School & District Management

U.S. to Remake School System In Postwar Iraq

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 16, 2003 9 min read
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As American forces were taking control of Baghdad last week, officials in the United States began putting into place the building blocks of a new campaign: restructuring the Iraqi school system.

The U.S. Agency for International Development was poised late last week to award contracts for devising a new curriculum and remaking the leadership of an education system that will serve the estimated one-half of Iraq’s 24.5 million people who are under age 18. In addition, contracts were expected to be handed out to groups that will construct or rehabilitate an estimated 6,000 schools.

Experts on the Middle East caution that the job of rebuilding education in postwar Iraq will be a slow and sensitive affair.

The top priority, they say, should be to remove from Iraq’s curriculum and school culture the tentacles left by 35 years of rule by President Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. Even if that is accomplished, they add, education contractors will face the challenge of creating a school curriculum that satisfies the needs of Iraq’s diverse groups of people.

“The unanswered question is how long the United States intends to stay, and with how heavy of a footprint,” said Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, who specializes in postconflict reconstruction and Middle Eastern politics. “The longer you stay, the more likely you are to be able to change the curriculum.

“But the longer you stay and the heavier the footprint, the more the Iraqis hate you.”

A team of civilians appointed by the U.S. Department of Defense and charged with organizing a new government began setting up shop in Iraq last week, according to news reports.

Contracting for Change

A war against the Iraqi regime had been on the horizon long before the start of military action by an American-led coalition last month, and federal officials have been planning for at least a year for the moment when the United States might take control of the country, pending a transition to Iraqi self-rule.

Such control includes responsibility for Iraq’s schools—at least initially. A big chunk of the work involved will fall to U.S. firms.

As of press time last Friday, according to sources involved in the process, Creative Associates International, based in Washington, was expected to win the lead education contract: a one-year contract from the USAID to revitalize and stabilize education in Iraq. News reports estimated that the total of the precollegiate education-related contracts would be about $65 million. RTI International, in Research Triangle, N.C., was a subcontractor in Creative Associates’ bid.

In addition, the Washington-based Iraq Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up by Iraqi expatriates to promote democracy and respect for human rights in their homeland, was expected to be a participant, along with other organizations. Other contractors will renovate or build schools.

A spokesman for the USAID, an independent government agency whose policy role is guided by the U.S. Department of State, wouldn’t comment on the contracts before they were officially awarded.

The U.S. government’s request for proposals to revitalize Iraqi education asks contractors, in part, to increase school enrollment by providing textbooks, training teachers, and implementing accelerated learning programs.

The effort also should “promote child-centered, inquiry-based, participatory teaching methods that lay a foundation for democratic practices and attitudes among children and educators and draw families into the life of the school communities,” the USAID document states.

But some observers contend that the bid request reflects little knowledge of the status of Iraq’s education system or schooling in the region. Others say simply that the document doesn’t provide enough details to predict whether efforts to remake the schools are likely to be successful.

And almost everyone seems to agree that the possible pitfalls are numerous.

Joseph Braude, the American-born son of an Iraqi and the author of The New Iraq, which was published this year, said in an interview last week that the success of the reconstruction of education in Iraq would depend on unpredictable factors, such as the shape of the country’s next government.

“There needs to be a way to bring in newcomers—Iraqi returnees from Iran and Jordan and the West, who have the benefit of research and a knowledge base,” said Mr. Braude, who is an international business consultant. “But also to constructively engage people who have never left Iraq, separating the stalwarts of the Baath Party from those who joined the party because that was their only option in order to have a viable career.”

Iraqis who attended schools in Iraq but now live in the United States say that the curriculum of their native country became heavily nationalistic and militaristic under Mr. Hussein, who came to power in 1968.

Students in every grade study a subject called “national education,” which promotes Arab culture and Baath Party ideology. The party’s influence also permeates other academic subjects and the culture of schools, the expatriates say.

‘Culture of Fear’

In the 1989 book Republic of Fear, which was updated in 1998, Iraqi native Kanan Makiya writes that pupils from the age of 6 are urged to join school organizations that are affiliated with the Baath Party.

Rubar S. Sandi, a Kurdish Iraqi- American and the president of the U.S.-Iraq Business Council, in Washington, recalls that in 11th grade in the 1970s, he was beaten at school by other students because he refused to join the Baath Party.

Mr. Makiya writes about how teachers became sources under Mr. Hussein for gathering information about dissent: They were charged with reporting offhand remarks by children that might indicate their parents were critical of the regime. He quotes a speech by the Iraqi president, delivered in the 1970s to the country’s Ministry of Education, that urged educators to teach children to be loyal to the state rather than to their parents.

“You must surround adults through their sons, in addition to other means,” Mr. Hussein was quoted as saying in the speech. “Teach the student to object to his parents if he hears them discussing state secrets and to alert them that this is not correct. ...You must place in every corner a son of the revolution, with a trustworthy eye and a firm mind that receives its instructions from the responsible center of the revolution. ...”

Tara Aziz, a 37-year-old Kurdish Iraqi who attended school in Baghdad from the primary through university levels, remembers when Baath Party ideology started to affect her schooling.

Ms. Aziz, who is the program officer of the Washington-based Kurdish Institute, attended private secular schools through 2nd grade, but in 1974 started attending public schools because all private schools were nationalized that year.

She remembers going from drawing mountains and trees in school to drawing military airplanes, tanks, and soldiers. She and her classmates were also often asked to draw oil wells, as the oil industry in Iraq had been nationalized.

The Baath Party introduced a “culture of fear” into the society, Ms. Aziz said.

“We had to sing the national anthem at school on Thursdays before we started the classes,” she recalled. “Even if you don’t believe in it, your lips have to move. Someone might see you not moving your lips, and then you would be in trouble.

“Someone might report to the Baath headquarters, and they might harm your family. You never know.”

With the rebuilding of schools after the U.S.-Iraqi war, she said, textbooks will need to be replaced with books free of photos of Saddam Hussein and of Baath doctrine that teaches students to resist “imperialism.”

System in Decline

Mohamed Ali Bile, who worked to improve primary schools in Iraq for the past two years as a project officer for UNICEF, agrees that the Iraq curriculum is highly politicized and needs to be changed.

Speaking by telephone from Amman, Jordan, Mr. Bile said the curriculum and textbooks in Iraq schools haven’t been revised for 20 years. In addition, teachers use old-fashioned “chalk and talk” methods and should be retrained, he said.

Despite the politicized curriculum, Iraq had one of the best education systems in the Middle East in the 1980s in terms of student enrollment and literacy rates, according to Mr. Bile.

It achieved universal enrollment in primary school and had greatly reduced illiteracy among women under Mr. Hussein’s rule, he said. However, by 2000, 24 percent of children weren’t attending primary school, with nearly twice as many girls as boys not enrolled in school.

The school system has deteriorated in the wake of wars and the U.N. sanctions against the country, Mr. Bile said. Because of inflation, he said, the value of teachers’ salaries has decreased so that they can barely cover their basic needs.

Mr. Bile, who left Iraq about two months ago, but plans to return, said that 5,000 of the country’s 6,000 primary schools are very dilapidated, and that 5,000 new schools are needed to accommodate the country’s growing youth population. Many schools now have double shifts of students.

“Because of the two wars [the Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War] and the sanctions, there is almost nothing,” Mr. Bile said.

Because of the current war, he said, many schools are closed, and in some places have been looted.

“The reports are that children are out in the streets,” Mr. Bile noted. “There’s an urgent need for the children to be back in the schools.”

Wrong Assumptions?

Some observers say the USAID request for plans for overhauling the school system doesn’t seem to reflect the realities of Iraq, and could be a recipe for failure.

“It’s definitely out of touch,” said Andrea B. Rugh, an independent international education consultant who lived in Arab countries for 25 years. “It’s a patched-together effort with a lot of assumptions that may not be true.”

For instance, she says, the “child-centered methods” the USAID calls for tend to work better in the West than in the Middle East, where students are accustomed to memory work. The introduction of child-participatory teaching and learning won’t work unless Iraqis are deeply involved in the process, she said.

“There’s a sense in Arabic societies more of responsibility rather than rights,” Ms. Rugh said. “They talk about responsibility—respect for elders and each other. It’s very hard to have an egalitarian classroom when you have respect and authority.”

And she said it was strange that the USAID request for proposals didn’t mention either Islam or the Baath Party. “Almost all of the school systems in the Middle East have Islamic teaching,” she said. “That’s a subject they will want.”

One nonprofit international-development organization—the Academy for Educational Development in Washington—backed out of the USAID bidding process after it learned the conditions for the job. The group contended that the one-year time frame was too short, and that the safety of employees couldn’t be assured in the postwar environment, a spokeswoman for the firm said.

Ms. Aziz of the Kurdish Institute, who read the bid specifications but isn’t connected with any group seeking the contract, said the document didn’t give enough detail for her to speculate on how successful it would be.

She said it is appropriate that Iraq’s curriculum be redesigned to teach democracy to children. But she cautioned: “The definition of democracy—what does it mean? At least children should have freedom of expression, and at the same time respect should continue.”

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

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