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For years now in Afghanistan, Western officials have highlighted the country's progress in education since the fall of the Taliban.
LT. GEN. MARK MILLEY: A third of this country is in primary, secondary or university level education. That means this country has opportunity, it means this country has hope.
CORNISH: That's Lieutenant General Mark Milley. He's the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He and others often point out that six million boys and four million girls are enrolled in school in Afghanistan today. That compares to only about a million boys and almost no girls during the Taliban regime. The growth is in no small part due to billions of dollars spent on education by the international community. But as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, numbers alone don't tell the whole story.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Students shuffle to class in the two-story Neswan school in Parwan province, north of Kabul. The school holds about 400 students at a time and there are three daily sessions, meaning about 1,200 students are supposed to attend class each day. But Principal Fawzia Hakimi says average attendance is only a little over 50 percent.
FAWZIA HAKIMI: (Through Translator) Some boys can't attend school because they are working.
CARBERRY: Like in most of Afghanistan, many of the families in the school district live in poverty, so they make their sons work for at least part of the day. The 48-year-old principal says looking at the attendance log is depressing. And it's not just the boys who are often late or absent.
HAKIMI: (Through Translator) We have a girl in the sixth grade who is engaged. She's just a little girl. And there are others who are engaged, too.
CARBERRY: Many girls in the rural areas are forced into marriage once they reach puberty, and so they disappear from school.
MOJDAH: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Mojdah, who goes by one name, is a 12th grader at the Hora Jalali Girls High School in Parwan.
MOJDAH: (Through Translator) One of my classmates stopped attending school due to security issues and another got married when we were in ninth grade.
CARBERRY: By ninth grade, classes are segregated and girls must be taught by female teachers. Even though Hora Jalali is a girls-only school, it's so conservative that girls like Mojdah have to wear a double headscarf to ensure not a single strand of hair is visible.
MOJDAH: (Through Translator) Family issues, social issues and also cultural and traditional customs prevent girls from attending school in our society.
CARBERRY: But it's not just cultural practices that keep girls out of school, says Deputy Minister of Education Asif Nang.
ASIF NANG: In the more than 166 district of Afghanistan, out of 416, we don't have a single female teacher. About 200 district, we don't have girls in the secondary education.
CARBERRY: So even if families want to send their daughters to school, it's not always an option. Nang says that there are roughly five million Afghan boys and girls attending primary school nationwide, but only about a million Afghans make it to grades 11 and 12. Parwan province is above average in the country. Officials there claim 95 percent of kids have access to school. But access does not necessarily translate into a quality education.
Sadeqi High School in Parwan consists of an old building, two newer ones, and seven tents. Boys attend classes in the morning, girls in the afternoon. Sadina Saqeb teaches history here in one of those tents.
SADINA SAQEB: (Through Translator) Most of the students have sore throats during the summer because of the dust. And these tents can't block outside noise, so the students can't study their lessons properly.
CARBERRY: Sixth grader Muhammad Mustafa(ph) is one of those students.
MUHAMMAD MUSTAFA: (Through Translator) If it rains, we try to find a normal classroom. But if all the classrooms are full, we just have to tolerate it here.
CARBERRY: Although some 4,000 schools have been built since the fall of the Taliban, some provinces are desperately in need of more schools. At the same time, there are other provinces where large numbers of schools are closed because of insecurity, a lack of teachers or simply because not enough families want to send their children to school. Seven schools in Parwan province are temporarily closed because of recent attacks by the Taliban. And classroom space isn't the only thing in short supply, says teacher Roshan Rasooli.
ROSHAN RASOOLI: (Through Translator) We have a shortage of books. Just 17 of my 55 students are present today, and we still don't have enough books.
BASHIR AHMAD ABED: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Officials like Bashir Ahmad Abed, the headmaster at the Sadeqi school, says many books are too complicated for the students but it's more a function of students not being up to grade level, he says. That's in part because most kids aren't getting any kind of early childhood education, says Mindy Visser, the national education adviser for the Aga Khan Foundation in Afghanistan.
MINDY VISSER: Maybe their parents are illiterate, so they haven't been exposed to reading material or even words, very often, before they enter school.
CARBERRY: While many students aren't getting much help from their parents, a lot of them aren't being well served by their teachers either, says Deputy Minister Nang.
NANG: Fifty percent of our teacher, they don't have the necessary education.
CARBERRY: The minimum qualification for a teacher here is the equivalent of an associate degree. But Nang says that requirement is not always met.
NANG: In the rural area, we have a huge shortage of professional teachers, even they not completed the class 12.
VISSER: The government even had a program trying to encourage teachers to go to more rural schools and they would receive a higher wage. But even programs like that have not improved that situation.
CARBERRY: Visser gives the ministry of education good marks for its efforts to modernize school curriculum and expand the access at the primary level. She says long-term challenges include increasing the number of kids who stay in school beyond the primary level and addressing the bottleneck in higher education.
VISSER: There is a lack of spaces in higher education for the number of students who want to go on to higher education.
CARBERRY: About 300,000 people graduate from high school each year, and they are competing for 60,000 openings in colleges as well as vocational and teacher training programs.
HAKIMI: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: But the principal of the Hora Jalali High School in Parwan says weaknesses in the Afghan school system aren't diminishing the appetite for education. She says one 35-year-old woman returned to school after a 15-year hiatus during the civil war and Taliban rule. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.