Texan finds Iraq a learning experience; Former education chief tapped to help rebuild tattered school system

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When war loomed in Iraq, Karen Nelson briefly considered the possibility that one of her three grown sons could face compulsory military service.

“But I didn’t think their 53-year-old father would be the one drafted,” she said.

He wasn’t drafted, exactly, but former Texas Education Commissioner Jim Nelson found himself pulled into Baghdad. He was one of a core of American educators asked to help rebuild Iraq’s rundown school system – and throw in a little American-style standards-based reform.

“It’s going to take time to get everything in order, but I sense that the Iraqis are patient,” Mr. Nelson said recently in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “There’s an awful lot of work to do.”

There’s no doubt about that. The leaders of Iraq’s school system were shown the door with the old regime. They left behind a system fraught with collapsing buildings, textbooks packed with Saddam Hussein propaganda and a 30-year-old curriculum.

Mr. Nelson returned home this week after nearly two months in Iraq. He had planned for a longer stay – perhaps until Christmas.

But last week, former World Health Organization official Alaudin Abdul-Shaheeb al-Alwan was named to head Iraq’s education ministry, taking over the leadership role that Americans had been asked to fill.

And he acknowledges a personal reason for his return: “I missed my family.”

Mr. Nelson resigned the commissioner’s post last year to become a senior vice president of Voyager Expanded Learning, a Dallas-based education company. He was still at Voyager in May, when he got an unexpected Friday afternoon call from a White House staffer.

“He told me they wanted to put together a team of people who could help Iraq’s school system get back on its feet,” Mr. Nelson said.

It wasn’t the first time President Bush’s office had turned to Mr. Nelson. While governor, Mr. Bush had appointed Mr. Nelson education commissioner in 1999 and, before that, as chairman of the State Board for Educator Certification. But that didn’t mean the latest call was expected.

“It hit me cold. I told him I’d have to go home to think about it.”

A weekend of contemplation – and a consultation with his wife – led Mr. Nelson to call back and volunteer. A few weeks later, he and the other education advisers headed to Washington for training. They landed in Baghdad on July 25 and got to work.

Strong backgrounds

The three main American advisers – Mr. Nelson, Leslye Arsht and Bill Evers – have stronger backgrounds in standards-based education reform than in international work.

Ms. Arsht is founder of the Washington education nonprofit StandardsWork, which helps states and school districts develop and codify their academic standards. Mr. Evers, a resident scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, helped develop California’s curriculum. And Mr. Nelson, who lives in Denton County’s Lantana development, oversaw much of the development of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the state’s new standardized test.

“There are some universal truths in education,” Ms. Arsht said from Baghdad. “In some ways, educators here are just like ones back home.”

When coalition officials began rebuilding Iraq’s government after the war, Baath Party members who were loyal to Mr. Hussein were removed from their positions. That meant the top four layers of the education ministry’s bureaucracy were suddenly vacant.

That leaves a major leadership void, one that Mr. Nelson hoped to use his Texas Education Agency experience to help fill.

“I think they were interested in me because I had been involved in leading a very large system,” he said.

The Baath presence in the education ministry was even stronger than elsewhere in the Iraqi government. The old regime used the schools as a propaganda pulpit, a place to promote Mr. Hussein’s status as unquestioned leader. All layers of the system were packed with party ideologues, from teachers on up.

“We were looking at a physics textbook … and every few pages there was a quote from Saddam, a big picture of Saddam,” Mr. Nelson said. “There were word problems talking about ‘the glory of battle’ and defeating your enemy.”

‘A new culture’

Teams of Iraqis have been tapped to go through the old textbooks, and new versions are on the way. It’s unclear if they’ll be ready for the start of the school year on Oct. 1.

“It’s not just removing people. It’s also a matter of a new culture,” said Fuad Hussein, an Iraqi expatriate who returned to help.

Perhaps the most immediate concern is bringing the nation’s school buildings up to snuff. The deposed regime spent little on school maintenance, and some schools were damaged by bombing during the war or looting.

UNICEF estimates that 5,000 new schools are required just to deal with the overcrowding caused by the population growth of the last 20 years. Classrooms often hold 70 kids or more – even though about a quarter of Iraqi children don’t go to school.

“There’s open sewage on a lot of playgrounds,” Ms. Arsht said, adding that the coalition authority hopes to have 1,000 of Iraq’s 13,000 schools renovated by October.

Some moves have already been made. Despite the chaos of postwar Iraq, the country’s traditional high-stakes, end-of-year exams were held earlier this summer. Students must pass these tests at various points in their schooling to continue their education, and parents were anxious to make sure the tests were given as normal.

The coalition authority quickly raised the salaries of teachers to levels 10 to 20 times above what the regime had paid. Mr. Nelson said that should help put an end to a problem under Mr. Hussein: poorly paid teachers taking bribes for good grades.

The nation’s teachers also will need to be trained in how to teach without the umbrella of Baathist ideology.

“The previous government militarized education,” Fuad Hussein said. “Most of the teachers are products of that ideology. They haven’t seen any other system.”

Ms. Arsht also said she wants school leaders to be able to pick which teachers they hire – a job that was previously given to Baghdad Baathists. “I talked to the headmistress at one school, and she said that’s the one thing she wanted – the right to choose who her teachers are.”

New curriculum

Once progress is made on facilities and the teaching corps, work can begin in earnest on rebuilding the nation’s curriculum. Ms. Arsht said the process will, in some ways, be like the one American educators go through when setting new standards: exposing teachers to best practices from elsewhere and discussing what path the country wants to take.

That conversation hasn’t taken place for decades, she said, which has left an educational system heavy on memorization and regurgitation, light on concepts and analytical thinking.

“They’ve been very isolated – they weren’t allowed to travel or keep up with the progress that’s been made in education elsewhere,” Mr. Nelson said. “The health care people here talk about the same problem – they have some very smart doctors, but they haven’t seen a medical journal in 20 years.”

The Americans faced the expected challenges. Security was a concern even before the car bombing at Baghdad’s U.N. headquarters last month.

Still, Mr. Nelson said he never felt endangered, at least not until Monday, when he took off in a C-130 transport aircraft. Someone fired a missile at the plane.

“That’ll keep you up at night,” he said Friday.

He’ll go back to work at Voyager while retaining ties to Iraq through an effort to build partnerships between Iraqi and American schools.

The program, to be organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers, will be geared to providing academic supplies.

“Even when you get buildings fixed up and repainted, they still don’t have much in the way of materials, supplies, equipment,” Mr. Nelson said.

Last month, he and other officials took a trip to the Kurdish city of Irbil and a high school said to be the city’s best.

“The library was just two filing cabinets,” Mr. Nelson said.

“I told one of the local officials, ‘When I get home, I will make sure we develop partnerships with your schools here,” he said. “In Irbil, when you make a promise, you have to keep it.”

Column: True dropout rate? It takes calculating

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Traditionally, Aristotle is given credit for formulating something called the Law of Non-Contradiction. It holds that two contradictory ideas cannot both be true at the same time.

As a test case, let’s take a look at the Houston school district:

* Houston ISD’s official annual dropout rate is only 1.5 percent.

* In 2001-02, Houston high schools enrolled 19,370 freshmen – and only 7,756 seniors.

Best of luck wrapping your head around that one. Somehow, thousands of kids get lost on the path to graduation, but the district’s dropout rate remains microscopic.

Not too long ago, the Texas Education Agency figured out that HISD didn’t pass the sniff test and launched an audit into the way the district counts its dropouts. Last month, state officials announced they had found enough deception and incompetence to lower the state ratings of 15 Houston schools.

The national media have loved the story as much as you’d expect, considering Houston’s former superintendent (Rod Paige) now leads the U.S. Department of Education. (There’s a fellow named Bush who gets mentioned a lot, too.) The New York Times has written about Houston dropouts at least seven times in the last couple months, twice in front-page stories.

But one thing’s been lost in all the attention. Houston isn’t the exception. It’s more like the rule.

“It’s a real mess,” said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center. “Houston is certainly not unique.”

I’m not saying that everyone commits fraud on the same scale that’s alleged in Houston. I am saying, though, that if you want to know the size of a school’s dropout problem, the number it reports as its official dropout rate is often one of the worst places to start.

“As honest as they all want to be, I think most states have problems with what they report,” Dr. Smink said.

Why does an accurate dropout rate matter? (Aside from the old-fashioned value of honesty.) For one thing, it’s hard to tell if things are getting better if we don’t know how many dropouts there are to start with. For another, every Texas high school’s state rating is based in part on its dropout rate. Too many dropouts and a school’s rating drops.

That creates a laudable incentive for schools to get their dropout rates down. They can do this by keeping more kids in school – or they can do it by playing with records until they produce a number that seems low enough for comfort.

Take Dallas, for instance. DISD’s official dropout rate is 1.1 percent. In 2001-02, it enrolled 15,097 freshmen and just 6,307 seniors.

I wonder what Aristotle would do with that one.

Kimball High School’s records show it enrolled 677 freshmen and only 252 seniors. The total number of dropouts at Kimball in 2000-01, the most recent year available? One.

The previous year? Zero.

Unlike state tests – which are written and graded by people far away from campus – dropout rates are reported by schools. They’re, shall we say, “flexible.”

State policy requires schools to assign a special code to every kid who leaves school. Kids who get assigned certain codes are counted as dropouts. But there are other codes that mean kids can disappear without counting against the school’s record.

Sometimes, that’s legitimate. If a kid transfers to a private school, for instance, he obviously isn’t a dropout. But many schools have figured out that certain codes can be abused. That was the problem in Houston.

And I’d bet you $20 that if TEA started auditing schools elsewhere, it’d find that’s the problem around the state.

Check for yourself: Go to the TEA Web site (www.tea.state.tx.us) and look up something called an AEIS report for your school or your district. That’ll give you all the numbers you need to run your own rough comparison. It’s certainly not an exact measure, but a wide gap should tell you something about your school’s ability to keep hold of its students.

In 2001-02, Texas schools enrolled 364,270 freshmen – and 225,756 seniors. The state’s official annual dropout rate: 1 percent.

No matter how you slice those numbers, they don’t end up with a legitimate 1 percent dropout rate.

To be fair to Texas, you can find the same problems elsewhere. I called around to a few randomly chosen states, and they all reported annual dropout rates of 2 percent or 3 percent – lower than what their enrollment figures would suggest. “Every state reports numbers that are too low,” Dr. Smink said.

Want evidence of how widespread the fudging is? In 1988, before the state developed the rating system it uses to judge schools, Texas’ annual dropout rate was 6.7 percent. Last year, it was 1 percent.

That would seem to indicate Texas has eliminated about 85 percent of its dropout problem in a little over a decade.

Anyone who believes that is welcome to head to eBay, where I’m offering a tremendous deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at jbenton@dallasnews.com.