By: Griff Witte
Western officials tend to blame Islamic schools, known as madrassas, for their role as feeders to militant groups, but Pakistani education experts say the root of the problem is the public schools in a nation in which half of adults cannot sign their own name. The United States is hoping an infusion of cash — part of a $7.5 billion civilian aid package — will begin to change that, and in the process alter the widespread perception that Washington’s only interest in Pakistan is in bolstering its military.
But according to education reform advocates here, any effort to improve the system faces the reality of intense institutional pressure to keep the schools exactly the way they are. They say that for different reasons, the most powerful forces in Pakistan, including the army, the religious establishment and the feudal landlords who dominate civilian politics, have worked against improving an education system that for decades has been in marked decline.
“If the people get education, the elite would be threatened,” said Khadim Hussain, coordinator of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy and a professor at Islamabad’s Bahria University. “If they make education available, the security establishment’s ideology may be at risk.”
That ideology, Hussain said, involves the belief that non-Muslim nations are out to destroy Pakistan and that the army is the only protection Pakistanis have from certain annihilation. Those notions are emphasized at every level in the schools, with students focused on memorizing the names of Pakistan’s military heroes and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, but not learning the basics of algebra or biology, he said.
The nature of the education system is reflected in popular attitudes toward the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups that in recent months have carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Pakistan, many of them targeting civilians.
Although the groups in many cases have publicly asserted responsibility for the attacks, a large percentage of the population here refuses to believe that Muslims could be responsible for such horrific crimes, choosing to believe that India, Israel or the United States is behind the violence. When Hussain challenges graduate-level students for proof, they accuse him of being part of the plot, he said.
“Telling students they need to use evidence and logic means that you are definitely an agent of India, Israel and the CIA,” he said. “They don’t understand what evidence is.”
The madrassas have multiplied in Pakistan as public education has deteriorated. But madrassas still educate only about 1.5 million students a year, compared with more than 20 million in public schools. If Pakistan is to improve its dismal literacy rate and provide marketable skills to more of the estimated 90 million Pakistanis under the age of 18, it will have to start in the public schools.
The United States plans to spend $200 million here this year on education, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s largest education program worldwide. The money comes from the Kerry-Lugar aid bill, which was passed in late 2009 and promises Pakistan $7.5 billion in civilian assistance over the next five years.
The funds are intended to signal a substantial shift from earlier years, when U.S. assistance to Pakistan was overwhelmingly focused on helping the military, which is battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the nation’s northwest.
U.S. officials say the money will be spent on a combination of programs, including infrastructure improvements, teacher training and updates to the curriculum. Unlike in past years, the money will not be filtered through non-governmental organizations and contractors but will be given directly to Pakistan’s government, officials say.
The idea is to improve the capacity of the nation’s fledgling civilian-led administration, and to promote trust between the two nations.
But there is also the risk that without adequate monitoring, much of the money will go to waste.
Pakistan’s current spending on education — less than 3 percent of its budget — is anemic, and far lower on a relative basis than in India or even Bangladesh. Much of it never reaches students.
Pakistan’s public education system includes thousands of “ghost schools,” which exist on paper and receive state funding. But in reality, the schools do not function: A local landlord gets the money, and either pockets it or dispenses it to individuals who are on the books as teachers, but in fact are associates or relatives who do nothing to earn their salaries. School buildings are often used for housing farmworkers or livestock, not for education.
Those buildings that do operate lack basic facilities — a 2006 government study found that more than half do not have electricity and 40 percent have no bathrooms. About a third of students drop out by the fifth grade. Teachers, meanwhile, earn as little as $50 a month, less in many cases than that of a domestic servant. The low pay mirrors teachers’ perceived value in Pakistani society.
“The social status of teachers is low, compared with other professions,” said Rehana Masrur, dean of the education department at Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad. “If someone is doing nothing and has no future, people say, ‘Why doesn’t he become a teacher?’ ”
Top government officials have little incentive to change that, experts here say. Although the vast majority of Pakistanis must choose between the public schools or madrassas for their children, Pakistan’s well-to-do can send their kids to private schools, many of which are considered world-class.
Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former Pakistani education minister, said the United States has not helped by frittering away much of its assistance budget on poorly defined programs, such as conflict-resolution training, which he said leave no enduring impact. What Pakistan really needs, he said, is a network of vocational training institutes that can prepare students for the workplace.
“What would help is something that is lasting,” he said. “The U.S. is spending more money, but spending it in a way that it does not leave any impact.”
But Pervez Hoodbhoy, a noted nuclear physicist at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University and a longtime proponent of education reform, said Pakistan needs something more fundamental.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of money. The more you throw at the system, the faster it leaks out,” he said. “There has to be a desire to improve. The U.S. can’t create that desire. When Pakistanis feel they need a different kind of education system, that’s when it will improve.”