Last week, we had the chance to meet Vicky Colbert, the 2011 Henry Kravis Prize winner and learn about her education-focused nonprofit organization, the Escuela Nueva Foundation. Today, we will post more of our interview with her and hear her thoughts on the challenges facing today’s educators.


Kravis Prize: What are some of the obstacles facing education today in the developing world?

Vicky Colbert: In my view, the main challenges in education, both in developing and developed countries, go far beyond the issues of access and coverage. The biggest obstacle worldwide is the lack of quality in education. A quality education is what really makes a difference in the growth and development of nations.

Ernesto Schiefelbein, the former director of UNESCO for the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, said, “Poor quality has long-range consequences at a time when economic growth and democracy require high quality education.” The data supports our argument. In the last decade in the LAC region, 20 percent of students enroll late, 42 percent repeat first grade and 30 percent repeat second grade. This grade repetition is extremely expensive for schools. An estimated $3.5 billion is spent annually on the 20 million students who are repeating grades.

At Escuela Nueva, we think education expenditures should focus on measures that are cost-effective in raising the level of student achievement. While access and coverage are important, investing in educational systems and teaching/learning approaches that guarantee a high quality education for all should be our main focus.

After all, high quality education is what yields significant benefits for self-sufficiency, sustainability, democracy and peace. The societal implications are vast. Without quality education, countries would not be able to sustain their achievements in key areas like health, sanitation, technology and the environment.

Kravis Prize: Can you tell us what defines a quality education?

Vicky Colbert: The World Declaration on Education for All says that quality education relates to meeting basic learning needs. On the other hand, Ernesto Schiefelbein has identified four basic learning needs that must be met before moving into more complex definitions of quality education: reading comprehension, communicating in writing, valuing good citizenship and contextual learning.

In addition to these basic learning needs, I think other modest but realistic learning objectives include the ability to resolve and apply simple mathematical operations, to observe and learn from the surrounding environment, to resolve problems in daily life and to practice democratic and peaceful behaviors. To achieve these basic learning needs, literacy is critical. Children must learn to read and understand what they have read. This is the cornerstone of quality education.

Kravis Prize: From your perspective, how does the quality of education relate to some of the problems you mentioned earlier?

Vicky Colbert: In my view, one of the root causes of problems in education is that education systems have failed to develop and innovate their methods of teaching. In many low-income schools across the globe, passive, rote-memory approaches to teaching prevail over active, participatory methods of learning.

In these settings, raising literacy rates and reading comprehension levels are not only about investing fiscal resources. These achievements require a shift in the way children are taught so that learning is meaningful, useful and joyful.

To learn more about Vicky Colbert and her visionary efforts in the field of education, please check out her profile.