U.S. Cuts Aid to Iraqi Education System

The U.S. government is ending its support for public education in Iraq, ending a program it has run since the occupation of Iraq began in 2003. Under the project slated to end on Sept. 30, the United States Agency for International Development trained teachers and provided supplies to students and schools. Robert Siegel talks with Mary Ann Zehr, a reporter with Education Week.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Direct U.S. government support for public education in Iraq will end next month. Ever since the occupation of Iraq began in 2003, U.S. funds have paid for teacher training, textbooks and also for repairs to school buildings. The project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development, will end on September 30, just before Iraqi kids return to school in October.

Reporter Mary Ann Zehr writes about this in Education Week, and she joins us now. Thanks for coming here.

Ms. MARY ANN ZEHR (Education Week): It's nice to be here.

SIEGEL: What's the explanation USAID has given for ending its support of public education in Iraq?

Ms. ZEHR: Well they mentioned that they have just awarded a new contract that will provide capacity building for ministries. That contract does include education. So they're saying that they're taking a step back and providing some support at the ministry level. That's a small piece, though, of what they were providing over the last three years.

SIEGEL: A USAID contractor called Creative Associates International handled most of the U.S. government's education projects in Iraq, although I gather not the actual construction or repair of school buildings. What did they do?

Ms. ZEHR: They trained teachers. In the last two years, Creative Associates says they trained 40,200 teachers. But when I asked them how many master trainers they had trained, in other words, the teachers whom they had trained directly, they said several hundred. And I said well, how do you know those teachers passed their training on in a meaningful way? And they said well, we monitored it for one year. Meaning they might have sent their staff out to some of the training sessions to see what was going on.

SIEGEL: But you suspect that they're multiplying the number of trainers whom they've trained and coming up with a larger number?

Ms. ZEHR: The larger number is definitely based on a train the trainer approach.

SIEGEL: But when you have spoken to Iraqi educators, what's the sense you get of what they make of the U.S. contribution to Iraqi education over the past couple of years?

Ms. ZEHR: I think one of the things that's most visible actually is the fact that the American company did provide furniture, supplies, book bags, notebooks, pencils to children after the start of the war. I interviewed one mother of three children in Baghdad who said that her children still use book bags that were provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

So I think to ordinary Iraqis what is most visible is that the American company helped provide the materials and the furniture to get back to school.

SIEGEL: Is the retreat from spending on public education, does it reflect at all the concern about security? That is, is it a dangerous business to be an American out training Iraqi teachers somewhere in the provinces?

Ms. ZEHR: It's very dangerous to be in Iraq right now. I interviewed about six employees who had worked for Creative Associates. By the way, Creative Associates did not permit me to interview any employees who are currently employed with them. Individuals say that their budgets were cut for certain projects because the security costs really rose.

SIEGEL: Is there some idea that the U.S. role in Iraqi education over the past couple of school years stands for? Can one say that we, our country, made a gift of some pedagogical technique or philosophy to the Iraqis that might conceivably live on after the USAID funded role?

Ms. ZEHR: There might be a teacher who received some training and was really excited about it, but if you ask just a parent, a mother or a father at a school, I just wonder if they've really seen the impact of the American investment in education.

SIEGEL: Well, Mary Ann Zehr, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ZEHR: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mary Ann Zehr writes for Education Week. Her article about the end of direct U.S. support for Iraqi schools appears in the newspaper's August 30 issue.

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