Bernardo H. Naranjo, PhD ’02, is recognized for his work designing and implementing strategies to improve education at public schools in Latin America. Naranjo earned his doctorate in international comparative education at Stanford GSE before returning to Mexico to launch Proyecto Educativo, an organization that works at the state and federal level to help reform low-performing schools.
You grew up attending public schools in Mexico. How did that influence your world view?
I always attended regular public schools in Mexico, the ones that were closest to home. I realized years later that officials at the Ministry of Education considered my high school a “second-tier” public school. I didn’t know that: I was very proud of my high school and had chosen to be there. My classmates were very smart, very talented. But they had low aspirations—many should’ve tried to get into the best colleges but didn’t.
After high school I went on to a Jesuit college known for receiving people from the upper classes in Mexico City. My classmates were good students but didn’t have the same enthusiasm for learning as my former classmates in the “second-tier” high school. When I recognized that, I wanted to understand why it was, why those differences existed. That’s largely why I went into education.
After earning your PhD from Stanford, you returned to Mexico and founded Proyecto Educativo. What is the premise of your organization?
Our work is based on a model with three objectives: First, make sure every child attends school. Second, support them so all of them finish at least high school. And third, make sure every student learns Spanish and math.
When you put those three objectives in the mind of every teacher, principal and public official working in education—and you start to use them as criteria for selecting actions to take—it becomes easier to know where to put your money and easier to follow up on those actions.
We concentrate our resources on the states’ lowest-performing schools, which have the poorest children. We’ve learned that equity is not only a matter of fairness, it’s the most efficient way to improve a school system. We also encourage students, teachers and different schools to collaborate with each other. It’s been amazing to discover the power of social energy in education—people helping people shows the best version of each person.
Our results have far surpassed our expectations. In 2010 the state of Puebla ranked 23rd in test scores out of 32 states in Mexico, which is not so bad considering the state was 29th in socioeconomic status at the time. We began working with them in 2011, and in 2015, for the first time ever, we reached number one. Puebla has held that position for three years.
It shows you what’s possible. You can do so much more with the resources you already have.
About 10 years ago, you and two other Stanford alums helped create a graduate fellowship fund for Mexican GSE master’s students. What inspired you to do this?
I think everyone in the educational sector should be committed to helping other people access the opportunity to study. I joined with one of my classmates from the GSE, Lucrecia Santibáñez, and Antonio Argüelles, another Stanford graduate, and we started to visit CEOs from top firms in Mexico to create a permanent fellowship program for Mexican students to attend the GSE. We were also fortunate that at the time, matching funds were available at the GSE to help.
Claudio X. Gonzalez, a Stanford engineering graduate, has a son who has been very involved in education issues here in Mexico; he took us to present the scholarship fund project to his father, who donated the amount we needed. We named the scholarship after him to recognize his generosity.
Each year the fund can send one or two people to Stanford GSE. We now have a nice group who’ve received the scholarship—some are finishing PhDs or still in the United States, but most are back in Mexico working on educational policy. We’re building a community of people who are already creating change in education.
Here in Mexico, I also helped design a new master’s program at a graduate school called CREFAL, founded by UNESCO. It’s a master’s program in learning and education policy. We just started with the first generation last year.
You were just elected to the board of Mexico’s National Institute for Education Evaluation. What do you hope to do in that role?
There are so many possibilities. It happened very suddenly: I was invited by the Minister of Education to be on a short list of three candidates to present to the Senate. I accepted but proposed a deep transformation of the Institute. The Senate chose me. They were ready for change.
It’s a very interesting opportunity because the Institute is completely autonomous. Neither the president nor the Congress can tell the institution what to do. That gives the board a lot of power, but also the obligation to use it in a responsible and effective way.
For more information about the GSE Alumni Excellence in Education Award reception, and to register for this special event, please visit the GSE’s reunion web page.