UMass team helping to teach Afghanistan’s teachers

By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / March 11, 2010

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In war-torn Afghanistan, university master’s degrees are so rare that graduation caps, gowns, and diploma covers are hard to come by.

But with help from educators from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a ceremony in Kabul yesterday celebrated 41 students who earned advanced degrees in education, nearly doubling the number of master’s-level faculty at education colleges in the country.

Professor David R. Evans, who leads the UMass team that designed the post-graduate Afghan program, said staff members from UMass helped fashion the graduation garb and diplomas.

“Certainly for the last 20 years there’s been nothing like this,’’ Evans said by telephone from the Afghan capital.

Twenty-two of the graduates recently completed the new two-year program at Kabul Education University, the first master’s degrees in education in Afghanistan at least since the Taliban takeover in the 1990s. The other 19 completed their degree work recently at UMass Amherst and Indiana University, and joined their counterparts from Kabul for the event.

The Kabul master’s program is one element in a wide-ranging Afghan initiative by UMass Amherst education specialists, who have been bolstering teacher education in the country since 2003. Evans, who has spent more than 40 years at the Center for International Education at UMass Amherst, said the graduates range in age from their 20s to over 40, and that 10 of the 22 graduates from the first class of the Kabul Education University are women. They completed their coursework in Dari, an Afghan language, in December, and all are teaching at 16 schools of education around the country, along with the recent graduates from the US universities.

In this way, the American-backed master’s in education program will help seed schools of education around the country with trained faculty, who in turn will share their expertise with hundreds of teachers. Education has always been seen as a pillar of rebuilding Afghanistan, and Taliban rebels have frequently targeted teachers and schools, especially those for girls.

The UMass team has worked with colleagues from Indiana University over the past five years to design and implement the master’s program at the country’s flagship school of education, thanks to a five-year, $7.4 million grant from the US Agency for International Development to develop teacher-training staff and institutions. The Kabul program employs three Americans and six Afghans, including Wahid Omar, an Afghan-American who has coordinated the master’s program.

Evans and his UMass colleagues, including Joseph Berger, who is chairman of the department of education policy, research, and administration, have also been involved in several other education initiatives in Afghanistan, including a new project to improve medical education.

Yesterday’s event drew much attention in Kabul, Evans said, with the US ambassador and the Afghan minister for higher education attending.

Evans said he and Berger have traveled to Afghanistan about a dozen times since 2003. The five-year contract with USAID ends in January 2011, he said, but he hopes to continue to contribute to improving teacher education in Afghanistan in the future.

The initiative reaches beyond Kabul, with professional development centers running in eight other cities, including Kandahar, Herat, and Kunduz.

James F. Smith writes about Boston’s global ties. His blog is at He can be reached at jsmith@globe. com.