Notes from the Field

Afghan Education Leaders Find Unexpected Common Ground Visiting Virginia’s Schools

July 27, 2011

As we pulled up to a nondescript office building in Charlottesville, Virginia, a woman on her cell phone waved cheerily to us, confirming we had finally arrived at the right place after a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., and adventures with wavering GPS signals. I waved back, relieved, and hopped out of the passenger seat of our van to escort H.E. Minister Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan’s minister of education, up the steps to meet Ms. Gertrude Ivory, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Charlottesville school system.

Afghan Education delegation visits Virginia schools

Dr. Rosa Atkins (left), superintendent of the Charlottesville City School System, (behind, Mr. Ihsan Taheri, Assistant to the Minister), Minister Wardak, and Ms. Susan Wardak (right), director of teacher education department, Afghan Ministry of Education, walk along a corridor at Greenbrier Elementary. Photo by Abduljalil Ghafoory, Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington, D.C.

As the minister and his delegation of education advisors exchanged greetings with Ms. Ivory, I wondered nervously whether these people from totally different places would find enough to talk about on this warm June morning in rural Virginia. We walked through the door, no sign out front, nothing to indicate the warm hospitality and enthusiastic discussion we were about to experience. Then just inside, there stood the superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, Dr. Rosa Atkins, with her entire School Board and most of its senior administrators, all on hand to welcome Minister Wardak and his advisors to their school system. We were soon to discover that these educators had a great deal in common, despite their very different working environments.

The Charlottesville City School system had 4,030 students enrolled for the 2010-2011 school year, with average class sizes between 17 and 20 students. In Afghanistan, according to Ministry of Education figures, the average class size in 2010 was 43 students, and only 37 percent of school-age girls were enrolled. In the Charlottesville teacher workforce, 60 percent of the teaching staff holds an advanced degree, while only 27 percent of Afghan teachers have completed high school and received teacher training. Approximately 77 percent of the graduates from Charlottesville High School go on to attend college, while in Afghanistan the national literacy rate remains 12 percent among females and 39 percent among males.

Yet as the group talked, it became clear that despite these disparities, these educators from opposite sides of the globe shared many common concerns. Both the Afghan and Virginian teachers were focused on effective curriculum design and providing continuing education and professional development for classroom teachers. Both the Afghan and Virginian school executives were concerned with how to decentralize curriculum design and incorporate local ideas and parents’ preferences, while maintaining national consistency to ensure that students across all districts receive a quality education in core subjects. The educators from each country also recognized the need to reach those students in poverty, and to offer targeted remedial services to help them advance. Over lunch, and with the local press hovering, the educators agreed on the importance of cultivating a sense of community through education and of thinking strategically about preparing the next generation for their future in a globalized marketplace and in a shrinking world increasingly connected through technology. At the end of the visit, after a group photo and fond farewells, the Charlottesville school administrators presented Ms. Susan Wardak, the Afghan director for teacher education, with a satchel bulging with examples of the teacher training materials and curriculum development guides that she’d asked about to assist her with her work in Afghanistan.

That enthusiastic lunch meeting kicked off a day of site visits arranged by The Asia Foundation at the request of USAID, as a complement to a series of education policy meetings in Washington, D.C., earlier in the week. Charlottesville offered the delegation an accessible, yet “outside-the-Beltway” vantage point on the American public education system, from kindergarten to higher education. After visiting Greenbrier Elementary School and meeting young students busy with games and art projects, the delegation toured Charlottesville’s only high school and received a personal tour from its principal, Thomas Taylor, despite the evidence throughout the school of the busy preparations for graduation being held the very next day.

The minister’s advisors then visited the campus of Piedmont Virginia Community College, where they met with college President Dr. Frank Friedman and talked about ways that the community college system met the special needs of adult students through online resources and vocational training internship programs. Dr. Friedman shared his strategy for partnering with local businesses in designing curriculum, to ensure students were prepared to join the local workforce. The delegation toured the new science building, with its high-tech laboratories and medical training facilities with Dr. Kathleen Hudson, dean of health and life sciences, as she explained that much of the equipment had been donated by local hospitals in order to help train their future employees. Minister Wardak’s strategic education advisor, Dr. Seddiq Weera, agreed that the local community college’s approach, closely consulting with local businesses, was a relevant model in the Afghan context as well.

That evening over dinner, Minister Wardak spoke about higher education policy with J. Milton Adams, vice provost of the University of Virginia. The next morning, after touring the picturesque grounds of the University, the delegation’s last stop on the trip was a visit to Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson. Demonstrating his characteristic zeal and energetic style, upon arrival at Monticello Minister Wardak declined the special access offered for our van and instead chose to walk up the steep scenic route to Jefferson’s doorstep.

Afghan education delegation visits University of Virginia.

On the grounds of the University of Virginia, Minister Wardak (left) gets a personal tour and account of the University’s history and Jefferson’s philosophy on higher education from Mr. Alexander G. Gilliam, Jr., University protocol officer. Photo by Abduljalil Ghafoory, Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington, D.C.

Along the way, our expert guide, David Thorson, described Jefferson’s great interest in education and the wonders of nature, sentiments the minister shared. At Jefferson’s tomb, they discussed how Jefferson preferred to be remembered as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia – rather than for any of his high political offices. At the Garden Pavilion, Minister Wardak and Mr. Thorson talked about the importance of education for women, in which Jefferson strongly believed, educating his own daughter in the recognition that “the education of her family will probably rest on her own ideas.” In an amazing coincidence, along the East Walk, the minster encountered another of Monticello’s guides, and it turned out that the two had worked closely together in Kabul during the preparation for elections in Afghanistan in 2004-2005.

As we headed back to Washington, D.C., Minister Wardak read aloud to us from The Words of Jefferson, which our guide had presented to him at Monticello. “I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.” From Jefferson’s pen during America’s birth as a democracy, the words struck us all as ringing true for Afghanistan today as well: “…wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Read more about The Asia Foundation’s education initiatives and programs in Afghanistan.

Diana Kelly Alvord is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Washington, D.C., office, currently on assignment in Kabul. She can be reached at dalvord@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Thanks for the report by the Asia Foundation. We really had fruitful moments and meetings where we shared point as in our context and exchanged ideas with the officials of the US Education sector.

    It was a useful and nice trip to the US.

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