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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.

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"That's not enough for a family," says Kabir, who says it's only possible for himself since he owns a mobile phone shop on the side. "Everybody is leaving here trying to find another job," with many heading to the business offices and nongovernmental organizations in Kabul.

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Local tribal elders have grown so frustrated with the brain drain to Kabul that they pooled together enough money to pay a $300 salary in the hopes of enticing an educated teacher to come from Kabul, says Ruhullah Yosufi, the province's minister of culture.

"When the students graduate from the 12th class, because they haven't been taught well, they cannot succeed in university [or even] pass the exam" to get in, says Mr. Yosufi.

Eightfold increase in teachers

After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the international community focused on getting children – especially girls – back in school. Enrollments went from 1.1 million in 2001 to 6.8 million today, and the number of teachers shot up from 20,000 to more than 160,000.

During that period, there were not many educated teachers available, meaning hiring standards were not high, says Mostaeen Jouya, who focuses on education in Afghanistan for the World Bank.

"Some teachers do not enthusiastically go into schools. They teach halftime, the rest of the time they go to other businesses and work to cover their expenses," says Mr. Jouya.

While international donors are recognizing that higher salaries are needed for quality teachers, he adds, these donors also want "some kind of transparency" about which teachers are good – hence the Sunday exam.

New pay scale: $120 to $428

The test will include questions on general knowledge, teaching methodology, and specific subject expertise. The scores will be combined with years of experience and educational attainment to place each teacher on a new pay scale ranging from $120 to $428. Weaker teachers will get further training, led partly by the stronger ones.

The 42,000 teachers sitting for the test Sunday represent all teachers who have at least 2 more years of education beyond high school. The more than 120,000 other teachers will be tested later.

The early takers will get raises for the start of next academic year, beginning March 22, says Mr. Amarkhil. However, given the size of the raise and the number of teachers, the government will need a lot more money.

"The Afghan government will not be able to provide for this increase unless the donor community comes forward to provide this difference," says Jouya with the World Bank. "Donors have different kind of conditions and its really hard for the government to fulfill all of them at once, but at least after this case, the government can get some kind of funding."

But he says he's not sure that's possible before next school year, short of the government asking for emergency funding.

Meanwhile, Afghan students are clearly hungry to learn from good teachers. Despite the swine flu edict, Kabir's students show up anyway to his class.

"There were almost 70 students who come here every morning and they are interested to be taught by me," he says. "It's a great thing when I see them here."