It Takes a Village to Raise a School

New York Times, OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR, DANA BURDE, September 16, 2010

Americans are right to be alarmed by the rising numbers of roadside bombs and suicide attacks in Afghanistan, we can’t overlook a more subtle campaign that has been a key element of the Taliban’s strategy for years: disrupting access to schools.

Close to 1,000 schools have been bombed or burned since 2006, and hundreds of teachers and students have been killed. The Taliban, who when they were in power banned education for women, attack girls’ schools disproportionately, and in some southern provinces the proportion of girls attending middle school has dropped to less than 1 percent.

These attacks are made easier when there is a physical school to take aim at. But education is not about four walls and a roof. Many nongovernmental organizations have been promoting schooling without school buildings as the best strategy to increase enrollment quickly in the poorest rural areas of the country.

Thousands of these community-based education programs, housed in existing community structures, are bringing education to girls and boys across the country. According to a report released by CARE last fall, there has been only one recorded physical attack on such a community-based school.

Yet these schools have received little attention. Most attention and money has gone to the “Three Cups of Tea” strategy of constructing schools. While shiny new schools make for great photo ops, they are very expensive and some provide the Taliban with easy targets. In the short term, we should de-emphasize that approach in favor of more flexible, cost-effective approaches in community-based education.

It works like this: Villagers provide a space for the school, usually in a large house or mosque, and choose teachers from the community. An aid organization delivers government-approved textbooks and stationery, and provides training for the teachers and parents who help oversee the schools. The Afghan government integrates the community-based schools into the larger educational system, certifying teachers and, eventually, paying their salaries.

Each community-based school serves only the village in which it is situated; schools are widely dispersed, making attendance more practical for children spread across remote regions. Many aid workers have long favored such schools since they are quick and inexpensive to set up, and because communities develop a sense of ownership. Parents visit classes regularly, checking attendance and observing lessons.

With aid from Washington, nongovernmental groups have started approximately 3,000 community-based schools in roughly 1,400 communities in more than a dozen provinces in Afghanistan. In a study I carried out with Leigh Linden of Columbia from 2007 to 2009, we found that children in rural Afghanistan are almost 50 percent more likely to attend classes if there’s a community-based school available. Most important, when a community-based school is an option, the rate of girls’ attendance in most communities goes up by 15 percentage points more than that of their male counterparts, virtually eliminating gender disparities in primary education.

Community-based education is not a panacea: rural teachers may not have much in the way of training, and most schools offer only the early grades. Still, it is a practical medium-term solution to the lack of conventional schools in Afghanistan.

Despite impressive increases in enrollment since in 2001, some 60 percent of young Afghans are not in school; two-thirds of them are girls. Conventional schools are scarce, expensive and likely to remain under threat of attack. To best help Afghanistan, we need to support safer, cheaper and more effective ways to educate all its children.

Dana Burde is a professor of education at New York University.