From Afghanistan to the United States in search for “Best Practices” that don’t exist

Attending the education activist Diane Ravitch’s talk was an eye-opening experience for me. Before coming to the United States, I thought that I would learn “best practices” and “policies” from the U.S. education system and try to implement them in Afghanistan to solve some of education problems Afghanistan faces. However, I was not well aware of the drastic problems within the school reform in the U.S.

Ravitch’s talk flagged many problems with the U.S current education. In her talk, she engaged the audience in a marvelous imaginary debate with a school reformer. The reformer argued that public schools are failing, because they are not doing well on standardized tests. The reformer also emphasized that, since the test scores are declining, drastic measures are needed to save the nation and make it more competitive in a global economy.  Reformer further stated that teacher should be held accountable for student failures on standardized tests. If students do not perform well, according to reformer, the solution is to fire teachers. Ravitch raised a question, why shouldn’t teachers have a job for life?  Because firing teachers will not solve problems facing the field of education.

Ravitch’s counter arguments were very convincing.  In her talk, as well as in her book ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’, Ravitch argues that standardized testing has led school districts to narrow down the curriculum. Therefore, some subjects (such as art or history) are not perceived as important as math and science that dominate standardized tests. As Ravitch’s stated in her speech, this leads to more problems. Since students are more exposed to math and science rather than liberal arts courses, the system makes students more clerk-minded. While student may not know who the president was during the Civil War, they would know well how to eliminate answers on a multiple-choice test. Education thus becomes equated with either passing or failing the standardized test.

However, if students are failing the standardized tests, it’s not because teachers are not performing well. If the system insists on evaluating the teachers based on students’ standardized testing, why not use the same standard to evaluate lawyers? State legislators? Members of Congress? Governors? Why would they blame teachers for the failure of students instead of looking for faults in the system or considering the effects of poverty and segregation on poor student performance?

The fixation on standardized testing changes how we understand the purpose of education. With such a strong emphasis on tests, we are moving further away from what Dewey defined as “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (p. 54). In order to know the real meaning of education, we should not prepare students to be as clerks but rather students with a higher aim in their lives.

Keeping this in mind, I am motivated to rethink deeply the education system reform in Afghanistan. Similar to the United States, teachers in Afghanistan are often blamed for poor students’ performance in schools. Whereas the policy makers and administrators tend to forget about other dimensions of teachers’ and students’ daily lives. Teachers are being paid very poorly and they are expected to work hard. This could be the main reason for why people are beginning to avoid teaching as a profession. Since there are so many other factors influencing students’ test scores, it is not realistic to just blame teachers for their students’ low performance.

Conservative reformers – both in the United States and Afghanistan – have looked for similar solutions to low students’ test scores. In the United States, the emphasis has been on charter schools and the broader movement to privatize public education. However, as Ravitch argues, for the past 25 years students in charter schools did not get higher scores than public schools. So why not focus on fixing public schools instead of pouring more money to charter schools and private hands? As Michael Apple (2005) mentioned, “market driven politics can lead to a remarkably rapid erosion of democratically determined collective values and institutions” (p. 13). This only leads to commercialization of education and nothing else, which is really applicable in Afghanistan.

Privatization of schools is becoming a serious issue. Nowadays, private schools are like business industries that pop up everywhere and attract students for various reasons. In most cases, the quality of education is the same as in public schools and they are teaching the same curriculum as public schools in Afghanistan. So why not support public schools when there is no difference in quality as well as curriculum? How would private schooling make education better if it has never done better before?  In Afghan culture, we have a proverb which says, “to retest the one tested is a fault in itself”. Ravitch also touched on this in her speech by saying that, the US is the most over tested nation in the world. Why are we so fixated on the tests that have never worked before and can’t change anything in the future?


Apple, M. W. (2005). Education, markets, and an audit culture. Critical Quarterly,47(1‐2), 11-29.

Flinders, D. J., & Thornton, S. J. (Eds.). (2004).The curriculum studies reader. Psychology Press.

Ravitch, D. (2011).The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. Basic Books

Afghanistan’s Education Post Taliban

Post 9/11/2001, Afghanistan’s education system has been as convoluted as its politics. There have been many internal struggles as well as external players. As soon as Karzai’s government was placed in power it began to reform education in order to differentiate itself from the Taliban, hoping to appear progressive. In the political context where power is fragmented across the nation, the Afghan government inherited a completely defunct education system, which has been placed in a state of dependency with the United States and its allies who influence both policy-making and the new regime. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, the Taliban era has left the educational system the following legacies:

  • Less than one million students, 20,000 teachers with almost no female participation.
  • 34, 00 schools–majority with unusable buildings.
  • No standard national curriculum or textbooks.
  • Only four Teacher Training Colleges with 400 students.
  • Only 1500 boys enrolled in Technical and Vocational Schools, and
  • 220 unregulated Madrassas without any formal curriculum.

After 13 years, how substantial is the change? How meaningful is education and what is the quality of education? These questions are difficult to answer and, while Afghanistan continues to face many challenges such as basic safety and security, it also has (according to the UNDP) a literacy rate that is “one of the lowest in the world.” While primary completion rates have gradually improved, the statistics show that in 2012:

  • 8.6 millions of children and youth are attending schools (over 5.29 million boys, and over 3.35 million girls).
  • Hundreds of thousands attend universities, and similarly tens of thousands are accessing literacy classes and vocational training.
  • While gender gaps and disparity still persist, access to education for girls and women has significantly improved over the years.

Again, though the numbers show quite an improvement, there is still a long road ahead. Some of these challenges, such as Afghanistan’s gender divide, continue to persist: “While 66 percent of girls attend primary school, compared with 92 percent of boys, the share of girls attending secondary school drops to 26 percent. Across the country, the growth in enrollment rates has been uneven. For example, over the past decade, nearly 350,000 girls have completed high school. In Kandahar, the country’s fifth-most-populous province, there are only 4,027 female high school graduates” (Mashal 2014).

Other challenges include poverty, health, lack of teachers and teacher training facilities and most importantly lack of security. While “more than 30% of primary school-aged children are still out of school… even children who attend school still struggle to read and perform basic math” (Albright 2013). Despite all the odds, Afghans continue to struggle. Recently I had a chance to interview an Afghan Fulbright student, Hamid Akbary,  who is currently pursuing his graduate studies in Sociology. He seems quite optimistic and reminds me that the youth of Afghanistan are hopeful.

Hamid states that just during his years he has seen a significant growth in children’s access to school. Many universities and colleges that were closed during the Taliban era have reopened, allowing greater freedom of thought. He states that students have the freedom to “express their ideas and use creativity in their skills and expression of new ideas and intellectual discussions.” He continues that this freedom of thought is the key for young Afghans to “play a role in moving the country forward to a free society through media, student organizations, and other democratic ways.” Although he does acknowledge the aforementioned challenges, his optimism seems to be contagious!


Albright, A. In Afghanistan, Teachers and Children Go to School Despite Real Danger
Baiza, Y. (2013) Education in Afghanistan, Developments, Influences and Legacies Since 1901. Routledge, Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Society, United Kingdom
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Ministry of Education website
Mashal, M. (2014) An Afghan Town Gets its First Female High-School Graduates.
United Nations Millennium Development Goals for Afghanistan



USAID –Politics of Aid and Education in Afghanistan

Aid agencies’ involvement in education have often been touted as commendable and a noble cause but when we take a closer look at the motives behind aid we can see its complex implications and its consequences. USAID’s involvement in Afghanistan was minimal in 1950’s, and it was mostly to help build infrastructure such as dams. The shift came in the 1980’s after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. After that billions of dollars were used by USAID and other agencies to continue the cold war efforts in various forms of aid such as schooling Afghan children.

Between 1979-1989, CIA and the US government funded USAID with millions of dollars to hire the University of Nebraska’s Center for Afghanistan Studies (CAS) to design a propaganda campaign to to instill the “spirit of jihad into the hearts and minds of Afghan children and teenagers alike.” This was done through the primary and middle school curricula and books printed in both Dari and Pashto and implemented in the refugee camps mostly in Pakistan and some in Iran. Over fifteen million textbooks along with madrasahs that taught extremist views, and some basic elements such as tents for shelter and food were provided by USAID and other aid agencies (Abbas, 2010).

With funding from USAID, and design by the CIA, centers were established with offices in Pakistan “to train and educate Afghan refugees, who had formed seven mujahedeen resistance groups…against the soviet occupation” (Williams, 2008). Some of the examples of the books distributed by USAID clearly show the US policy agenda: “If out of 10 atheists, 5 are killed by 1 Muslim, 5 would be left. 5 guns + 5 guns = 10 guns; 15 bullets – 10 bullets = 5 bullets, etc.” (Stephens and Ottoway, 2002). These books educated generations of Afghan refugee children to know nothing but war and violence.

This strategy to fight the cold war by the US government, translated by USAID as education, did not take into consideration the interest of the children who were receiving this aid. Stephen and Ottoway state “children were taught to count with illustrations showing tanks, missiles and land mines…at the time it also suited U.S. interests to stoke hatred of foreign invaders.” According to Kolhatkar and Ingalls (2006), Thomas Goutierre, who served as the head of Afghanistan Center at the University of Nebraska was not at all apologetic for promoting the US anti-Soviet propaganda through violent content in elementary school education to Afghan children. He stated “I was interested in being of any type of assistance that I could to help the Afghans get out of their mess and to be frank also anything that would help the United States in order to advance its interests” (Kolhatkar and Ingalls, 2006). This clearly shows that educating the Afghan children was not a priority, but rather serving the US agenda was the primary goal of USAID.

Politicizing aid has had grave consequences for the Afghan people. USAID and the University of Nebraska’s cynical and immoral militarization of education was a direct factor in indoctrinating a new generation of fanatical terrorists. They looked for help and we gave them hate instead, because it served our purposes—or more importantly, because someone profited.

Politics, Gender and Education in Afghanistan

afgh.schoolLack of educational opportunity for Afghans, especially Afghan girls, has been a highly controversial topic that has been used as a tool to serve political agendas for both the Western powers and the Taliban. For the US and its allies, bringing education to children—and especially girls—became a propaganda tool to partly justify invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. For the Taliban, education has been seen more as a detested mechanism of Westernization and secularization of Afghan children. Taliban members in Afghanistan and Pakistan have fought it every step of the way, going so far as attempting to assassinate teenage activist Malala Yousafzai as she was returning home from school.

According to official (bipartisan) party line, one of the main reasons for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was the Taliban’s mistreatment of women’s rights. Anyone watching or reading the news could not avoid the harsh images of Afghan women in full burqa being shot in a soccer stadium full of men. Girls not being able to attend school and many other violations of human rights were used to justify the war. During the rule of the Taliban, “young girls were forbidden to enter educational institutions after the age of eight” and anyone breaking this rule risked severe punishment or even execution. One would have thought the Western occupation of the country would be an improvement. And yet thirteen years later there isn’t much real improvement for the girls and women of Afghanistan.

The new constitution under Karzai’s regime states that men and women “have equal rights and duties before the law.” Implementing this progressive policy has not been the government’s priority, however. On many occasions Afghan girls have had acid thrown on their faces while they were on their way to school. This isn’t an isolated incident of violence towards children. As was mentioned above, “girls can go to school, but school buildings are unsafe and there are severe shortages of teachers, facilities and equipment. The new constitution guarantees women equal rights. However, continuing religious and cultural conservatism and a dangerous security environment are real obstacles to women’s participation in the economy, politics and society.”

Many promises were made by the Bush administration regarding support of education. On a visit to Kabul, Mrs. Bush promised millions of dollars and a long term commitment to education for Afghan women but unfortunately this “was not for Afghan public education (or women and children) at all, but to establish a brand-new, private, for-profit American University of Afghanistan catering to the Afghan and international elite.” The former finance minister and president of Kabul University stated: “You cannot support private education and ignore public education.” The aid money is given to American private contractors who have no real stake in education for the average Afghan but rather making a profit.

The Western media sensationalizes a young girl shot fighting for her right to education and assumes moral high ground— then at the same time the US government uses drones to kill these children. The Taliban, on the other hand, connects girls’ education, learning and knowledge, to westernization—as siding with the invaders and occupiers—thus feeling justified to kill and maim.

As Matthew Snow so eloquently states regarding Malala:

When the world should have viewed her as a child, they made her a symbol. Rather than caution her on diplomacy, the world encouraged her brazen outcries. Rather than protect her, the world exalted her. And when she thought the world was with her, the world made her a martyr. Now, as she recovers from nearly fatal gunshot wound that ripped through the throat that pushed so many strong words and cracked the skull that housed the mind she treasured above all her possessions, the world explains away their moral culpability and their complicity in the machine that nearly killed Malala Yousefzai.