No One is a Prophet in His Own Land: Escuela Nueva in Colombia
By Eduardo Velez Bustillo
Recently I had the opportunity to discuss informally with officials from the Ministry of Education (MOE) some of their ideas on how to improve the quality of rural education in Colombia. I was surprised to see that their agenda did not include strengthening of the Escuela Nueva Model (EN) that was fully supported by the MOE some years ago. More recently a ‘diluted’ version of the model has been supported by MOE without convincing results. However, several public-private partnerships are implementing the original model with significant success. One such successful experience was documented by some colleagues in a recent blog about the Urban Active Schools Program in Manizales, which has shown relatively acceptable –as compared to schools in other cities in Colombia– PISA results.
It is widely accepted that education results should include cognitive as well as non-cognitive skills. So much so that there is no good education development program that does not include both results as critical outcomes to assess the quality of the education system. Although the available evidence that exist on this subject in the developing world is scattered, there have been several academic studies showing that precisely the EN model, that target both types of goals, achieves them.
What is Escuela Nueva? The program, based on the Unitary School model (supported by UNESCO in the early 1960s), was conceived as a means of offering complete primary education in the rural areas in Colombia. Its main characteristics were the presence of a single teacher (multi-grade teaching), an automatic promotion system, a system of active learning that enables children to advance at their own pace, work in group, tutoring, educational materials that permit the teacher to work with several groups at once, provision of complete primary education when there is demand, and a teacher trained to guide students in their learning instead of simply transmitting information. By 1976 EN became an official program of the MOE practically covering all rural schools by the 1990s. Since then, the model supported by the MOE changed substantially except for some areas in Caldas, Quindio and a few municipalities in other Departments in Colombia.
The Program objectives in addition to improve quality of education (measured as learning in specific subjects) also include non-cognitive achievement: (a) active and reflexive learning; (b) analytical and applied skills; (c) self-esteem; (d) attitudes favorable to cooperation and solidarity; and (e) attitudes toward civic and democratic values.
One important program component, the curriculum component, consists of guides for students and manuals for teachers and supervisors. The student guides facilitate individual as well as group work. These guides are complementary to textbooks and are designed according to the approved national curriculum. The guides, made by the teachers during their training sessions, help the students adapt the national curriculum to regional and local needs, and encourages the practical application of material learned to community and daily life. The curriculum also provides for the organization of a school government, one of the most innovative elements of EN.
Studies in several countries,  but mostly in Colombia and Guatemala, show that when implemented well, EN has been effective in improving the internal efficiency of the education system by reducing repetition and dropout rates and increasing students’ desire to continue studying. EN students achieve better academic results in mathematics and Spanish than third and fifth grade students in schools following the standard approach. In addition, EN fosters democratic values, peaceful interaction (convivencia social); and also improves self-esteem and creativity. In other words, EN saves money at the same time that improves cognitive as well as non-cognitive education outcomes. As a result, UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have advised client countries to learn from this pedagogical experience.
In fact, the Colombian EN program is widely recognized as a successful model of educational delivery where the objective is to improve the quality of schooling, but also when non-cognitive factors are included as outcomes. Many countries, like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Brazil, Madagascar, Timor-Leste, some states in India, and the Philippines, have adopted the model or some of its components with relative success. But a clear indication that the model seems to be effective in improving education in rural areas is the recent decision by Vietnam, that after an assessment of several rural education models around the world, decided to use the Colombian model, as implemented, for example, by the Comité Departamental de Cafeteros de Caldas (Caldas Coffee Growers Committee), as the basic rural education model for the country. Clearly this is not little achievement of the EN model. It is sad that the Colombian authorities do not recognize this. Particularly considering that the Escuela Nueva Foundation that designed the original model and provides international assistance to the implementation of the model around the world is located in Bogotá.
 Forero C. et. al., 2006. Escuela Nueva’s Impact on the Peaceful Local Interaction of Children in Colombia. In Education for All and Multigrade Teaching: challenges and opportunities. Springer.
Juárez and Associates. 2003. The effects of active learning programs in multigrade schools on girls’ persistence in and completion of primary school in developing countries. Juárez Associates, US Agency for International Development).
McEwan, P. J. 2008. Evaluating Multigrade school reform in Latin America. Comparative Education. Vol. 44.
McEwan, P.J. 1998. The effectiveness of multigrade schools in Colombia. International Journal of Educational Development. Vol. 18.
Pitt. J. 2003. Civic Education and Citizenship in Escuela Nueva schools in Colombia, University of Toronto.
Psacharopoulos, G., et. al. 1993. Achievement Evaluation of Colombia’s Escuela Nueva: Is Multigrade the answer?, Comparative Education Review, Vol. 37
Schiefelbein, E. 1993. En busca de la escuela del Siglo XXI, Puede darnos la pista la Escuela Nueva de Colombia? UNESCO/UNICEF.