You come in-country on a military cargo plane, traveling from a military airfield in Kuwait. Your plane comes down steeply from the sky (to avoid Saddamist rocketeers) to the military side of the international airport in Baghdad. You’re a senior adviser on education for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), recruited by the White House and the office of the secretary of defense and approved by Ambassador Paul Bremer. Your five-month mission is to help revive teaching and learning in a country on the mend from a fascist despotism. What’s it like?

  • It’s gratifying. The Iraqi children and grown-ups smile, always say “Welcome,” and wave. The teachers and administrators are friendly and dedicated to academic success. You could enter a classroom in the Kurdish north, in rural parts of the Sunni triangle, or in Shiite sections of urban Baghdad and sense that students are eager to learn. Iraqi parents love standardized testing and were fervently concerned not to let either the war last March and April, or the subsequent guerrilla skirmishes, interfere with the nationwide testing program.
  • It’s busy. The education advisory office is in Saddam’s main palace in the protected Green Zone, which is like a college campus (with bombed-out ruins) situated in the middle of Baghdad. The senior advisers for all the ministries have a meeting every morning (except Friday) at 7:30. It is usual for senior advisers and their top staff to still be working at 10:30 at night. People in Bremer’s office start even earlier and work later.
  • It’s not Afghanistan. I saw girls in school all over Iraq. In primary school, 45 percent of students are girls; in secondary school, 40 percent. All statistics about Iraq (including these from U.N. agencies) are shaky. But these percentages are consistent with what I myself observed. Iraq has a tradition of valuing education and a reputation for having produced, in the pre-Saddam era, some of the best architects, doctors, and engineers in the Arab Middle East.
  • It’s not as scary as it looks on TV. But you do have to exercise reasonable prudence. I traveled in Baghdad and around the country more than most civilians who worked in the Baghdad palace. Usually I traveled with guards armed with assault rifles. I personally found it a bit nerve-racking whenever I was stuck in a traffic jam. But in five months I never saw a firefight, a bleeding wound, or a dead body. I felt and heard explosions, but none were closer than several football fields away. Watching TV coverage of Iraq is much scarier than being there.

In a sense, much of my and my colleagues’ efforts were to help a multitude of coalition civilian agencies, military units, and international agencies talk to one another and coordinate work in the field of education. We didn’t, for example, want Japan and the U.S. Agency for International Development both trying to repair the same school. We also tried to create conditions for normal schoolwork by children and teachers. When American or international agencies wanted to impose progressive education (learn-through-play) in Iraqi schools, we reminded representatives of these agencies that Iraqis had to decide what they wanted to be taught in the schools and how it would be taught.

While there, I and my colleagues in education met with school officials from the provinces, who since the war had been largely cut off from Baghdad (in a country that has lately had no postal system, no telephone system, and little Internet access). We helped re-establish communication with Kurdish officials who had functioned independently of Baghdad for 12 years. The coalition military working with civilian advisers made sure that hundreds of thousands of teachers scattered around the country were paid regularly, in the absence of a working banking system.

We monitored efforts by Bechtel, the military, and charities to rehabilitate run-down schools. A few schools were hit with shells or sustained some other war damage during the war; substantial numbers (2,753 schools, according to UNICEF) were looted. About 80 percent of schools had seriously deteriorated after more than a decade of neglect by Saddam Hussein.

Religion is taught in Iraqi schools as a subject now, as it was under Saddam. If you are a Muslim, you take classes in Islam. If you are a Christian, you are excused from taking Islamic classes. If there are enough Christians in a school, a Christian teacher teaches them classes in Christianity. The Saddam textbooks on Islam are not Al Qaeda reprints, but they do present a Sunni interpretation on such matters as ritual ablutions and the early caliphate. Shiite students were forced under Saddam to learn the Sunni interpretation, which was the only interpretation of Islam allowed in the schools. With the exception of a school for the diplomatic community, there were no private primary or secondary schools. Independent schools were nationalized in the 1970s. Currently, the Ministry of Education has a task force drafting a measure that would once again legalize private schools.

Under Saddam, propaganda was in all the textbooks, even those for physics and foreign-language instruction in English. The most egregious propaganda was in history and civics books. A history book published under Saddam would say, for example, that the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was merely an instance of the warlike nature of the Persians and their eternal hostility toward the Arabs. During the summer of 2003, Iraqi schoolteachers decided that Saddam’s civics textbooks were so full of propaganda that they were not salvageable. So civics courses were removed from the curriculum for 2003–’04.

After Iraqi schoolteachers removed from textbooks pictures of Saddam, as well as quotations and propaganda from him, we CPA advisers monitored efforts by U.N. agencies to print the de-Saddamized books. We worked with Iraqis to remove senior Ba’athists from teaching and administrative positions, while ensuring that those removed had a process for appeals. We helped Iraqis launch a new program for training teachers in effective classroom practices.

In early September 2003, my colleagues and I handed authority over the school system to Dr. Ala’din Alwan, the minister of education appointed by the Iraqi Governing Council. We continued to offer advice and counsel when the minister requested it, and we provided liaison with other CPA officials.

The White House had specifically told my colleagues and me to concentrate on getting the children, teachers, and textbooks back in the classrooms. We were wisely admonished by White House officials to offer our best advice when asked by Iraqis but to avoid directly imposing extensive reforms on the Iraqi schools. We followed this suggested course. Thus, we helped remove totalitarian teachings from the classrooms, helped the schools and ministry resume operations, and kept our advisory office small. Now Iraqis themselves are restructuring the ministry organization, considering decentralization plans, and holding forums on curriculum reform and the future of Iraq’s school system.

We almost always handed on responsibilities that were handed to us, as soon as possible, to Iraqis. The big exceptions were monitoring money and progress. Naturally, with so much American taxpayers’ money going into Iraqi schools, the advisers had to watch where the money was going. The Ministry of Education has its problems, including the need for a replacement for a headquarters building that had been looted and burned. But because Iraqis have assumed responsibility in the schools and the ministry, Iraqis themselves are now charting the future course of education in their country.

As the Coalition Provisional Authority turns over civilian and military responsibilities to the Iraqis between now and the end of June, I hope the process goes as well in other fields as it has in education.