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Method madness

International | IRAQ: Schools opened last month across the war-torn country, but will reform of Baathist curricula go far enough?

Issue: "California's wall of fire," Nov. 8, 2003

PROFESSOR MANAF ALI HAS returned to Iraq after 15 years, and he doesn't like what he sees. "Education," he says, "has been totally corrupted. Young people don't know anything but Saddam Hussein and his ideology."

Once the academic pearl of the Middle East, Iraqi education over the past three decades became a cult of Saddam and his Baath Party. Some texts bore the dictator's picture on the cover or title page, and nearly all contained slogans elevating the ex-president's regime while spreading disinformation and suspicion about the outside world.

Now Mr. Ali, who emigrated to the United States in 1988 and joined the faculty of the University of Mississippi, is back in the country to help change that. An Iraqi expatriate involved in Pentagon-related reconstruction, Mr. Ali is charged with restoring the civil society he knew as a child. That begins with education, he says: "We have to start with young children in elementary school in order to put Iraq on the right track."

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Some observers, however, are concerned that the effort to rebuild Iraqi education, while underway, isn't yet going in the right direction. The good news: A thousand schools have been repaired after years of neglect or damage and looting from the war. Schools nationwide opened on schedule last month, just 6 months after the war ended. One-and-a-half million satchels of school supplies are being distributed to students, and 6,100 "schools-in-a-box" are being issued to teachers.

But the next set of solutions-the ones that will transform a totalitarian propaganda machine into an educational system for democracy-will not come in a box, and it remains to be determined who will control that project-whether U.S., UN, or Iraqi personnel. Meanwhile, The U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) work in Iraq seems to be focusing more on changes in methodology than on fundamental content reform.

The man leading the effort to assemble a transitional strategy from scratch is Ala' Alwan, a 54-year-old Shiite who hails from Baghdad. Dr. Alwan spoke with WORLD last month from Dubai, where he was attending the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

A physician trained in Britain and a former dean of a Baghdad medical school, Dr. Alwan discusses Iraq's educational problems like a medical diagnosis: "First, the content of Iraqi curriculum is distorted, outdated, and completely politicized for the last three decades. Second, instructional methods are teacher-centered memorization without understanding and there has been no attempt to update them."

Preparedness is his first prescription. Readying schools, says Dr. Alwan, means staffing them and printing texts-the beginnings of debaathification. Staffing is a particular challenge; as many as 12,000-15,000 posts in a teaching force of 235,000 are vacant because of U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 1 of May 16, which banned regional and local Baath Party senior leaders from public employment.

Meanwhile, students started school with temporary texts in hand. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reprinted 5.5 million math and science texts with references to Saddam Hussein and his regime removed. A team of Iraqi teachers revised texts in other subjects. One course called "national education," essentially the study of Baathism, has been completely eliminated, according to Mr. Ali.

Training teachers is the education minister's second short-term priority. That began officially on Sept. 20, when 63 teachers gathered in Baghdad for six days of intensive workshops. Groomed as the first contingent of a master teacher corps, the attendees have been sent out to replicate the training throughout the 18 Iraqi governorates.

But the training is not about reshaping content so much as methodology, said Ellen Yount, a spokeswoman with USAID. Its purpose is to expose Iraqi teachers to "modern teaching methods," according to USAID's contract with Creative Associates International, Inc. (CAII), a Washington, D.C.-based firm that holds the largest education-related Iraq contract.

In April, CAII was awarded $63 million for K-12 education reconstruction, including the distribution of school supplies and equipment, education policy reform, and teacher training. CAII, which bills itself as "a minority, women-owned and managed firm," has a close relationship with USAID, and its program manager for Iraq, Frank Dall, is a former UNICEF director for the Middle East.

On Sept. 11, USAID briefed interested parties-mostly current or potential contractors-on agency-funded education activities in Iraq. In spite of the briefing date's significance, there were no direct references to the events of 9/11 or the role of U.S. educational aid in the war on terrorism.

Instead, the briefing provided a procedural inventory: CAII's Mr. Dall and USAID education adviser Norman Rifkin reported on infrastructure improvements, textbook reprinting, and retraining teachers in "modern" student-centered methods to replace "rote learning." Mr. Rifkin made clear that USAID would not handle curriculum development, but that UNICEF and UNESCO would be involved.

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