Equity & Diversity Opinion

Columbia’s Escuela Nueva Model Could Work in California

By Contributing Blogger — October 28, 2015 5 min read
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By Tom Luschei

The lesson from Latin America: targeting reforms on the neediest students works.

This conclusion has interesting implications for California. Targeting low-income students, English learners and foster youth is at the heart of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. But local control funding does something else, something more akin to the structural reforms that one sees in Latin America. It radically decentralizes decision making, putting a lot of decisions about how money is used in the hands of local communities, and in this regard, too, there are some lessons from the south.

The research on structural reforms comes from Stanford professor Martin Carnoy (2007), who finds that targeting educational resources and quality toward our most disadvantaged children works better than the privatization that Chile has undertaken. As we increase resources and quality for disadvantaged children, we will see improvements across the system.

California has gotten the structures of targeting right, and it has put decision making in the hands of local districts and communities. But so far, districts seem ill prepared to serve the disadvantaged. An initial analysis of districts’ Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) by Education Trust-West found that districts’ plans “offer frustratingly little insight into how LCFF will help accelerate efforts to close our state’s opportunity and achievement gaps.” This is especially the case with foster children, one of our state’s most educationally vulnerable populations.

This is why we need to pay attention to successful targeted reforms in Latin America. Although Finland and South Korea serve as educational models in many ways, child poverty levels are much lower in these countries than in the United States or California. In contrast, Latin America has long been plagued by severe inequality and child poverty. Any model that successfully educates poor children in Latin America must be considered in California.

Poor Rural Students Outperform Urban Kids

Colombia’s Escuela Nueva model has succeeded in incorporating poor rural children into formal schooling and in raising their performance beyond levels of children in traditional rural schools. In fact, there is evidence that the model has resulted in a rural school achievement advantage in Colombia, a phenomenon that is virtually unheard of in Latin America. In UNESCO’s 1997 regional assessment, Colombia was the only country in the region where children in rural schools outperformed children in urban schools. UNESCO’s report attributed this success directly to Escuela Nueva.

Due to the program’s emphasis on student governance, child-centered instruction, and cooperative learning, Escuela Nueva has also been linked with positive non-cognitive student outcomes like peaceful social interaction and leadership. In a New York Times opinion piece earlier this year, UC Berkeley professor David Kirp observed that under the Escuela Nueva model, “the school operates as a self-governing community, where teachers, parents, and students have real say.” Kirp observed, “I’m convinced that the model can have a global impact on the lives of tens of millions of children—not just in the developing world but in the United States as well.”

Would Apply to Immigrant Students in California

The Escuela Nueva model could have many applications and permutations in California. The model’s original emphasis on children in rural areas applies directly to migrant and immigrant youth in California, who experience substantial school mobility. Escuela Nueva’s flexible methodology is well suited to their educational needs and would fit well with locally tailored education strategy under LCFF.

Escuela Nueva has also been adapted for urban areas across Colombia. In my own research, I found urban Colombian schools using this methodology in both primary and secondary grades. A principal of an Escuela Nueva school in Medellín, which had been recognized as the top public school in the city, told me that the model had not only raised educational performance among her students, but also had created a peaceful safe haven for her students. “While out there they kill each other,” she told me, “here no. Here the students are very respectful.”

Escuela Nueva’s rich and comprehensive Spanish learning materials, based on a child-centered, cooperative, and flexible model, can also serve as a resource for bilingual teachers, especially those working in dual immersion, English/Spanish schools. Many of these teachers do not have adequate resources in Spanish for children in the upper grades. Because the Escuela Nueva pedagogical approach of collaboration and problem-solving is very aligned to that of the Common Core, Escuela Nueva learning materials could be introduced in dual immersion schools with little if any revision.

Could Work for Foster Youth

Finally, Escuela Nueva’s Learning Circles program could be adopted to address the needs of foster children, a key target population of the LCFF. According to Education Trust-West, school districts’ LCAPs have provided few innovative solutions to the problem of incorporating and educating these youth. Escuela Nueva Learning Circles were created to support and educate children who have been displaced by civil conflict and violence. Displaced children share several experiences with foster youth, including trauma, displacement, mobility, and educational underperformance.

Through the use of trained tutors and flexible multigrade teaching modeled after Escuela Nueva, Learning Circles provide a safe and informal environment that supports displaced children until they are ready to transition to the formal education system. Evaluations of the Learning Circles suggest that they have served as an effective way to transition displaced children into formal education. According to a recent dissertation study of the Learning Circles in four Colombian states by Laura Vega, displaced children participating in Learning Circles identified warm and caring treatment by their tutors as a key to their ultimate success in school.

A look to targeted educational models in Latin America, especially Escuela Nueva, provides many examples and lessons for the imaginary nation of Alta California. In many ways, social and educational conditions in California mirror those in Latin America. But the resources available to address these conditions are considerably greater. California can afford to experiment with models from Latin America like Escuela Nueva, and our state can afford to support those models that succeed.

Tom Luschei is associate professor and co-director of the Urban Leadership Program at the Claremont Graduate University School of Educational Studies.


Carnoy, M. (2007). Improving quality and equity in Latin American education: A realistic assessment. Revista de Pensamiento Educativo, 40(1), 103-130.

Vega, L. (2013). Círculos de Aprendizaje: Challenges and possibilities of flexible educational models for marginalized populations in Colombia. Unpublished EdD thesis, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.