Re-Opening Schools in Iraq

Published November 1, 2004

In December 2003 I became U.S. advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Education. Strapped into a parachute seat, I was flown into Baghdad in a C130 military transport plane, with stomach-turning air maneuvers to avoid mortar and rocket attacks. I immediately began 14-hour work days, seven days a week, in one of the most remarkable missions the U.S. has undertaken since reconstruction of post-World War II Europe.

The goal: completely rebuilding Iraq’s education system.

I worked in enormously difficult conditions for eight months side by side with a team of Iraq education ministry officials and educators, U.S. foreign service officials, and USAID workers. For you to understand this assignment’s difficulty, I must explain public education in Iraq:

Six Million Students

There are approximately 6 million K-12 students, and 300,000 teachers and administrators. Education is mandatory only through the sixth grade. Students who do not pass the mandatory national exit exam in sixth grade can progress to a vocational track. However, vocational education in Iraq is extraordinarily antiquated, and few students elect that option.

Boys and Girls Segregated

While there is some anecdotal evidence that girls are under-enrolled in schools–especially in rural regions–no empirical data exist to support that claim, since no census has been held for years. However, there are separate schools for boys and girls, especially beginning in seventh grade. Areas that cannot afford separate schools create different gender locations within classrooms, with boys sitting on one side of a classroom and girls on the other.


Religion is taught in public schools. Under the previous regime, only the Sunni interpretation of the Koran was taught. Students from non-Islam religions were not required to attend religion classes, but if 20 or more Christian students attended one school, a Christian religion class was offered.

Funding and Facilities

Under Saddam Hussein, the regime siphoned education funds to pay for military expenditures and other priorities. Teachers received on average a mere $5 a month. When the regime fell, approximately 80 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school buildings needed rehabilitation and lacked basic sanitary conditions.

Politicized Curriculum

Hussein also politicized the schools, influencing everything from curriculum, to teaching and administrative staff, to admission policies.

Teacher Training

Teachers have received little training. Teaching in Iraq relies heavily on government-produced textbooks and is characterized by “memorization without understanding.” There are very few school libraries and no school labs. Effective lesson plans that rely on student discussion or interaction between teacher and student or among students are rare.

Post-War Education

The U.S. and its coalition allies have already accomplished much. One of the most remarkable achievements was how quickly schools opened after the end of the war in April 2003. Fortunately, very few schools were actually damaged in the war itself.

Within four weeks, most schools were opened and students were preparing for their final exams. The national exams were held in all regions of Iraq with very little delay or disruption. National exams at all levels, but especially the exit exams at sixth, ninth, and twelfth grades, are high-stakes exams and Iraqis respect them.

Teacher salaries were raised from $5 a month to a starting salary of $60 and an average of $300 a month.

A new Minister of Education was appointed who quickly assembled a new senior staff. Some 12,000 teachers and administrators who had been members of the now-banned Ba’ath Party were fired.

USAID has rehabilitated more than 2,500 schools and trained 33,000 high school teachers in effective and modern classroom management.

UNICEF and USAID distributed school supplies to more than 5 million students and reprinted textbooks, after removing much of the propaganda from the previous regime.

The U.S. Congress has allocated $70 million to rehabilitate 1,000 additional schools, and the World Bank has allocated another $60 million. These funds set the stage for school reconstruction for the next three years.

The U.S. and other donor nations have pledged an additional $150 million for textbook revision, teacher training, and other non-construction projects. Teachers, for example, need to be trained in a variety of teaching strategies to ensure all students learn.

The Ministry of Education has revised curriculum in the areas of civic education, history, and religion and has appointed a new national curriculum commission to revise curriculum in all subject areas.

Despite these early accomplishments, much more remains to be done. Poor security conditions are hampering school reconstruction efforts in many regions. In addition, per-pupil expenditures in Iraq are the lowest in the Middle East. But until a new government is elected–one that will be accountable to students and parents–officials are unlikely to change the status quo.

The most serious obstacle to education reform in Iraq is an overly bureaucratic system and a workforce that has been isolated for 30 years. The system needs to be decentralized so that schools, principals, and teachers can be held accountable for performance. There are no school boards, much less charter or private schools, in Iraq.

Those of us in the U.S. charter school movement know how difficult it is to develop an effective charter school when the authorizing system becomes too bureaucratic. I return from Iraq fully understanding how every layer of administrative paperwork and bureaucracy can interfere with the flow of a quality school.

Pamela Riley ([email protected]) is director of School Partners, a program of Spirit of America, a nonprofit organization that is helping Americans who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan to improve the lives of needy Iraqis and Afghanis. The School Partners program will link American and Iraqi high schools. American schools interested in participating should visit the Spirit Web site at

A longer version of this article first appeared in the September 5, 2004 newsletter of the New Hampshire Center for School Reform.