Prof. Tahir Andrabi Surveys and Reimagines Education in Pakistan

Professor Tahir Andrabi sits on a pillow while looking up.

“What are we doing as researchers?” asks Stedman-Sumner Professor of Economics Tahir Andrabi. “We are uncovering people’s stories and telling them to the rest of the world.” 

For more than a decade, Andrabi and a team of researchers have conducted a series of economic surveys on education in Pakistan’s Punjab province. About 35,000 primary schoolchildren were tested in math, language, civics and other subjects, with report cards of the results distributed to their families and, for parents who were illiterate, explained at village gatherings and town meetings. 

“Giving Pakistani families information improved their welfare as consumers of education,” says Andrabi. “It lowered the fees private schools charge and induced lower quality private schools to improve their test scores. Public schools responded to this information by raising their quality and increasing their enrollment. We are also finding that these effects persist in these villages even after eight years.” 

The surveys also exposed some problems, including the difficulty of retaining teachers and the need for better training and better resources. 

For Andrabi, education is a “kind of ecosystem. It has teachers, textbook providers, policymakers, regulators. I can name 20 different actors,” he says. “Our job as researchers is to identify the frictions in all these relationships and to think about the barriers to innovation, so people can think about their solutions to their own problems.” 

The initial problem for policymakers, says Andrabi, “had been how to get kids in school, particularly girls and the rural poor. As more children entered schools, construction increased and researchers started to notice that it was not enough. The demand for education, for women, for girls, the aspirations parents have for their children are very high. So the question now is how to respond to that need.” 

Andrabi has been part of that response, traveling around the world and collaborating with colleagues in education and economics to “reimagine” a school of education. Invited by Pakistan’s leading philanthropist and a founding trustee of its largest private university to work on the project, Andrabi initially intended to lay the groundwork for the new school. 

Instead, he is taking a sabbatical to become the inaugural dean of the Lahore University of Management Sciences School of Education, working with eight faculty members and 40 students in a master of philosophy program on educational leadership. 

“Any problem that you can think of in the world, improving education is going to help,” says Andrabi, noting that a generation of Pomona students, who have worked with him on research, has helped pave the way for better education in Pakistan. “The great economist Alfred Marshall said, ‘The study of economics is the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.’ I’m fascinated by people in the ordinary business of life. Change is going to happen with thousands and thousands of problems being solved by these ordinary people in their everyday lives.”