Colombia’s moment of truth

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Colombia now has an historic opportunity to end one of the world’s longest-running armed conflicts. Will the country be able to seize this chance and realise its huge economic, social and cultural potential? That depends on nothing more than on what happens in Colombia’s classrooms.
Education is the foundation for lasting peace; and, as a new OECD report, Education in Colombia, shows, over the past 15 years, Colombia’s education system has undergone an extraordinary transformation.
Enrolments in both early childhood education and tertiary education have more than doubled over the period and school life expectancy has jumped by two years. Not only that, but Colombia has been one of the very few countries in the world that were able to enroll more children and raise the quality of learning outcomes at the same time. In fact, Colombia was among the top four countries to show a significant improvement in reading in the 2012 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
But as Colombia enters the global economy, its educational success will not just be about improvement by national standards, but about how Colombian children match up to children around the world. For a start, Colombia needs ambitious common learning standards that hold for all students across the country and that set high expectations for all students regardless of their socio-economic background, the place where they live or the school they attend. According to PISA results, 15-year-old students in Colombia are still about three years behind their peers in OECD countries. Developing these standards would give the country a chance to define the knowledge, skills and values needed in a new, inclusive Colombia.
Second, all children should have access to education from the youngest age. The deep inequities observed in access to tertiary education – 9% of students from the poorest families are enrolled in university-level education, compared to 53% of students from the wealthiest families – begin before children start school. Prioritising access to early childhood education for the most disadvantaged children and ensuring that all children start school by the age of five are two of the most effective ways Colombia can bridge this opportunity gap.
Third, teachers need to be empowered to lead this transformation; but that can only happen when they know what is expected of them – and get the support they need to teach effectively. For example, some 41% of 15-year-old students in Colombia have repeated at least one grade; yet PISA results have shown that grade repetition is not only ineffective, but it demotivates students and is costly to the system. Teachers in top-performing countries embrace high professional standards and work together to give each other feedback and support to improve their teaching practices. Professional autonomy in a collaborative culture, in turn, creates the conditions that are most conducive to student learning.
Fourth, investments in education will yield the greatest return if students leave education equipped with the skills that the economy and society needs. This requires cross-government collaboration to define clear education trajectories and qualifications, help students make informed choices about their careers and build effective partnerships with future employers to expand training opportunities. Such reforms must be a priority in rural areas, where stronger links between education and work will be the linchpin for development.
None of these next steps is easy, quick or inexpensive; but only with them, and with a clear and shared vision for the future of its education system, will Colombia be able to reap all the benefits of a hard-won peace.

Press release: Colombia should improve equity and quality of education
Reviews of National Policies for Education: Education in Colombia
Colombia Highlights
PISA 2012 Results
A silent revolution in Colombia, by Andreas Schleicher
Photo Credit: @Mineducacion

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