Thursday, January 15, 2004

Bill's Iraqi Education Adventure

Hoover Institute's Bill Evers has a great piece in today's Wall Street Journal on his experience with restructuring education in Iraqi. The stories about the children and parents love of education and even standardized testing are very heartening. They don't want to fight they want to learn. As they say, read the whole thing.

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 in 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 Mr. 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% of students are girls; in secondary school, 40%. 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.

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