To reform an education system: what a task! How does one even begin? Start by talking to those who’ve done the work. In his new book, Letters to a New Minister of Education, Fernando Reimers—a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education—has assembled letters of advice from 17 education leaders representing 11 countries, from consistent high performers like Singapore to big improvers like Portugal, and from high-income countries like Australia to middle-income ones like Brazil, India, and Mexico. Among the authors are four former national ministers and secretaries of education, as well as several deputy ministers and a handful of researchers and other advisors.
So what do these experts have to say? Here are five lessons that I took away:
1. Keep students and student learning at the center of any reform.
As Manolo Reynaud—a former senior education advisor from Mexico—writes, “The main priority of any reform effort should be the students. As obvious as this may sound, when dealing with the political and policy intricacies of implementing a complex reform, it is easy to lose sight of this overarching goal.” Portugal’s former Minister of Education Nuno Crato adds, “Choose to be a Minister of students’ future. If you are a Minister of Education your main duty is… with students’ education and training, and students’ future. However, those are not the most vocal voices in education.” Finally, from Peru’s former Minister of Education Jaime Saavedra, “There must be political alignment around education reform so that student learning is always the sole focus of reform efforts.” That “sounds obvious, but it isn’t.”
2. Act early.
Otto Granados, Mexico’s former Secretary of Education, writes that “you must spend your political capital at the beginning of your term, when this capital is possibly at its highest, to make difficult—but important—decisions, even if they are unpopular.” He cites a study that from 2000 to 2015, the average term of a Minister of Education was only a little bit over two years. So get busy! Along similar lines, Cecilia María Vélez White—Colombia’s Minister of Education for a whopping eight years—writes that “it is important to have early achievements.” In her case, those included increasing enrollment and paying off debts to teachers. She goes on, “These accomplishments allowed us to work with less public pressure upon the projects with long-term results and gave us governability.”
3. Keep visiting schools and keep listening.
As Reynaud of Mexico reminds us, “Never stop visiting schools and listening to teachers, principals and parents, as well as to experts, union leaders and other policy-makers.” Sergio Cárdenas—an education professor in Mexico—provides a whole set of guidelines for learning effectively from education researchers: “If you want to develop a meaningful relationship with the research community, dialogue should be a constant activity.” Crato of Portugal writes, “Visit schools, encourage students, encourage parents, dignify education. If you succeed in these apparently simple tasks, be confident that you have already become an excellent Minister.”
4. Communicate—and listen.
Vélez White of Colombia emphasizes that “communication with teachers is always critical and it is useful to create forums and other spaces in which to discuss policies with them... During my time in government, and more so now, the Internet and social media were not only effective means to communicate the policies and actions of the Ministry, but also helpful to listen to and consider different viewpoints.” Claudia Costin, former Secretary of Education for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, “engaged in daily conversations on Twitter with teachers who wanted to connect and share their anxieties, criticism or suggestions about the educational changes.” But communication is not enough: Luis García de Brigard—former deputy Minister of Education for Colombia—reminds us that “Reforms can be fueled by smart communications. True legacies take much more than that.”
5. Implementation is crucial.
Fernando Reimers, editor of the volume, lays out in his introduction that “Policies are intentions, and implementation and execution are what enable those intentions to produce results. Ultimately, a Minister is accountable for results, not for intentions.” Oon-Seng Tan, a prominent education professor in Singapore, adds in his 10 commandments for effective teacher policies, the counsel to “Ensure coherence for effective implementation. Remember the whole is more than the sum of its parts when it comes to effective policy implementation.”
There is much more in the book. I appreciated not only the insights on education but also the example of a way to capture knowledge that usually remains tacit. Capturing the wisdom from both successes and failures of those who’ve walked the path before may not fit into a randomized controlled trial, but it’s invaluable.
Oh, and no matter how much you center on student learning, act early, listen, communicate, and ensure implementation, heed the closing reminder of former Minister Vélez White of Colombia: “Luck always helps!”