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.”