The Escuela Nueva movement was started in Colombia in the 1970s by Vicky Colbert, Beryl Levinger and Óscar Mogollón. Its website makes a number of impressive claims:
'With simple, concrete strategies,' they say, 'Escuela Nueva promotes a classroom environment where students actively learn, participate, and collaborate; and strengthens the relationship between the school and the community. It is a flexible educational model tailored to meet the needs of each individual child, allowing students to complete units and advance to higher grade levels at their own pace.'
'It improves retention and academic achievement, lowers the dropout and grade repetition rates, and develops values and social skills of civic, democratic behaviors and peaceful coexistence.'
There are now over 20,000 schools in Colombia run on the Escuela Nueva system. This means that about a million children are involved in Colombia alone. Worldwide the number is claimed to be five million, mainly in South America.
In 2014 David Kirp, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, visited a one-room rural schoolhouse an hour's drive away from Armenia. He wrote an article in the New York Times about his experience there. He tells how he found thirty youngsters aged from five to thirteen, engrossed in study, grouped at tables, each corresponding to a grade level. The hum of conversation filled the room. When they had tackled assignments on their own, the students reviewed one another's work. If someone was struggling, the others pitched in to help. The teacher moved among the groups, leaning over shoulders, reading and commenting.
These children, says Kirp, were learning by doing, rather than being endlessly drilled for national exams. Poor children in developing nations often drop out after a year or two because their families don't see the relevance of the education they're getting. In Colombia children at schools like this are more likely to stay in school than their counterparts in conventional education.
Kirp met Vicky Colbert, one of the founders of the movement, who told him that Escuela Nueva 'turns the schoolhouse into a laboratory for democracy. Rather than being run as a mini-dictatorship, with the principal as its unquestioned leader, the school operates as a self-governing community, where teachers, parents and students have a real say in how it is run. When teachers unfamiliar with this approach are assigned to these schools, it is often the students themselves who teach them how to apply the method.'
'In these schools, citizenship isn't abstract theory,' said Colbert. 'It's daily practice.'
In another school which Kirp visited in a poor neighborhood actually within the city of Armenia, the student council were planning a day set aside to promote peace, operating a radio station and turning an empty classroom into a quiet space for reading and recharging.
Kirp concludes his article with a comment on a quotation from Rachel Lotan, a professor emeritus at Stanford, who said, 'Doing well on the high-stakes test scores is what drives the public schools, and administrators fear that giving students more control of their own education will bring down those scores.' 'Officials, and those who set the policies they follow,' says Kirp, 'would do well to visit Colombia, where Escuela Nueva has much to teach us about how best to educate our children.'
From the website we learn that 'According to an international comparative study conducted by UNESCO in 1998, other than Cuba, Colombia provided the best primary education in all of Latin America to children living in rural areas. Also, with the exception of some major cities, Colombia became the only country in which rural schools performed better than schools in urban areas.'
Why, seventeen years later, has this example so seldom been followed?