneducated. I'm trying my best to train them, and I wish to see them one day all literate."

It's harder for uneducated teachers to impart the same singular focus on the books. That there are not more like him has a lot to do with pay: Teachers who have an education beyond high school get $104 a month, versus $94 for those who haven't, he says.

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