A silent revolution in Colombia

by Andreas Schleicher
Acting Director and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General

I visit Colombia at a time when education – Colombia’s future – has moved to the forefront of the political and public debate. The latest results from PISA have triggered an unprecedented search in this country for the right policies and practices to help students learn better, teachers to teach better, and schools to work more effectively.

The public eye is on how modestly Colombian students perform when compared with students in the world’s most advanced education systems. Nobody I speak with takes any consolation from the fact that there are just three OECD countries showing a faster rate of improvement in the reading skills of 15-year-olds than Colombia, according to PISA results. Everybody here wants Colombia to play in the first league of global education, knowing that this is far more important for Colombia’s economic and social future than playing in the first league of the world football championship, where the country is already well established.

In a way, it is not fair to compare Colombia’s schools with those in OECD countries, given the far greater social and economic challenges the country faces; but policy makers here understand that, in a global economy, the benchmark for educational success is no longer just improvement by national standards, but in comparison with the best-performing school systems internationally. They realise that Colombian schools must prepare their students to collaborate, compete and connect with different people, ideas and values from across the globe.

The improvements seen in the PISA results show that Colombia is on its way. Since I first visited the country in 2002, education here has gone through a silent revolution, barely noticed by the international community, but deeply transforming the lives of people in this once conflict-ridden country. I have always admired former Minister Cecilia Maria Velez White for the ways in which she was able to establish a solid foundation for schooling in Colombia amidst even the most adverse circumstances, with a constant focus on the effectiveness of institutions and a rigorous approach to quality assurance. But the success of current Minister María Fernanda Campo to bring education to the people, to mobilise teachers and school leaders, and to build trust in the profession is by no means less impressive. Education in Colombia is becoming everybody’s responsibility, with strong links across the sectors, engaging government leaders, educators, parents, business executives and civil society leaders as partners in education. The mission is todos a aprender (everyone to learn).

We leave Bogota just before dawn for Barranquilla, hometown of Shakira. But today is not about pop music; today the Colombians celebrate education and the superstar is Colombia’s Minister of Education. She receives an enthusiastic welcome from the entire community, and students and their families, together with hundredths of teachers and school leaders, all spend their Saturday to share their experiences. Education here, some 800 kilometers from the capital, is not about politics but about creating new education opportunities. Todos a aprender provides a comprehensive vision for that, embracing an instruction system with learning and teaching materials, an inclusive approach to school management, an eye on the basic infrastructure of schools and the safety of children, and – perhaps most important – an innovative approach to teacher development that builds on the good ideas and capacity that Colombian schools already have.

Just over 3 000 of the most talented teachers were identified, through a rigorous evaluation process, to serve as mentors and tutors for their fellow teachers. I meet some of them and am inspired both by their professionalism and by their dedication to serve as innovators and incubators of change. Although somewhat suspicious at first, teachers now see these tutors as their main allies who cultivate an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice and who shape intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers. A group of teachers from Soledad recounts how the programme has transformed their local community of teachers from strangers who worked in isolation in their classrooms into colleagues and friends. And they are just a few of the 88 000 teachers who already took part in the training programme. Latin America’s school systems have been characterised by delivered wisdom handed down by government and by compliance from schools. Todos a aprender seeks to turn that on its head, putting the premium on user-generated wisdom, on enabling teachers to be inventive, and on moving from administrative control to professional forms of work organisation.

I speak with a group of older teachers whom legislation protects from evaluation but who signed on to the scheme voluntarily with the aim of improving their own teaching and that of their colleagues, and of pursuing professional development that leads to stronger educational practice. I meet a group of school principals who discuss how they can take all this to the next level, using digital technology to spread innovation and connect the ideas of school leaders and teachers throughout the country. One day, when all of Colombia’s teachers know what some already know today, Colombia will join the world’s most advanced education systems.

There is no doubt that the status quo will always have many protectors. But todos a aprender is helping educators to be bold in thinking and in actions to effect real change on the ground. It is a vision that already extends to over half of Colombia’s primary school children – more than 2.4 million children in total – with 77% of the 22 000 schools in rural areas taking part. But as one school leader explains to me, the test will be whether todos a aprender will transcend the electoral cycle and evolve from a programme into national policy. That would set this programme apart from the many reform initiatives in Latin America and could make a real difference for the future of Colombia’s students, teachers and citizens.

PISA 2012 results
Tertiary Education in Colombia (2012)
Barefoot Foundation
Photo credit: Todos a aprendar event in Baranquille /  ©Andreas Schleicher

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