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Q&A: Getting to know R4D’s newest education expert

Mark Roland interviews Tarek Chehidi

[Editor’s Note: Tarek Chehidi, Ph.D., recently joined R4D as a program director on the education team. Tarek will support R4D’s efforts to work with and support education leaders in Africa to address their policy priorities and implementation challenges. He will initially focus on managing the conceptualization and launch of a global peer learning and action network for education ministries and efforts to improve the use of technology in education. 

Mark Roland, an Education Program Director, sat down with Tarek for an in-depth interview on his experience working with the Ministry of Education in Tunisia and his path to R4D.]

Welcome to R4D, Tarek! We’re thrilled to have you on our education team. To start, can you tell us a little more about your background and how you became interested in global education?

Thank you! I’m excited to be at R4D and looking forward to working with everyone on the team.

Although I’ve spent the majority of my career in the education sector, I was initially trained in finance — I graduated from the American College of Greece with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance. After that, I worked for a major bank and decided to go back to school.

While I learned quite a bit working in finance, I had a longstanding, very personal interest in trying to understand the factors which would contribute to the development of my home country, Tunisia. I had been doing a considerable amount of reading about the modernization process in Tunisia — how it started in the early 19th century and how it abruptly stopped. So, I ended up heading to Japan for a master’s degree and a PhD, where I researched modernization processes and the role of popular movements, intellectuals and thought leaders.

In Tokyo, I joined the team of the Ambassador for Tunisia in Japan as a technical advisor in charge of academic and scientific cooperation. While in that role, I worked on early childhood education in Japan, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Tunisia in 2002 to inform the ongoing dialogue about education reform. Then, two months after the parliament in Tunisia passed the Education Act of July 2002, the Minister of Education asked me to join his his team. So, I left Tokyo and went back to Tunisia.

At the Ministry of Education, my initial task was to lead the analysis that would inform implementation of three aspects of the reform process:

  1. School leadership and management: The new reform introduced the idea of having teacher, parent and student representatives on the management board of the school. At the time, this was something very new; until then, the school principal implemented what the central administration decreed without parent, teacher, and student input.
  2. The importance of citizenship education at the primary school level: Prior to 2002, education in Tunisia was defined by laws mainly focused on teaching and instruction. The new Education Act of July 2002 brought the idea that education should also contribute to developing the personality of students as citizens and better prepare them for the world of work.
  3. Violence in the school environment: I helped determine what data was necessary, and how to collect and process it in order to inform both interventions to reduce violence at the school level and ministerial decisions at a national policy level.

In 2007, the Minister of Education asked me to look at the existing information and communications technology (ICT) programs in the country. He thought they were too fragmented and lacked a clear strategy to bring them together. To address these challenges, I worked with a technical team to review all ICT programs, and in our review, we noticed there were often conflicts between ICT project leaders and the heads of the different education functional departments. And that’s understandable, because the project leaders were IT engineers and they were not from the education sector, while the heads of the education departments felt strong ownership and thought they should be leading these efforts themselves.

After we presented our findings and recommendations, the minister asked us to work on a strategy. So, we developed a five-year strategy (2009-2014) and got the go-ahead to start implementing in April 2009.

Fascinating. It’s interesting to learn about the often-circuitous routes that people take before landing in their current positions.

I’d love to pick up on the last piece around developing a comprehensive ICT strategy. As you know, there’s a debate within the global education sector about the promise of education technology and its potential to transform learning. In one camp, there are those who really grab on to the promise of ed tech and view it as a potentially transformative means of improving access and quality of education. Others are deep skeptics of ed tech.

Given your ICT background, what do you view as the appropriate role of ed tech in increasing access to education and improving learning outcomes? What are the conditions in which ed tech can advance progress in the sector?

When we looked at the existing ed tech programs in Tunisia, one thing that made us pause was that there was very little capacity building for teachers, who are the main facilitators for ed tech. Importantly, we also noticed that program teams had some difficulty in trying to explain how and why they selected a certain technology.

One of the recommendations we made was to ensure that education policies inform the use of technology rather than vice-versa. We wanted to look at education policy and the barriers to achieving certain goals — then identify how technology can help to accelerate or achieve such goals. So, we started asking the question differently.

Once we did this, something very interesting happened. Suddenly, the different directors, department heads and education teams — who previously didn’t want to get closer to ICT projects — started taking the lead. They realized the focus wasn’t on technology, it was on achieving education goals.

I’ll give you an example: teacher recruitment. The ministry spent months trying to recruit 3,000 secondary education teachers. When roles were advertised, we had more than 105,000 candidates. Since the candidates were in different towns and cities, we had to collect six copies of their ID card, high school diploma, university graduation certificates and birth certificates in order to process them. So, this process would take two to three months before the appropriate candidates were selected for the long list before the next round.

Since most of the candidates had graduated from Tunisian high schools, 99 percent were already in the Ministry of Education database. We realized that if they could just log on to a platform and enter their national ID number, then we could skip collecting all these documents and we would know what kind of high school specialization they had in science, math, technology or literature, and use that information to easily allocate them to different examination centers. Using this method, we were able to do in one day what previously took us two to three months.

So, why is this important? Because all the money, time and energy we saved on the recruitment process could then be used toward something more focused on learning.

This example shows how technology could help the Ministry of Education and its partners perform better and do their jobs faster, more efficiently and more effectively. And it helped foster a more positive attitude toward technology.

That’s really interesting. I appreciate what you said about the importance of identifying clear policy objectives before determining in what way ed tech and ICT can support those goals. At times, it feels as though ed tech interventions are in search of problems to solve. 

Maybe we can transition a bit. Some of what you’ll be working on is related to ed tech, but I’d love to hear about some of the other work you’ve been doing since you’ve started at R4D.

As you know, the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report was the first ever to focus on education; it put learning at the center of its analysis. One of its main conclusions is that, in order to transform education systems, we have to think holistically whether the various parts of an education systems are aligned to support this goal of learning. To do so, we need to support education leaders to act in a way that prioritizes learning.

The WDR was followed by more analysis from the World Bank, this time specific to sub-Saharan Africa. The report’s fourth recommendation referred to peer learning and action-oriented networks as an effective way to support ministries to work together to address the challenges of translating policies into practice and action into results in the process of education reform. But looking at existing efforts to support ministries’ implementation capacity, they are often project-oriented, short-term, supply-driven and generally not designed in a way that reflects what ministries need.

Informed by this background, and in partnership with the World Bank, we have been working to scope countries’ demand for a peer learning, action-oriented network to address education reform challenges. We have been very encouraged to see great interest and will now work closely with country teams to hone in on the problems with which they are grappling and would like to address with their peers. We believe that, with some facilitation and management support from us and the World Bank, interested countries will form a network with a learning agenda based on these shared challenges, and will then will form “learning collaboratives” to dig into these problems with their peers, share practical how-to knowledge, and co-create solutions.

During a first round of discussions with ministers from African countries and key regional organizations, a number of priority topics emerged. These included fostering ecosystems that enable innovation and change around learning, improving teaching quality, providing STEM education, providing all girls with access to education, developing the skills of youth and aligning education to the world of work, and integrating ICTs in education. So, there are obviously quite a few areas of interest, and we still have some work to do in defining the practical challenges that the network will tackle.

We also hope to work closely with the many resources and initiatives in place that are already helping to address education challenges related to these and other topics, whether at national, regional, or international levels. With the input of countries, we are designing the learning collaboratives and other activities of the network so that we leverage the expertise of national or regional actors and organizations, who will be the long-term owners of ongoing activities and impact. Our hope is that in this way, the network can act as glue to help connect actors within the education ecosystem by linking to and building on the good work that others are already doing. And one of our hypotheses is that the shared learning agenda developed by countries will give ministry teams the chance to both express demand for and help design the support and solutions they most need.

I should also mention that we are drawing on the knowledge and expertise that has been developed through R4D’s role in designing, launching, managing, and facilitating the Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage (JLN), a similar initiative for the health sector. We are being mindful about incorporating lessons from the JLN team’s 9 years of experience in supporting countries to work through key challenges on the road to universal health coverage.

This sounds like a much-needed initiative. And I’m heartened to hear that you are being intentional about ensuring that it is demand-driven.

At the same time, there’s a fair amount of discourse about what is sometimes depicted as a  tension between providing capacity building and technical assistance and the reality that a lot of the decisions that are made are largely political ones (rendering such technical assistance moot). Some suggest that, while capacity building efforts are laudable, political-economy considerations triumph when making resource allocation decisions and or determining policy objectives.

I’m curious how you view the role of capacity building efforts like this in light of the fact that a lot of decisions are inherently political.

You are right to point out that decisions in education — or any sector, for that matter — are not made solely on a technical basis. Usually, politicians set priorities for a given sector through a variety of policy and strategic lenses. These politicians are individuals with their own backgrounds, ideologies, and alliances within a given country. They are not immune to internal power dynamics, and their ways of thinking about society do influence their decision-making. So political economy considerations are important.

Because this network is not about traditional capacity building or technical assistance and instead takes a ministry-led, systems-strengthening approach, participating ministry teams will have the chance to define the practical problems they want to solve, which could be technical or political in nature, and oftentimes both!

What’s interesting is that this type of approach will bring different actors in an education system — the minister of education, senior officials, technical leaders and other stakeholders — outside the zones where they usually interact, and into a more informal space where they don’t have to represent their country or constituency, but rather can be present with peers from other countries who are grappling with similar issues. This kind of environment will give them the opportunity to share their experiences navigating political economy constraints and addressing situations where a divergence of interests among stakeholder groups can inhibit reform efforts.

Interesting. So, if I understand correctly, it’s not as such interests are abandoned, but instead you are aiming to provide spaces to acknowledge those interests and develop approaches and solutions that are not only grounded in good practice but are also realistic given existing constraints.

This is an important initiative, and once it takes shape, I hope — and believe — it will be a significant contribution to the global education ecosystem. If executed properly, it seems as though it could have far-reaching effects — not just in the countries that are part of the network but for those who will benefit from the knowledge and resources that come out of it. I wish you all the best, and we’re so glad you’re on board at R4D.

Comments 1 Response

  1. Angela Arnott June 8, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    Refreshing interview, Tarek. Wishing you all the best!


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