For years, the schoolchildren of Honduras came in dead last in international tests of academic performance. No one expected them to top the charts — after all, the tiny nation is one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Still, parents and activists wondered why Honduras’ 75,000-odd public school teachers couldn’t do at least a little better. They recently found out at least one of the reasons why: some 15,000 of those teachers weren’t actually working in the schools they were assigned to.

That revelation came courtesy of a coalition of grassroots organizations called Transformemos Honduras, or Let’s Transform Honduras. The coalition used Honduras’ freedom of information laws to get lists of teachers from the federal Ministry of Education, and details on their pay from the Ministry of Finance. Transformemos Honduras then published that information on their website and encouraged parents and volunteers to check up on whether teachers were at their jobs or not. Armed with this data, activists and volunteers went from school to school in six of Honduras’ 18 departments. They found a full 26 per cent of teachers on the lists were not at their posts.

“We call them ‘ghost teachers’,” says Kurt Alan ver Beek, vice president of Association for a More Just Society (AJS), a Honduran anti-corruption organization that spearheaded the campaign. “Some had died, and their kids were still cashing their paychecks. Some had moved to the United States. Some were collecting pay for working in rural areas even though they had taken other jobs in cities, leaving rural kids with no teachers.”

The coalition launched a media campaign around their findings in 2010, holding press conferences, giving interviews and alerting international donors. “The information put strong pressure on government officials,” says Blanca Munguia, coordinator of Transformemos Honduras. “Everyone knew the system was broken, but civil society opened the floodgates of information and got it out to the public.” As attention grew, more and more parents checked the database and reported on “ghost teachers”. That campaign came on the heels of another Transformemos Honduras research campaign which revealed that Honduran school kids were getting an average of only 110 days of classes each year –  barely half the 200 they are legally entitled to.

Even in Honduras, a country whose public sector is ranked by Transparency International as one of the world’s most corrupt, those figures were too much for the government to ignore. In 2012, newly appointed education minister Marlon Escoto began working with Transformemos Honduras to overhaul the educational system. Escoto cracked down on the frequent teacher strikes, and required teachers to register with a new online system. Meanwhile, Transformemos Honduras organized parent volunteers to keep tabs on whether teachers and students were showing up at school when they were supposed to.

The results: The number of ghost teachers has been slashed to less than one per cent, saving the government millions of dollars. Honduran kids are now getting at least 200 school days per year. And according to the most recent UNESCO report comparing student test scores across Latin America, Honduran third graders have crept up from fifteenth to tenth place in math and reading.

Nonetheless, Escoto has plenty of critics. The Federation of Teachers’ Organizations of Honduras has accused Escoto of “persecuting” their members with firings and salary cuts. And earlier this year, the country was roiled by student protests against Escoto’s decree extending the length of the school day. All of which makes ver Beek anxious about the future of the changes his group helped bring about. “It’s still a very fragile reform, and it relies heavily on one person,” says ver Beek. “If Escoto were fired or stepped down, would these reforms be sustainable?”

Ver Beek, an American, has been working in Honduras since 1986. He helped found the Association for a More Just Society after years of working on community development issues convinced him that there could be no large-scale change without taking on the core issue of corruption. “The idea is to address the macro issues, because without fixing those, nothing else works,” he says. “The vast majority of the poor get their services from the public sector. We want public systems to work for the poor, rather than starting private clinics or schools funded by outside money.”

The group provides legal assistance and training to poor people seeking legal title to their land, and investigates reports of public corruption, particularly in the health and education sectors. They’ve documented such widespread corruption in prescription drug purchasing practices that the government has agreed to bring in the United Nations to oversee medicine procurement. AJS also operate a journalistic arm, Revistazo.com, that packages the group’s findings into articles aimed at the general public, not just policy wonks.

There’s no small risk to this kind of work in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Earlier this year, four students protesting Escoto’s school day extension turned up dead in the capital of Tegucigalpa. The watchdog group Global Witness has declared Honduras the most dangerous country on earth for environmental activists. AJS activists have received death threats over the years, and a lawyer working on one of their cases was murdered a few years ago.

Thankfully, there haven’t been any threats over the educational campaign. But that campaign isn’t over, either. Some of the school ‘days’ now being counted in official statistics amount to only a couple of hours of instruction, says ver Beek. And there are still ghost teachers haunting the system. AJS continues to follow up, documenting complaints of teacher absenteeism one by one.

“Honduras has good laws, but enforcement is lax,” says ver Beek. “People just don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and no one finds out.”

This story was written by Vince Beiser and originally posted on ONE’s Space on Medium