PISA 2012: Some good news from Colombia

˙ PREAL Blog

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The final scores from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released recently.  Shanghai led the world in all three subjects included in the test—math, science, and reading. Vietnam got the 7th position in math and 17th overall, several positions ahead of the USA.  Colombia got one of the worst results, just ahead of Qatar, Indonesia, and Peru in math, out of the 65 countries that participated from all over the world.

This indicates that the quality of education in Colombia is very low (in spite of some improvements in the reading test when compared with previous years), and accordingly, the results have caused a number of criticisms in the local press and the academic world.

This year many cities around the world participated in PISA, including Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Manizales in Colombia (see Table).  Interestingly, Manizales scored higher than the other three Colombian cities; and, incidentally, also higher than São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Manizales EAU (Escuela Activa Urbana) scored significantly higher than other public schools and almost the same as private schools. Why did Manizales get better results than other Colombian cities? And why did Manizales EAU score better than other pubic schools? Although right now it is not possible to establish attribution to any one factor, I will argue that Manizales has implemented some practices that may help explain the difference in the results presented in the table below.  Among the several possible explanations, there are two related ones that I want to highlight in this note.

First, for a decade Manizales has experienced a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with the participation of several institutions under the coordination of the Fundación Luker.   This partnership has supported several education interventions with the intent to increase equitable access to quality education in the city.

And second, this PPP has applied the above-mentioned EAU in 11 out of the 41 secondary urban schools in the city, representing about 25% of the total enrollment at the education level.  EAU is basically the application of the Escuela Nueva model to secondary education. The Fundación Luker has applied it since 2003, providing training for school principals and teachers, as well as some inputs like education materials and monitoring. Among the main elements of EAU, I want to highlight the following ones:

  1. Classroom management: A model that encourages students to participate actively in solving academic problems in the classroom; value democracy, tolerance, respect, and conflict resolution when interacting with others; highlights cooperation, collaboration, teamwork, leadership, and motivation of students in the learning process.  This element promotes student development and entrepreneurship, looking to facilitate their future integration into the workplace.
  2. Collaborative learning through active pedagogies: Students work in small groups using interactive, reusable modules, designed to promote dialogue, critical thinking, and application of knowledge to family and community situations. Teachers modify their role from transmitters of knowledge to facilitators of students in the learning process.  This requires guiding students to accomplish the course learning objectives, facilitating communication between students and providing feedback permanently. This element also requires students to share information and resources, take an active role in discussions about learning activities, and share the results of their work with the rest of the group.
  3. Self-learning guides that allow students to advance at their own pace.
  4. Classroom government: Classrooms are organized in school governments with committees and instruments to promote participation. This is an important educational strategy that promotes civic and democratic principles that seek to contribute to the school by way of solidarity and tolerance. It is expected that this practice induces students to develop skills to build relationships with plurality and diversity, and that it helps acquire skills to critically find solutions to problems. Likewise, students incorporate values ??such as honesty, loyalty, justice, truth, respect, commitment to service and cooperation at the same time that they develop cognitive achievement.

PISA Score by subject, geographical region and type of school in Manizales Colombia, 2012

City Math Reading






Manizales general




Manizales private schools




Manizales public schools without EAU




Manizales EAU












Rest of country








Note: Some of these results are preliminary results.

The combination of a systemic and a specific pedagogical approach is encouraging for those of us who have been proposing to combine systemic and specific inputs if developing countries want to improve their education quality.  Good systemic reforms with proper educational inputs seem to work, and the Manizales experience seems to support it.

Velez - 1 - Early Grade Reading - Education in Latin AMericaThe author is an Independent Consultant with 37 years of international experience in the education sector. He worked at the World Bank as the Education Sector Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean, and for East Asia and the Pacific.