By Nadia Ali, Program and Research Assistant, Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD)

On March 9, 2018, Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School assembled experts in education research and practitioners from Saudi Arabia to discuss the country’s education landscape and draw lessons from the latest findings on education reform.

In his keynote address, Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University emphasized the need to build skills to foster economic growth. Education, he said, is a key component of that process.

The symposium, led by HKS faculty members Asim I. Khwaja and David Deming, aimed at connecting policymakers and researchers to launch studies as a policy-research engagement between EPoD and the Ministry of Education nears transition to the next phase. The program focused on several high-priority themes for the Saudi education sector: early childhood education, teacher training and development, skills and employability, 21st century skills, quality, and testing.

Attendees included veteran teachers, university administrators, leaders of technical and vocational training corporations, Ministry of Education officials, and Ph.D. students with an interest in research related to Saudi Arabia. 

Chloe Gibbs of the University of Notre Dame led the discussion on early childhood education. Topics included evidence on the effectiveness of early childhood interventions, the quality-quantity tradeoff in program design, and the need to reexamine qualifications of kindergarten teachers. Nada Saleh A. Al-Ismail, General Supervisor at the General Department of Supervision at the Ministry of Education, underlined the need to conduct rigorous evaluations of teacher training programs.

Khwaja encouraged attendees to consider all stakeholders: “We must also look at the perspectives of the student, the teacher, and the parent, whose voices are often absent from the conversation,” he said.  

Technical and vocational training and education was a subject of lively discussion, as participants debated the sector’s role in providing skills for the labor market, and the place it should occupy in the reform agenda. “In the long run, we need something more than technical skills. We need the ability to adapt to the changing economy,” said Hanushek.

Faculty members Martin West and David Deming highlighted the limitations in testing of non-cognitive skills, and emphasized the importance of intra and interpersonal skills. West said, “We need a flexible system of education that gives students a solid foundation but also allows them to go back later in their careers and get trained in new skills.”

The symposium rounded out a week of activities, which included a workshop on using evidence and applying EPoD’s Smart Policy Design and Implementation (SPDI) methodology to real-world education problems.

Dr. Abdulrahman Mirza, Director General of the National Center for Research on Educational Policies, explained: “We went through the SPDI process of trying to analyze the problem and trying to diagnose the reasons, coming up with a design, then doing implementation and testing. We spent about two days on that process and in the last day, each group presented their problem and what they did about it and the solution they hope to get done. It was a very good hands-on application process.”

Mirza has high hopes for the collaboration. “The first phase is one year, and if things go well—and things are looking good—we’re going to move into the second phase, which would be five years of extensive collaboration on research and studies, doing a lot of work on education policies, trying to come up with solutions to some bigger problems in the educational system in Saudi Arabia.”

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Vestal McIntyre
Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School
+44 7947 866564