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.
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.
"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.
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."