Insights on Leading Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic - An Interview with Fernando Reimers

April 20, 2021

By Peter J. Liang

Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education and Director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and of the International Education Policy Masters Program at Harvard University. An expert in the field of global education, his research and teaching focus on understanding how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in the 21st century. He is a member of UNESCO’s high-level commission on the Futures of Education.


Peter Liang: Professor Reimers, thank you for making the time to speak about your work in education innovation and social entrepreneurship.

Let’s start our discussion with the two books you published last year, Leading Education Through COVID-19: Upholding the Right to Education and Leading Educational Change During a Pandemic: Reflections of Hope and Possibility. Can you tell us a bit about them -- what motivated you to write these books and what are some of the key insights?

Fernando Reimers: Thank you, Peter. Let me give you some context. In February of last year, I was in conversation with a colleague with whom I co-chair an initiative to develop leadership capacity among ministers of education, health, planning and finance in sub-Saharan Africa. In that conversation, I mentioned to my colleague, a renowned epidemiologist, that I was planning to go to Mexico to present at a conference during spring break. He told me that I should cancel my trip, explaining that COVID-19 was going to become a global pandemic and traveling would be severely restricted.

My next thought was what will happen to all the schools around the world. I reached out to colleagues in a number of international development organizations, including UNESCO, the OECD, the World Bank, UNICEF and USAID, to ask how we can be helpful to the education systems. Since nobody has a playbook for how to educate when in person education is suspended for 18 to 24 months -- this could turn into the biggest educational loss in a century.

Andreas Schleicher, who is the Director of the OECD’s Directorate of Education and Skills, responded to my invitation right away, and together, the Global Education Innovation Initiative (GEII) at Harvard and the OECD formed a collaboration to carry out applied research that would support governments in designing responses to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on student learning. The World Health Organization declared the pandemic on March11, 2020 and we launched our first global survey on March 13th. We analyzed the results and produced a snapshot report quickly. The big message was no one had a plan, and the big concern was that the pandemic was going to amplify every imaginable inequality, because we don't have the means to reach the poorest kids. So we offered a framework to develop strategies for education continuity. The more I talked to people about these findings, the more pessimistic I became that this was in fact going to become a real education crisis. Eventually, I decided we had to balance the findings with a sense of hope, and we decided to study some positive examples, some silver linings, from examples of innovations against the odds.

So, then we began to gather case studies through our networks to find out who's trying to do something innovative to continue to educate, especially vulnerable kids. We wanted to showcase what they're doing and talk about the impact and the success they're having. We engaged the World Bank and the OECD to augment our capacity and together we have written about 60 case studies, which immediately attracted attention, and helped motivate conversations and reflection about what could be done to sustain education even in spite the big challenges caused by the pandemic. We then produced a resource with curated online materials that could help with remote education and then carried out another survey to see what was happening.

A theme which emerged from this preliminary research was that the quality of leadership during this crisis was critical to whether effective responses, in fact any responses, were attempted. So I focused on how to make leadership a big part of this conversation during the pandemic. For the past 20 years at Harvard, I have directed a master’s program in international education policy from which about 2,000 people have now graduated. They are leaders working for governments, international development organizations, and private organizations to advance education. I reached out to ask them to write a reflective essay on the kinds of challenges the pandemic has caused for their work and leadership, and what is a realistic way forward. I analyzed those reflective essays of Harvard graduates leading educational organizations around the world, which became the foundation for the first book, Leading Education Through COVID-19: Upholding the Right to Education.

Next, I turned to social entrepreneurs. One of the things that I discovered, as a result of my association with the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative for now some 13 years, is the power of social entrepreneurs to mobilize the energy of civil society, and of the private sector. So, I reached out to exemplary education social entrepreneurs and asked them to share their experience leading during this pandemic, which is the origin of Leading Educational Change During a Pandemic: Reflections of Hope and Possibility.

After that, I published another book focusing on the leadership of Ministers of Education in Latin America. I also engaged the students in my education policy analysis class last semester to work with several governments around the world in studying the educational impact of the pandemic and in identifying options to maintain education, and we published their work in a recent book An Educational Calamity: Learning and teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic. This book was launched at a meeting with one hundred ministers of education convened by UNESCO and became a resource offering a methodology to formulate strategies of education continuity.

Liang: I appreciate the context and origin stories of these books. Fostering dialogues with education leaders during this challenging time is critical. Sharing stories of silver linings, positives examples, and innovations in a situation where people might tend to shut down or just to focus on what's in front of them is so powerful.

Reimers: Yes. One of the metaphors that I developed as I engaged in these dialogues over the last year was the result of looking back at past pandemics. For one, I looked at the plague of 1347 in Italy, which was called the Black Death. Within a year, a third of the population of Italy was wiped out. But what happened in Florence? In 1389 Cosimo de Medici is born, eventually becoming one of the leaders of Florence and the Godfather of the Italian Renaisance, the Rinascimento, as he and then his children attracted to Florence the greatest artists and thinkers of the time who eventually shape the ideas that eventually shatter the ideas that formed the Medieval world.

That's why Leonardo Davinci moves to Florence, Raphael moves to Florence, Machiavelli moves to Florence. What happens is what has been called the Medici Effect. Bringing together all these people, out of their interactions in that little city comes the Italian Renaissance, which truly helped pull Italy and eventually the rest of Europe out of the Middle Ages. I think that this pandemic could have that effect with the right leadership. That’s what the Secretary General of the UN means when he says, we need to build back better. We need to address the challenges that were with us before the pandemic -- climate change, inequality, exclusion, because the pandemic has accelerated them and deepened their impact. If we fail to understand the severity of the impact of the pandemic and its ripple effects, it will be very destabilizing and contribute to increased social fragmentation. But it's not going to get better unless people step up and say I’m going to do my share to make it happen.

Liang: Absolutely -- the Medici Effect! You mentioned the United Nations. I know you serve on the UNESCO Commission on the “Futures of Education.” Can you share with us your work there and what you see as the future of education?

Reimers: UNESCO was created in 1945, after World War II to help, along with other efforts of the new United Nations to give us lasting peace and stability. In its 76-year history, in moments of great confusion in the world, UNESCO has twice put together commissions to imagine a way forward for education. The first time was in 1970. The late 1960s was a time of great turmoil in many parts of the world, particularly among university students. UNESCO put together a commission that was chaired by Edgar Faure, Minister of National Education, France, that produced a report whose big idea was lifelong learning.

The second UNESCO commission on education was in the beginning of the 1990s. A number of events triggered that commission -- the big debt crisis of the 1980s; the sense, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, that our ideas about development had been exhausted; trickledown economics wasn't really working to address inequality. We needed a new way to think about what human development, human flourishing, would be. That was the context for the second “Futures of Education” Commission which produced the report Learning: the Treasure Within.

About a year and a half ago, UNESCO created a third commission on the futures of education. There were three related triggers for this commission. First, five years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are essentially the Declaration of Human Rights of our times -- they outline a very hopeful, idealistic vision of a world that is inclusive and sustainable, a world without poverty or hunger. The goals are very difficult to achieve, which caused UNESCO to say, education is not just one of these goals, education is the pillar supporting all of these goals -- there is no way we're going to achieve these without education. Second, there is a disconnect between the severity of the climate change problem and what we're doing to address it and education should more intentionally prepare people to understand, mitigate, and reverse climate change. Third is the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the tremendous fear that many have that AI is going to cause massive displacements for people, causing even greater social instability, inequality, and exclusion. On top of these, the early optimism that we had 30 years ago that globalization would be a rising tide lifting all boats hasn't played out that way. It is true that poverty in absolute terms has diminished considerably over the last three decades and that inequality between nations has diminished. But inequality within nations has increased -- it has increased in China, in India, in the United States. And inequalities between nations are still very large. The average income in the U.S. is still 15 times the average income in sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

All of those concerns prompted UNESCO to say we have to reimagine education. What we are trying to do on this Commission is to be a catalyst for a process of dialogue around the world and within societies about a new vision for education. We are not finished, but the kinds of things we discuss in our preliminary report examine fragmentation within societies and the fact that, paradoxically, at a time when technologies give us the opportunity to be more connected, society seems to be coming apart. Today, we know our neighbors even less than we did before technology, which is not good for social cohesion. Another thing we are thinking about is the erosion of the common good -- how do we reimagine education organizations to reveal that common good, that sense of shared purpose. A piece of that is understanding that our communities are not just local or national, they are also global. The idea that we're in this together, that we are on this planet as one species and we are either going to survive or perish together, is now more contested than it was 20 years ago. So, the question is what education can do to help people develop the capacity to work together to solve global problems, like COVID vaccines, which are not going to be solved by any one country alone. Instead, we have these nationalist fights over whose getting vaccines first, and this exclusionary nationalism that is exacerbating divisions within countries, as if you could solve the problem by vaccinating your people and not your next-door neighbors.

So, one of the notions that we're going to be presenting is the idea that school should be a center for the community, for learning everywhere and anywhere in the community, not just for people of a certain age. We recognize the great need for learning all the time. How do you make that possible in a community; how do you get the school to think differently about its responsibility. These are some of the ideas that are informing the work that we're doing at the Commission.

Another effort I have worked on for the last 10 years is developing materials to educate people to address these global challenges, and promote sustainability, as envisioned by the UN SDGs. I have developed several curricula on global citizenship and a recent book Educating Students to Improve the World which brings all this work together and which over the last year, in the midst of the calamity represented by the pandemic, has been downloaded 150,000 times.

Liang: I would add that you are distributing the curriculum you're talking about using the Creative Common license, which allows people to build on it, remix it, and bring it to life in their local communities.

Let me switch gears and ask you a few questions about your personal journey. What motivated you to get involved with social entrepreneurs in education?

Reimers: I talk about that journey in my book One Student at a Time. When I was 14 years old, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I certainly had no idea that I was going to go to university because my parents had not gone to university, no one in the apartment building where I lived had gone to university, no one in the neighborhood where I lived in Caracas went to university at that time. I went to university as a result of pure luck. My mother was a secretary, and she was involved in the parent teacher association of my school. She persuaded the principal to buy some typewriters so that we could learn a useful skill, so I learned how to type and because I learned how to type, I began a student newspaper and I got to know the school principal. He suggested I entered a national competition organized by the Ministry of Education writing an essay on the life of Nicolas Copernicus, I did and won that competition, which resulted in the principal packing my entire school in several school buses and taking us together to a big event in which I received a price from the Minister of Education. This moment was special. It motivated me to enter another national competition, this time writing a biography on the life of one of the heroes of Venezuela’s independence movement, and I won that too. I think these two events, the newspaper, and my conversations with the principal led him to take an interest in my career. He told me that I should go to college to become a lawyer because I liked to argue. He made the arrangements for me to finish my education in a very different school, in a neighborhood quite some distance from my home. I had to travel two hours each way on two different public transportation buses to go to that school -- a school which the daughters of the then President of Venezuela had attended. I learned a lot in that school; the teachers were amazing. But as I looked outside the windows of the buses, I saw a lot of variation in my city. It was the first time that I thought about poverty and inequality. In my neighborhood I saw children who were my age shining shoes in the streets, selling newspapers, selling food in the streets, in my two hour journey to my school I would travel through parts of the city where there were children living in very fragile structures in mountains, where children had no shoes, who had no clothes, walking through streams with contaminated water, and then I arrived at a school where so many kids were driven to school by chauffeurs. When you are 15 years old, and you see these differences, at the same time you are studying philosophy, history and sociology from wonderful teachers, you begin to ask why is there such a difference here?

At that time, Luis Alberto Machado, a fellow Venezuelan wrote The Revolution of Intelligence. It was a little book with a very simple idea -- people are not born smart, they become smart as a result of opportunity. That book produced a lot of dissonance in my mind, because I thought, well if everybody can be smart, why are so many people living so miserably? Does it mean they're not smart; what's the matter here? I was wrestling with that question and then, six months later, Luis Alberto Machado wrote The Right to be Intelligent. The thesis of that book was even more powerful, it stated that if talent is not inherited, but the result of opportunity, it is an obligation of a democratic state to make it possible for every person to develop their talent. There was something in that idea that just spoke to me. I thought, that's right, that's what I’m going to be, this is going to be my life. I’m going to work to make it possible for people to develop their talents. So, I went to university, but not to law school. I studied psychology instead and then I began a journey of using research to help governments make decisions that could extend opportunity to every person to develop their talent.

I did not have a plan to become a professor at Harvard. Upon finishing college in Venezuela, I was immediately hired to teach in the department of experimental psychology. I also worked as a consultant to the governor of a state who was trying to figure out why the graduates of a technical institute could not get jobs. As I compared teaching with consulting, I concluded that professors didn't do particularly useful work, that they were disconnected from the needs of real people in the real world. After my graduate studies at Harvard, I worked on policy research and consulted for governments and international development agencies, and eventually went to work for the World Bank where I was overseeing a $1 billion portfolio of education projects in Latin America. You can do a lot of good with $1 billion. When the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education called to recruit me and I thought, I have no interest in sitting in a library, talking to people who want to contemplate the world; I’m too busy changing the world. But he was persistent. I decided that I could educate other people so they could do what I was doing, and that's why I joined the Harvard faculty and created the international education policy program.

I follow my former students after they graduate. Every year, I connect with about 100 of them, meeting with them when I travel, writing to them, speaking with them on the phone and on Skype and now zoom. I ask them for feedback -- what should we do differently. I had imagined when I created this program that our graduates would become Ministers of Education or maybe they would work for the World Bank or UNESCO. To me, something like that was the goal, but then I realized that some of my former students had created their own education organization. I began to look at what they were doing, and I realized that there was a lot of value in that work, even though the scale was smaller than the scale of government programs. It was innovative; they could work on issues that governments had not even recognized; they could turn around much more quickly. Then I began to serve on the boards of some of their organizations, which gave me the chance to see that social entrepreneurship is really an important part of the picture. I am now convinced that non-state education organizations are a critical part of the education system, and they can play a very important role in the education renaissance we will need to address the challenges created by this pandemic.

Liang: As a Harvard professor, you have produced an extensive body of work in the field of education, with many books and papers. I also noticed you have created a series of children's books -- The Adventures of Filomena. What’s the story behind these children’s books?

Reimers: As I mentioned previously, I was born and raised in Venezuela, a country I deeply love. I visited Venezuela some years ago after not having visited for a period of seven years. I returned from that visit really sad from what I had seen. Venezuela is experiencing a terrible political tragedy that is causing great suffering to people and one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time that has caused more than five million people to become refugees. I didn't recognize the country I had grown up in on that visit. When I returned to Boston that January, I had to grade about eighty final papers from my students, I had to finish a book chapter, and I just couldn't focus on those tasks, kept thinking about the human suffering caused by the situation in Venezuela. I used to have a parakeet in my house, and I would put her cage on the kitchen table, which is where I would grade my papers and write. I remember looking at this bird with this thought -- why have we created such a complicated world as humans, where so much violence and misery is possible, I wonder whether your world is any easier. There was something in that thought that got me out of the deep blues, and so I wrote a short page from the perspective of the bird describing the world that it sees. I sent it to a few of my former students who have kids, and I asked them to read it to their kids and let me know what they thought. And kids are wonderful; they are so honest. They said that the story was boring, that it was terrible. So that challenged me to create a story they would like. And that’s how I wrote the first book for children in a series that now includes four books.

I wanted to accomplish two things with a children’s book. I don't think I was trying to solve the problems of Venezuela with a book, but I wanted to teach kids something that would help us build a better, more peaceful world. I thought the first thing that we all need is to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. We have to be able to see the world through their eyes. So that's what that book is about. The second thing I was trying to do with this book was to encourage conversations across generations. I have the sense that part of the fragmentation in this world includes fragmentation across generations in the same family. I think that there is so much that we could gain if grandparents and their grandchildren spend more time talking to each other and learning about each other.

So, that is the reason the books end with a series of questions, a discussion guide of sorts. I envision a grandmother reading this book to her granddaughter or her grandson and discussing these questions and the only goal of the questions is to make them think about what it means to see the world through the eyes of another.

The second book, which I wrote after a trip to Mexico, grew out of my deep embarrassment about the then government policy of putting immigrant children in cages. In this book, I don't talk about the former president who authorized that abhorrent practice by name and I don't talk about the risks to our democracy when we begin to violate the human rights of other people. I did not write about the normalization of hate and the growing intolerance I was seeing in our public discourse but instead, I wrote about the power of having a diverse group of friends. I wrote about people who have relatives in other countries, and birds and butterflies that have cousins in other countries, and they travel back and forth, because I thought those were the ideas that should be normalized, instead of normalizing hate towards those who seem different. I wrote about a hawk that is very selfish and he's trying to eat a bird whose name is Liberty. What I have tried to do is to not only write a story for kids but also a story for the adults who are reading to the kids. After this second book, I thought I was finished with my adventures writing for children but then I was having a conversation with one of my sons about life and the end of life, and so the third book is about that the end of life and caring for others, about solidarity. After the third book, I thought I was finished again but then I met this amazing art teacher who teaches refugee and immigrant children in England, where kids who speak different languages express their humanity through their art, and so that's the topic of the fourth book.

At the beginning, these books were just therapy for me to process the tragedy of the country in which I was born but they have become something else. I have found in these books another reason to be in touch with my former students, which is something I get great joy in doing. Now, they have been translated into 13 different languages. In many ways, I really haven't written these books; these stories have chosen me to write them.

Liang: Thank you for your time today.


About the Author:


Peter J. Liang is a 2021-22 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow. Peter is the founder and CEO of Leadership4Kids, a New York-based social enterprise committed to empowering kids through authentic leadership development. His recent book I AM A LEADER: A 90-Day Leadership Journal for Kids is a #1 bestseller on Amazon. He currently serves on the boards of Owl City Ventures, Columbia Alumni Association, and Prior to Harvard, Peter had a distinguished career in marketing and communications in the technology industry.



This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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