Education Minister Wants Iraqis to Plot Course

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 05, 2003 6 min read
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Unlike some Bush administration officials and pundits in Washington who are trumpeting the progress made in rebuilding Iraq’s primary and secondary education system since a U.S.-led war toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, the new Iraqi minister of education is concentrating on the challenges ahead.

“I’m happy with the outcome that schools have started, and the vast majority of students are in school and they are not in the streets,” Dr. Ala’din Alwan said last week, two months into his job, in one of his first interviews with a U.S. reporter.

But, he added, “there is still a lot of work in front of us.”

According to Dr. Alwan, a medical doctor and former World Health Organization official, the greatest challenges to bringing the Iraqi education system up to par are repairing thousands of schools and building new ones, retraining teachers to use modern teaching methods, and revamping the curriculum, which he calls “outdated and distorted.”

To do all that, Iraq will need technical help and financial aid from other countries, but at the same time, Iraqis must determine the future of their education system themselves, he said. (“USAID Briefs Public on ‘To Do’ List for Education in Iraq,” Sept. 17, 2003.)

“We do have advisers, of course, not only from the United States but from other countries,” he said. “The decisions made to reform education, the values we adopt, and the new culture that we will endorse are purely Iraqi.”

Particularly in areas such as rewriting the country’s curriculum, he and other Iraqis are in charge, he said. Redoing the curriculum will take at least two years, and the writing of new textbooks will likely follow that, he said.

Hefty Price Tag

The United Nations and World Bank, in a recent needs-assessment report, put the price tag of rebuilding Iraq’s education system at $4.8 billion through 2007. Countries at a U.N. conference in Madrid late last month pledged at least $33 billion, including $20 billion that President Bush has requested from the U.S. Congress, for overall reconstruction in Iraq, according to speeches delivered there.

The United Nations, however, hasn’t yet released an official figure for those pledges, and so far, none of that money has been earmarked for specific purposes, such as education.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this fall mentioned the formation of new parent-teacher groups in Iraqi schools as evidence that news media reports have underestimated the progress being made in rebuilding Iraq. And in an Oct. 28 press conference following terrorist attacks on the International Red Cross offices and three Iraqi police stations in Baghdad, President Bush cited the opening of schools and the anticipated delivery of textbooks to schoolchildren as examples that much has been accomplished.

Ellen M. Yount, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, says the administration has not put an overly positive spin on the headway in education. “If you look historically at what the U.S. has been able to achieve, its the most ambitious reconstruction effort that we’ve carried out since the Marshall Plan, and we’ve done it more quickly and efficiently,” she said.

Daily Obstacles

Dr. Alwan and two advisers to the Ministry of Education—an American and an Iraqi—all granted interviews by telephone from Baghdad last week. They described their work as anything but business as usual.

The Iraqis talked about such lofty goals as establishing the values of democracy and respect for human rights in Iraq, but still seemed weighed down by the logistics of getting schools and institutional systems running at a basic level.

The postwar country has not yet set up a postal service or regular telephone lines, noted Bill Evers, an education scholar from Stanford University’s Hoover Institute who has been advising the Iraqi Ministry of Education since July. “The main way we communicate is through automobile courier,” he said.

Fuad Hussein, an Iraqi who lived for decades in the Netherlands and is another adviser to the Ministry of Education, said the biggest challenge he is facing in his work is overcoming the mentality that many Iraqis developed while living for decades under the repressive Baathist regime.

“The way of thinking must change,” he said. “We must accept that people can think differently. They can argue. We must encourage a way of critical thinking, while in the past, all of these have been forbidden.”

Dr. Alwan and Mr. Evers expounded on the critical physical condition of schools. Dr. Alwan noted, for example, that while 1,500 schools have been renovated with the help of the USAID and the Coalition Provisional Authority, more than 10,000 are in urgent need of repair.

“For the last several decades, the Baath Party here let everything run down. There was no maintenance done,” said Mr. Evers. Some schools received minor damage from the war earlier this year, and still others were “very thoroughly looted,” he said. It’s common for schools to have large cracks in ceilings, peeling paint, and broken sewage systems, he added.

Mr. Evers said UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was in the process of distributing mathematics and science textbooks to schoolchildren, a project that was financed by the USAID.

At the same time, UNICEF, the children’s agency of the United Nations, has fallen behind in getting all other kinds of textbooks to children. UNICEF greatly reduced its staff in Iraq after the Aug. 19 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Mr. Evers estimated that some students won’t get textbooks from UNICEF until next April.

Another crucial aspect of getting schools operating is to ensure that they have furniture and that children have supplies, such as notebooks and pencils. Creative Associates International, a Washington-based company, has been charged with getting supplies to secondary schools, while UNICEF has taken on the task of equipping primary schools.

Dick McCall, the senior vice president for programs for Creative Associates, said that as of last month, his company had distributed furniture and supplies to the secondary schools in all but two of Iraq’s 18 governing regions.

Most schools in Iraq reopened Oct. 10.

‘Immoral to Say No’

While Dr. Alwan continues to try to coordinate with others to get schools functioning at a basic level, he is excited about the potential of the Iraqi school system.

A Shiite Muslim, the education minister said: “We want to see that education is acceptable to all Iraqis irrespective of origin or affiliation. We would like to change instruction and methods. Currently speaking, the methods used are those of memorization without understanding.”

He said Iraqis have some sensitive educational issues to work through, such as how to proceed with the Islamic-studies course that is offered for about two hours a week, and what kinds of guidelines to provide for private schooling. He said the Ministry of Education would like to start permitting private schooling next school year, while at the same time preventing the teaching of religious extremism.

Dr. Alwan spoke of Iraqis as being innovative and capable of catching up with the rest of the world in education.

Asked why he took the job as minister of education, he responded, “When you are asked to make a contribution to your country during a critical stage in its history, it is immoral to say no.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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