Sheila, a 15-year-old Afghan girl, has spent years attending a refugee-camp school on the north side of Kabul. But she still does not know how to write her own name.
"I am supposed to study the Koran, Dari, mathematics, Pashto, the English language -- altogether I am enrolled in 11 subjects," she says. "But there are no lessons at my school because the teachers come for just a few minutes. Then they leave. So we sit there doing nothing."
Yunis, the father of two boys who attend an Afghan public school in the northeastern province of Takhar, has a similar story. "My complaint is about the entire education system in Afghanistan -- the teachers, the administrators, and the government. We send our sons to school but they aren't learning anything in first or second grade, or even by the 12th grade," he says.
"Even students in the 12th grade are unable to write their names. The Education Ministry is paying the teachers a salary but the children are learning nothing."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan has received such complaints from students and parents across the country.
In rural areas, a common corruption allegation is that the relatives or friends of powerful militia commanders are thrown into classrooms to collect a teacher's salary -- despite being unqualified to teach.
Deputy Education Minister Mohammad Sediq Patman says the government in Kabul is aware of the growing complaints. "We can't accept this criticism for the entire country -- that there are students who can't read or write after years in school," he says. "But this problem does exist in many schools and districts."
Systemic Reform Needed
Patman says that his ministry is preparing to examine the entire school system of 8 million students -- from kindergarten through 12th grade -- to determine what reforms are needed to modernize the curriculum and improve the quality of education. The review should cover some 14,000 schools across the country that employ about 190,000 teachers, one-third of them women.
"From the first grade through the 12th grade, there needs to be improvement. The standards of the 21st century need to be introduced to our education system. The current system is designed to train people to become bureaucratic clerks. But right now there is no need for clerks," Patman tells RFE/RL. "What we really need are people who are familiar with technology and practical theory. In the West, computers or other technology do the work of 100 people. That's what we need here."
British media recently quoted senior officials there who acknowledged that London had spent millions of dollars to build schools in rural parts of Helmand Province during the past decade, only to find that the Afghan government may not be able to keep many of them open due to a lack of teachers and funds.
Richard Stagg, Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, told "The Guardian" newspaper recently that it was wrong to focus on "the physical and visible rather than the human capital" needed in Afghanistan over the long term.
Focus On Teachers
Indeed, Afghan officials say that for many schools in volatile areas it is impossible to find qualified teachers willing or able to work for the normal teacher's salary of about $100 per month. In districts where the Taliban holds sway, potential teachers also worry about death threats from militants.
The Education Ministry this year offered a monthly salary of more than $1,000 for qualified teachers willing to work in the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Oruzgan provinces. Despite a chance to earn 10 times the normal salary, Patman says no qualified teachers stepped forward to accept the offers.
The German government has spent tens of millions of dollars to fund basic education and vocational training in Afghanistan since 2002. In a 2010 report, Germany recognized that only a small fraction of active teachers in Afghanistan had gone through a solid education and teacher-training program.
As a result, Germany is now focusing more on initiatives to train teachers in several provinces. In Kabul, construction also began in early November on a German-funded center to train teachers for professional and technical institutes.
For its part, the Afghan government says it wants to recruit 11,000 new teachers this year and to train another 48,000 secondary-school graduates to become teachers.
'A Waste Of Money'
The Afghan government also funds teacher-training seminars in provincial areas. But some who have attended those seminars say precious money is being wasted.
One middle-school science teacher in Konduz Province, who did not want to be named, tells RFE/RL that an Afghan-funded seminar now under way in Konduz began this month with much fanfare but deteriorated into a useless exercise when it was time to focus on training teachers.
"There are no instructors there to train teachers. There are no books or teaching materials or laboratory equipment that is so important for teaching science -- like microscopes," the teacher says. "I assume that a lot of money was spent on this seminar. But there is nothing here. This will not bring good results."
When asked by RFE/RL about the ongoing seminar in Konduz, Patman expressed surprise and concern. He said the Education Ministry would investigate the complaints.