U.S. Withdraws From Education Reform in Iraq

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 25, 2006 18 min read
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When the new school year opens in Iraq in October, Iraqis will not be receiving any financial or technical help from the U.S. government to improve what goes on in the classroom, for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s regime was ousted by American-led coalition forces.

The U.S. Agency for International Development ended its support of the Iraqi education sector in June, according to USAID officials and a July report to Congress. No longer will the federal government sponsor workshops for teachers on child-centered teaching methods, refurbish schools through small grants to communities, distribute school supplies, or pay for the printing of textbooks—activities that the United States has subsidized since spring 2003.

And the government is getting out of school reform before it accomplishes many of the goals it set out to achieve.

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The USAID has, however, awarded a two-year National Capacity Development contract, which starts Sept. 10 and is aimed at helping Iraq’s government ministries to function better. The Education and Higher Education ministries are among about 10 ministries to be helped in finance, computer expertise, and other areas of management.

The Washington-based Management Systems International Inc. was awarded the contract, worth $100 million for two years, with an option of having it extended for a third, confirmed Marina F. Fanning, the company’s executive vice president. She said the primary subcontractors are Emerging Markets Group in Arlington, Va.; the American-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc., or AMIDEAST, in Washington; the Louis Berger Group Inc., in East Orange, N.J.; and RTI International, in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“Audit of USAID/Iraq’s Basic Education Activities,” Dec. 20, 2005, is posted by the USAID Inspector General.

The USAID has achieved the goals of “getting the education system back up and running in Iraq,” Thomas Staal, the agency’s director of Iraq reconstruction, said in a statement. “Now it is time for us to take one step back, while focusing on developing their capacity to maintain and enhance the progress that has been made.”

With the change in direction, Creative Associates International Inc., the Washington-based firm charged with carrying out most of the USAID’s education work in Iraq over the past three school years, has until Sept. 30 to wrap up any education activities. The company has carried out $109 million worth of education activities for the USAID through two education contracts.

Violence Hampers Reform

Two Iraqi officials surmised that security issues played a role in the U.S. government’s withdrawal from the education sector. The country has been beset by sectarian and insurgent violence. The United Nations reported that more than 3,000 Iraqi civilians were slain in June alone.

Iraqi Perspectives

Three Iraqis express their views on the status of K-12 education in their country. A government official, a teacher trainer, and a mother of three talk about the difficulties and opportunities the nation faces as it struggles to improve schools.
Profiles by Mary Ann Zehr

Click on each profile to read the full text.

  • Fuad Hussein:
    U.S. Should Invest in Stable Regional Governments
    Fuad Hussein, an Iraqi expatriate, has worked in government jobs in Iraq since he returned to his native land from Holland after U.S.-led coalition forces seized control of the country in spring 2003.

    Mr. Hussein was an education adviser to the Iraq Ministry of Education from that time to spring 2005. Initially, he worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority as an education adviser to the ministry. Later, he was a deputy member of the Iraqi Governing Council. Now, he is the chief of staff for Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan, a region of northern Iraq controlled by the Kurdish ethnic group.

    Mr. Hussein recalls the hope he had in 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, that schools would improve across Iraq.

    \"In the first year, it was good, because the security situation was completely different,\" he remembers. People were happy with the change of regime. People felt free. The door was open for the first time after 30 years for teachers to get a new view and have training. The plan was to develop a new education that was far away from the ideology of the Baath Party and far away from militarizing education.\"

    ‘What Happens in Baghdad’

    But because of increasing violence in the country, particularly in Baghdad, where the Iraq Ministry of Education is located, it hasn’t been possible for the plan to be completed, Mr. Hussein says. The chaos, violence, and religious differences in the country have prevented educators from having the dialogue necessary to revise curricula and textbooks, he says. The situation grows worse, he adds, as religious parties compete for control of what is taught in schools, and teachers are killed because of their profession or religious affiliation.

    Even so, Mr. Hussein believes the U.S. government shouldn’t give up on helping Iraqis improve schools. But rather than channeling money to the Ministry of Education in Baghdad, he says the United States should finance education for regional governments in areas that are stable. For instance, he points out that regional governments in the Shiite-controlled area in southern Iraq and in Kurdistan would be good candidates for assistance.

    \"Wait to see what happens in Baghdad,\" he says. \"But to do nothing in Iraq [for education], that’s not fair.\"

    Mr. Hussein believes an investment in stable regions of Iraq could produce models of schooling that could be useful later, after the entire country is stabilized.

    ” ;} ?>

  • Huda Majeed:
    Lack of Follow Up to Teacher Training Is Disappointing
    During the 2003-04 school year, Huda Majeed traveled all over Iraq training teachers and administrators to use child-centered teaching methods. A longtime teacher at a private school in Baghdad, she was hired by the Iraq Foundation, which in its role as a subcontractor to Washington-based Creative Associates International Inc., was in charge of introducing new methods of teaching to Iraq’s secondary teachers.

    \"We felt that many teachers were very good in their subject,\" she says, \"but the problem is how to deal with the students. We didn’t want the classical way of the teacher should teach and the students should memorize.\"

    Ms. Majeed says the training lasted for five days for each master trainer and was very comprehensive. She was one of the master trainers who taught other teachers to be trainers—and, in turn, those teachers passed those methods along to their colleagues. Creative Associates has reported that during the 2003-04 school year, 33,000 teachers and administrators received training through this train-the-trainer approach.

    ‘Very Scary’

    Unfortunately, Ms. Majeed says that she doesn’t believe the training of teachers by Creative Associates had a lasting effect because there was no follow up to it. \"This should be a continuous process,\" she says. \"We trained and then the project stopped. It didn’t get continuous support from the ministry or the funder.\"

    Ms. Majeed has since changed jobs. For security reasons, she asked that her current post not be publicized. Although she lives in Baghdad, she was interviewed via telephone from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where she was taking a break from the chaos of Iraq’s capital.

    \"It’s very scary in Baghdad right now,\" she says.

    ";} ?>

  • Salam Smeasim:
    My Children’s Schools Have Improved
    Salam Smeasim, an Iraqi living in Baghdad, says her children’s schools have improved since Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

    She’s an economist in the Iraq Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the mother of two girls, ages 10 and 15, and a boy, 13.

    The biggest improvement in her children’s schools, she says, is that the curriculum is no longer influenced by the Baath Party, the political party of Saddam Hussein. When Mr. Hussein was president, she and her husband were afraid to tell their children they thought they were being taught a false ideology in school.

    \"We tried to change the minds of our children, but indirectly, because we were afraid,\" she recalls. \"Maybe the teachers would take them to the security system.\"

    Ms. Smeasim is relieved that she doesn’t have to face that daily fear anymore.

    ‘They Will Study Hard’

    She says one of her daughters has brought home some materials that show how the Iraq Ministry of Education is trying to correct how history is taught in schools in ways that do not \"degrade other nations.\"

    The school receives a few copies of the new materials and then makes lots of copies for teachers and students. \"They prepared a new history of how to respect other nations and how it’s going to merge these people together in a good global unit,\" she says.

    Up until now, Ms. Smeasim says, her neighborhood, which has a mix of Sunni and Shiite families, has been peaceful, despite the sectarian violence in other parts of Baghdad. Her daughters attend schools nearby, and their attendance hasn’t been hampered by security issues. Her son’s school is farther away, so she and other parents share the cost of hiring a private car to shuttle their children to and from school to improve the chances for their safety.

    One day, a car bomb exploded near her son’s school, but none of the children was hurt, she says.

    Ms. Smeasim would like to see the United States continue to support education in Iraq by providing scholarships for youths to study abroad. \"If we promise the students, ‘If you are excellent students, you can get a scholarship for the United States,’ they will study hard,\" she says.

    ";} ?>

“I do understand that security is the top priority. Without security, no other sector can move forward,” Samir Shakir M. Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, said during an interview at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington last week. “The terrorists have been targeting educators at the school level as well as the university level.”

Education Week was unable to schedule an interview with Iraq’s minister of education, Khudayyir Al-Khuza’i, before press time.

“There are many good teachers and high-level officials who want to change education in the right direction. The terrorists don’t allow them,” said Fuad Hussein, a longtime Iraqi expatriate who is now the chief of staff for the president of the Kurdistan region of the country. Mr. Hussein was employed by the Coalition Provisional Authority as an education adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Education after U.S.-led forces took control in spring 2003, and he has worked in government jobs in Iraq since then.

During the last two years, Mr. Hussein said, four of the 16 directors general in the Ministry of Education were assassinated, and many teachers have also been killed. In such a climate, rewriting the curriculum or textbooks isn’t feasible, he said.

“To make reforms is dangerous. In our time [in 2003], we were trying to change the direction from Baath [Saddam Hussein’s political party] to an open-minded direction,” Fuad Hussein said. “There is struggle between various parties in power. Most are religious—they are trying to control the education area.”

Still, the news that the USAID has ceased to support school reform in Iraq is disheartening to some Iraqis.

“I am disappointed,” said Salam Smeasim, an economist in the Iraqi Ministry of Women’s Affairs and a mother of three attending primary and secondary schools in Baghdad. “I expected more from the United States. I do think they are not just partners; they are to be the big brother for us.”

She added: “By education only can we change the matter of the extremist powers in our society. I’m Islamic, but I’m very afraid of the extremist Islamic powers.”

Norman Rifkin, who directed the USAID’s education program in Iraq for the first 1½ years after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, said he is torn about the U.S. government’s withdrawal from Iraq’s school reform efforts.

On the one hand, he said, it’s hard for Americans to help Iraqis improve schools because “Iraqis are afraid of becoming too close to what some people consider to be the American occupiers.”

On the other, the USAID’s work in education has been one of the most important ways that Americans have helped Iraqis move toward a society in which everyone has a voice, Mr. Rifkin said.

“We were able to conduct training courses in which Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds sat down together,” he said. “We fostered cooperation, collaboration, team-building, and we were teaching teachers to teach in an inductive, inquisitive manner.”

Now an executive for Creative Associates, Mr. Rifkin recused himself from the company’s Iraq activities when he took the job earlier this year. He declined to comment on the current status of the company’s work in Iraq.

Paring Down

Under the company’s first one-year contract, awarded in April2003 and spanning the 2003-04 school year, education advisers who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority have said Creative Associates did a good job of helping Iraqi children return to school by distributing furniture and supplies. But they say the company was less effective in supporting the Education Ministry with “capacity building.”

Paring Down Expectations

Halfway into Creative Associates International’s second education contract in Iraq, only $15.5 million of the $51.8 million that the U.S. Agency for International Development had committed for the contract had been disbursed.

At that time, of the 82 intended activities in Creative Associates’ work plan, work had started on 33 tasks, and it had been planned for 22 tasks. The 27 other remaining tasks were deleted from the work plan, with approval from the USAID because the federal agency wasn’t certain it would provide the $56.5 million possible under the original contract.

Sample of activities that had been started
■ 58 finance managers from the Ministry of Education were trained in Amman, Jordan (Expectation: 78 ).
■ 72 model schools were selected and approved (Expectation: 84).
■ Training had begun for secondary teachers of English as a second language.
■ Three of 13 episodes were produced for a preschool children’s television show.
■ 504,458 school kits were distributed (the remaining 20,542 kits in the work plan were to go to model schools).
■ A subcontractor began work on an education management-information system.

Sample of activities that had not been started
■ 50 ministry officials were to participate in study tours.
■ 84 model schools were to be renovated.
■ 10,000 activity booklets were to be printed and distributed for the preschool television show.

Sample of activities deleted from original work plan
■ 65 ministry officials working in testing and evaluation were to be trained.
■ The model schools would serve as training centers to other schools.
■ 46 master trainers were to be trained in math who would train 6,000 math teachers.
■ 46 master trainers were to be trained in social studies who would train 8,000 social studies teachers.
■ An Iraqi firm was to be contracted to track public relations for the children’s television show.

SOURCE: U.S. Agency for International Development

That’s pretty much what Management Systems International, which was contracted by the USAID to evaluate its programs in Iraq, found, said Fuad Suleiman, a retired, longtime specialist in international education development who evaluated the education component of the USAID’s work in Iraq; Mr. Suleiman declined to elaborate on the content of the evaluation. The USAID has refused to give that evaluation to Education Week, saying it might interfere with frank communication during future monitoring.

Conditions weren’t easy for implementing that first contract, according to Mohammed Ragheb, an Egyptian who was hired by RTI International, a subcontractor to Creative Associates, to set up an emergency education-management system during the 2003-04 school year. “You meet with a group of people. You feel they are professional, and you start working with them, and then, a week after or two weeks after, they are not around anymore, maybe for political reasons or security reasons,” he said.

Just when he got the system going in April 2004 and had a couple of people trained on it, Mr. Ragheb said, he and all the international staff for Creative Associates were sent to Kuwait for security reasons, so he really doesn’t know how much it was used.

Creative Associates officials provided a written update of the company’s accomplishments in Iraq under its contract awarded in April 2004, called Education II, which spanned the past two school years. It includes having rehabilitated and furnished 84 model schools, trained 40,200 teachers, and delivered 500,000 school bags with supplies to primary and secondary students.

The July report to Congress on Iraq reconstruction says the company also developed and installed a Web-based education-management-information system.

A lack of security played an even bigger role under the second contract than it did the first one.

“Security was a major concern in Iraq and prevented some activities from taking place in the time frame originally anticipated,” says an audit of Creative Associates’ work under the Education II contract by the USAID inspector general, released last December. In addition, says the report, “there were delays caused by the Ministry of Education, which was sometimes slow to provide approval or needed information within the time frame.”

Budget cuts by the USAID—the agency committed $51.8 million instead of the original $56.5 million awarded—meant that some tasks originally cited in the Education II contract were cut, the audit says.

One year—or halfway—into the Education II contract, only $15.5 million of the $51.8 million committed had been disbursed, the audit says. Projections for the cost of security for the whole two-year contract had doubled from $4 million to $8 million by that point, and provided one of the reasons that Creative Associates’ implementation plan was made less ambitious, according to the report.

Osama Abadelaal, an Egyptian employed by Creative Associates as a grants manager from July 2004 to July 2005, recalls that during his stint in Iraq, the budget for small grants to communities was slashed from $8 million to $4.5 million, largely because of security costs. When he left Iraq halfway through the contract, $2.7 million had been spent to renovate 37 schools and four training centers.

The cost of providing security included paying for armored cars, barbed wire, and armed guards who accompanied Creative Associates staff members while traveling or protected their buildings inside and outside the Green Zone, the fortified area of Baghdad where most Americans lived and worked after spring 2004, Mr. Suleiman said. He was the chief of party, or the head of operations, in Iraq for Creative Associates from July 2004 to July 2005.

More to Be Done

Some former employees of Creative Associates say the company accomplished a great deal during its second contract, given the security situation.

Mr. Abadelaal, for example, wrote in an e-mail message: “My feelings were if I can build only one school to change this ugly environment for education and provide decent and modern schools, I will go straight to heaven. You can imagine how I feel now after I managed to build 37 schools and renovate four training centers for teachers. I feel great.”

But one former employee, Nidhal Kidham, an Iraqi educator employed as an adviser for the model schools project from May 2005 to February 2006, contends that the work under the second contract was performed only superficially.

Unlike for Creative Associates’ first contract in Iraq, the USAID did not hire an independent organization to conduct an evaluation. The agency conducted internal audits.

At the time she left Creative Associates, Ms. Kidham said, staff members were concerned that they be able to report that they had trained 44,000 teachers, the number they were charged with training by the USAID. “It doesn’t matter who comes, where they come from, it’s not properly planned—just count so we have 44,000,” she said.

Wendy LeBlanc, who was hired by a subcontractor to Creative Associates to conduct training for 60 teachers in Amman, Jordan, last October, said she questions if master trainers were able to pass along their training to other Iraqi teachers in a meaningful way. Some teachers didn’t even want to take materials back to Iraq from Jordan if the materials associated them with Americans, she said.

Stephen Horblitt, the director of external relations for Creative Associates, said in an e-mail that under the Education II contract, in addition to training all the staff of the model schools, Creative Associates trained 249 teachers directly. Those teachers, in turn, passed their knowledge on to other teachers, bringing the number that Creative Associates says it trained to 40,200. The company says it monitored the train-the-trainer process from July 2005 through May of this year.

Some Iraqis say they have seen positive changes in the schools since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and they say some of the improvements can be credited to the Americans.

What’s most important to Salam Smeasim, the mother of three schoolchildren, is that the schools no longer teach the ideology of the Baath Party. Her children still use notebooks and school bags with the USAID logo, she said.

Immediately after the regime was removed from power, “Americans directly tried seriously to help Iraqis to improve schools,” said a teacher at a boys’ secondary school in Baghdad, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons. “Hundreds of primary or secondary schools have been repaired, rehabilitated, or furnished,” he said in an e-mail. “But textbooks and programs have seen no change.”

Missing School

Four Iraqi high school students who recently arrived in the United States for a youth-exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State said they had noticed little change in school since the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Education Week agreed to withhold their last names and the names of their hometowns.

Ali, a 16-year-old from a large city, said one of the few changes was that the former president’s photo was taken out of the textbooks. In addition, his religion teacher switched from teaching Islam from a Sunni to a Shiite point of view. Shiites—members of the country’s largest sect—became increasingly active in government after the end of President Hussein’s Sunni-dominated rule.

Three of the high schoolers from Kurdistan, the northern part of Iraq, said they attended school regularly. But Ali said he missed half the days in April because roads were closed for security reasons. Two of his classmates were injured last school year, he said, in a car bomb that hit the minivan carrying them to school.

In Baghdad, Ms. Smeasim said, she and other parents hire private cars to shuttle their children to school.

Some Iraqis or Iraqi-Americans want the USAID to stay in the education sector.

Fuad Hussein, the Kurdistan official, said the regional governments in Kurdistan and in the Shiite-controlled south are in a position to improve schools because their regions are stable. He said the USAID should finance education reform in those areas.

Rend Rahim, an Iraqi-American and the executive director of the Iraq Foundation, a subcontractor for Creative Associates under its first contract, said the USAID could hire local Iraqis to carry out education activities.

“I know that I can get excellent Iraqis to work for $18,000 to $20,000 per year, and I don’t have all those associated security costs,” she said. “These people desperately need jobs, and we desperately need to put money into the economy.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Withdraws From Education Reform in Iraq


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