Alumni Stories: Pablo Alfaro

Headshot of Pablo Alfaro

The Education Engineer

Pablo Alfaro combines a systems mindset with an understanding of reality on the ground

December 2021

Pablo Alfaro’s career in education is not so surprising given that both his parents worked in Chile’s public sector. 

To understand why Alfaro (CPRL 2011-12) chose to work in education as a civil industrial engineer, though, you need to start with his grandfather. 

As a young man working as a janitor at the local teacher training college, Jose Alfaro enrolled in night high school and earned a diploma. Two years later, he graduated from the very same teacher training college and began teaching in a primary school. Eventually, he helped start another school in Chile’s Coquimbo region and went on to become its principal. The Escuela Básica José Agustín Alfaro remains in operation today.

“I grew up with my grandfather’s story in mind,” says the younger Alfaro, who this past spring was appointed Education Officer for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Chile. “It became clear to me that education was key for transformation, social justice, and wakening people to their own potential and what they could achieve in life.” [Editor’s note: Alfaro emphasizes that he speaks in this story as a CPRL alumnus. His views do not represent those of UNICEF Chile.]

For his engineering thesis at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Alfaro set out to document how a national framework for managing school quality was affecting learning outcomes in individual districts and was dismayed to find that it was having no impact at all. He subsequently worked in a district himself, nominally, as an education technology project manager, but, in practice, dealing with everything from budgets to personnel. The experience was “incredibly valuable—something I’d advise for anyone who wants to work in education”—but it taught him “just how difficult it is to push change.” 

These experiences left Alfaro seeking the answer to one question, which in 2011 brought him, by way of Becas Chile and Fulbright scholarships, to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs to pursue a master’s degree.

“I wanted to know how you improve education organizations,” he recalls. “But I soon realized that my question wasn’t the best one.” Instead, in classes taught by CPRL founder James Liebman, Simon H. Rifkind Professor at Columbia Law School, and Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education & Public Policy at Columbia’s Teachers College, Alfaro learned to think about driving broader change across the entire education system. 

It was an “aha!” moment, a turning point for Alfaro, who, despite being an engineer, had not thought systemically about education nor fully articulated, even to himself, that a systemic orientation was the core skill he brought to the field. He has since applied that mindset in roles that include overseeing Chile’s then-$14 billion (USD) budget and consulting for both the World Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Even as he applies systems thinking to school improvement, he has also come to believe that effective systemic thinking entails maintaining an even sharper focus on the local level.

“To drive change, you have to connect and work with communities,” Alfaro says. “That means thinking in more and more complex ways about the challenges the people in those communities face in their day-to-day work—not just all things rational, but also issues of leadership, motivation, power, myth, and ritual.” Operating this way, he says, by definition requires flexibility, a hallmark of CPRL’s Evolutionary Learning methodology. “If you approach reality with a fixed idea of the results and a fixed design of what to implement, you’ll fail. If you co-create with the communities you serve, your design will change and so will the results you originally expected. But you’ll get reform that lasts, because it makes sense to the people who are implementing it on the ground.”

Co-creating, too, requires implementing another core practice urged by CPRL: the old-fashioned legwork of engaging all stakeholders in problem analysis, the generation of solutions, the interpretation of results and the identification and planning of next steps.

When we met with Alfaro in the summer of 2021, he gave an example of stakeholder engagement rooted in his then work with UNICEF. At that time, families were being increasingly vaccinated against COVID-19, and the organization worked with Chile’s Ministry of Education to get schools to reopen. But under Chile’s decentralized education system, districts were free to set their own course, making a full reopening difficult.

“At that point, we had backed workshops and meetings with district representatives. They'd tell us there’s a lack of financial and human resources in the districts. Maybe people got sick from COVID and hadn't been replaced or were afraid to come back. Teachers and staff reacted emotionally each time there’s suspicion of a new COVID case. Principals had to manage a difficult situation based on their personal capital, and they faced power struggles with unions and other organizations.”  

Alfaro and his UNICEF colleagues recommended that the Ministry adopt more comprehensive safety measures and provide resources and supports that were currently lacking to guarantee all children the right to an education. They also underscored the need to provide schools with models for managing unfamiliar logistical challenges, such as serving different student groups on different days and blending in-person and remote learning.  

As he looks ahead in his own career, Alfaro wants to help Latin America meet the huge educational challenges it faces as a region, particularly around issues of inclusion. 

“We need to move from a position where we teach ‘the average child’ to being able to offer something that will genuinely serve children from different backgrounds and gender orientations,” he says. “Children from indigenous, refugee and migrant families, and children with different interests and talents [need to be served]. We need to get to where the education system feels, to every parent, like a place to grow and to be more empowered.”

He knows it won’t be easy.

“One thing I learned when I was overseeing Chile’s education budget is that the education sector faces a huge challenge in terms of how power, politics, and evidence are mixed,” he says. “Everyone pushing for change needs to be well aware of that and to think about how to navigate that reality.”

His approach, he says, is to integrate three key elements: the power of processes and systems; an understanding of institutions; and a long-term focus on the goals of education itself, with a particular emphasis on culture, capital and inequity. 

“Ultimately, the things we do to improve schools—money, programs, people—may be simple,” he says. “But to create meaningful change, we must undertake them with a more complex understanding of the situations in which we apply them and the people we serve.”

In Their Own Words

Our alumni network now includes more than 500 leaders, advocates, and champions dedicated to improving school systems and other public sectors. Some alumni work directly with teachers, families, and students, ensuring access to high-quality education. Others work indirectly—supporting improvement from inside private sector organizations. In Their Own Words captures the many and varied ways our alumni lead and improve organizations in education and other public sectors.

About the Author

Joe Levine writes about education, law, science and medicine, and health care. His work has appeared in Time, LIFE, Money, Newsday, and many university magazines.