Supporting Teacher Professional Development: Program Sustainability in Colombia

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Part of the SpringerBriefs in Education book series (BRIEFSEDUCAT)


In 2012, the Ministry of Education of Colombia introduced a large-scale teacher professional development program called Todos a Aprender (PTA) to reduce the urban–rural education divide in the country. Over two presidential administrations and in the face of initial opposition, PTA has proven to be a public policy success in a country where program sustainability is historically a challenge. This case study attempts to distill the salient lessons from the Todos a Aprender story to provide policymakers with insight into mechanisms to generate long-term support for such type of program. Above all, PTA centered teachers in their programmatic decisions by recognizing their deep skill-set and contextual knowledge, thus allowing them to be the primary agents of change. Textbooks and learning materials were also of the utmost priority, as schools in many rural regions of Colombia lack adequate supplies. Finally, effective and efficient implementation, and a focus on continuous improvement, solidified the program’s gains. Results from impact evaluations conducted by the Universidad de los Andes in 2016 indicated that PTA was shown to have raised the percentage of students that achieved a satisfactory or advanced level on the national Saber exams. As such, Todos a Aprender has now become a fully integrated policy of teacher professional development in Colombia.

3.1 Introduction

In 2012, the Ministry of Education of Colombia introduced a large-scale, in-service teacher professional development program in primary schools called Todos a Aprender (PTA), with the goal of closing the urban–rural student achievement gap. As in many Latin American countries, Colombia exhibits multipronged disparities in resources and opportunities between urban and rural regions. In 2015, 97.9% of urban households had access to clean water, compared to 66.5% of rural households. In that same year, 40.3% of the rural population was living under the poverty line, while only 24.1% of the urban population was classified as such. As for education, only 9.6% of the population in rural areas had completed secondary schooling in 2015, while the percentage of the population in urban areas was double that amount (O’Boyle, 2016).

However, despite these challenges, Colombia is also in a period of transformation. Economic growth, a reduction in drug violence and a recent peace deal with the FARC, Colombia’s largest armed rebel group, has increased stability in the country. This has attracted the attention of international businesses and tourists alike, encouraging foreign investment and propelling Colombia onto the world’s stage. In the education sector, following significant reform efforts during the administration of Minister Cecilia Maria Velez, the primary school enrollment rate increased significantly from 67% in the early 1990s to 91% in 2017 (World Bank Data, 2019). Yet, despite making gains on access to education, the quality of education in Colombia, specifically in the rural regions, remains low. Since 2012, Todos a Aprender, abbreviated PTA from the Spanish name Programa Todos a Aprender, has become the government of Colombia’s primary initiative to address this enduring challenge focusing on the improvement of teacher quality.

In the face of initial resistance to its implementation, unfavorable impact evaluation results, and a shifting political climate, Todos a Aprender (PTA) has continuously improved to ultimately produce measurable, positive effects on student outcomes. This chapter analyzes the salient factors of this reform to better understand how the program not only remained in existence despite many potentially crippling challenges but also became a desirable model of large-scale professional development which, we believe, could be of value in other contexts aiming to improve teacher quality. In detailing the mechanisms behind the political perseverance of Todos a Aprender, we provide insight for current and future policymakers’ intent on improving educational quality pursuing an educational intervention of similar scope and scale.

We will begin by addressing the recent history of education in Colombia and the development of PTA in Sect. 3.2. Section 3.3 will describe the teacher-centered design of the program. Understandably, teachers are among the most important factors in education quality. As such, it was paramount for the program to keep them at the center of all programmatic decisions. In addition, the most important stakeholder of Todos a Aprender were the teachers themselves, so their trust and long-term support were key to realize the intended goal of improved student learning. Section 3.4 examines the allocation of learning materials and textbooks. Quickly realized to be a critical component of the program, textbooks were a highly visible manifestation of Todos a Aprender and a resource to support instructional change. In the absence of a national curriculum, they were exceedingly useful sources for unit and lesson planning. They were also the visible beneficiaries of program participation and, as such, translated much of the philosophy and goals of PTA into tangible tools to support instructional practice that operationalized those aspirations. Section 3.5 will illustrate unique factors that contributed to the successful implementation of the program. From public–private partnerships to a commitment to efficiency, Colombia’s Ministry of Education capitalized on innovative solutions to facilitate the implementation of Todos a Aprender.

Research for this chapter included interviews with several program administrators and educators involved in the program and analysis of different program reports, including evaluations of its impact. Those interviewed included a former Deputy Secretary of Education of Colombia, the current program director (as in May, 2019), two former program directors, a former pedagogical coordinator, teachers in participating schools, a PTA tutor, as well as other Ministry staff. Documents reviewed included the reports of the two large-scale impact evaluations conducted in 2014 and 2016 by the Universidad de Los Andes, an evaluation of the implementation of PTA in 2015 and subsequent presentations of evaluation results released by the Ministry of Education in 2017. The two National Development Plans of President Santos, national curricular materials as well as other official documents from the Ministry of Education were helpful to understand the broader political and educational context in Colombia. We also analyzed information about the program available in the media, online marketing materials and press releases.

3.2 Background

Prior to Todos a Aprender, the largest teacher professional development program working to address the educational disparities between urban and rural schools was called Escuela Nueva (EN), or New School. Developed by an NGO in the 1970s, EN’s mission was to improve the quality of multigrade teaching in rural schools with one or two teachers. With momentum from the success of EN, the Ministry of Education of Colombia sought to further support the education of students from its most rural schools, who consistently obtained the lowest levels of achievement in national assessments of knowledge acquisition and skills development. Fortuitously, around that time, Empresarios por La Educación, an alliance of business leaders committed to improving the quality of education in Colombia, learned of a successful intervention run by McKinsey to address similar challenges in the rural Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. The program comprised three key components: capacity building at the local level coupled with regional and national support, school involvement in creating improvement targets and distribution of high-quality teaching materials. From 2006 to 2010, the percentage of eight-year-olds from Minas Gerais reading at grade level increased from 49% to 86% as a result of their participation in the program (McKinsey&Co., 2018).

The publication of these positive results from the rural improvement program in Brazil coincided with the release of the 2009 results of the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measuring knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in language and maths. Despite improvements relative to the results of the 2006 assessment, the knowledge and skills of Colombian students still lagged behind those of their Latin American peers. The results of the 2009 SABER tests—Colombia’s national standardized assessments—confirmed the low levels of student skills and the significant gaps in learning outcomes between students attending rural and urban schools. Over 80% of students in the most disadvantaged regions of the county did not reach the minimum standards in maths in grades 5 and 9. While the language scores had slightly improved, still only 20–40% of those same students achieved the minimum standards. On average across the country, the scores of rural students were significantly lower than the scores of urban students (Nacional M. d., 2012). In response to these findings, the Ministry of Education of Colombia proposed the development of an intervention to support rural schools similar to the one which had helped students in Minas Gerais. With the support of Empresarios por la Educación, Todos a Aprender was designed and introduced by the administration of the newly elected President Manuel Santos.

Initially, PTA relied on a wide range of supports to address the low-performance of rural schools: in-service teacher training, strategic support of school management and administration, improvement of school infrastructure, nutritional programs for students, and stakeholder building in communities. Due to the comprehensive nature of the reform and its large scale, Todos A Aprender became its own division at the Ministry of Education. By 2014, however, it was apparent that PTA was not achieving the intended results of lifting student learning outcomes in rural areas, perhaps because managing the multiple components of the program was proving challenging. An evaluation conducted by researchers in one of Colombia’s leading universities demonstrated that learning outcomes were stagnant and that the coaches were not visiting schools as regularly as planned (Universidad de Los Andes, 2014). As a result of these disappointing findings, the Ministry of Education decided to redesign the program and made instructional improvement the core of its theory of change. This new iteration of the program, known as PTA 2.0, streamlined the various programs components to include only two: teacher professional development and instructional materials.

In 2016, the University of the Andes conducted a second impact evaluation of Todos a Aprender. At the time of the study, PTA 2.0 had only been in effect for one year which researchers noted was an inadequate amount of time to study the impacts of an educational intervention. Moreover, the SABER scores used in the evaluation were from 2015, as the 2016 scores were not available at the time of the study. Given these limitations, the research team concluded that PTA still was having no effects on student learning outcomes (Universidad de los Andes, 2016). Once the results of the 2016 administration of the standardized assessments SABER were available, the researchers of the University of the Andes released an updated report on the impact of the program demonstrating that PTA 2.0 had indeed induced positive effects on the learning outcomes of students in language arts and math in the 3rd and 5th grades. More specifically, PTA 2.0 was shown to have raised the percentage of students that achieved a satisfactory or advanced level on the national SABER exams (Tiempo, 2017). The redesign and more focused program implementation were deemed a success. Upon release of the results, President Santos announced in a celebratory speech that Todos a Aprender had been contributing to closing the gap in educational opportunities available to urban and rural students as shown by the narrowing gap in learning outcomes (Mineducación, 2017).

In the lead up to the presidential election in May 2018, key figures at the Ministry of Education were concerned about the sustainability of Todos a Aprender. Historically, new administrations in Colombia have tended to end projects initiated by prior presidential administrations as a way to make space to introduce their own policies. As many considered this to be the likely fate of PTA, a key program of the Santos presidency, preparations began to create a new role within each school called the líder de transferencia. This person would have been directly responsible for maintaining the practices, structure and support historically provided by the coaches in Todos a Aprender. Since PTA had garnered massive stakeholder support over the years, however, from teacher unions and the private sector to the parents of children enrolled in participating schools, ending PTA would have been very unpopular among those benefiting from the program. Thus, the Ministry of Education under the new President Iván Duque Márquez made the decision not only to maintain the program but to merge the once isolated Todos a Aprender division of the Ministry with the branch dedicated to improving the quality of Colombia’s public schools. As a result of this restructuring, PTA will be a more stable and permanent institution within the education system. With plans to expand the program to reach more at-need schools around the country, the future of Todos a Aprender looks promising.

3.3 Teacher-Centered Design

The teacher-centered design was a critical element of PTA success, the largest in-service teacher professional development program in Colombia’s recent history. Since its inception, the program has followed a cascade model in which it employed 100 facilitators (formadores), 4,200 tutors and 100,000 teachers. The facilitators train tutors who in turn train teachers. As of 2017, PTA operated in 4,500 schools in Colombia, reaching 105,000 teachers and benefiting over 2 million students (Colombia Aprende: La Red del Conocimiento, 2017). The cascade model was specifically designed to support communities of practice among and within schools that would allow teachers to develop their skills and support each other while improving their practices. This networked model allowed reaching the teachers at the classroom level and at the same time scaling the program to an unprecedented number of teachers. A key component of the program was that those chosen to be tutors were also teachers, often from the same regions as the teachers. This allowed teachers to learn from and with colleagues with whom they had a shared experience. At the same time, tutors received training from the facilitators focused on classroom practices that could be modeled throughout the training cascade until reaching the classroom.

Teachers participate in two major activities which define the teacher-centric nature of the program in its design and implementation: periodical workshops (usually 4 in a year) and continuous follow-up and mentorship in their school (acompañamiento). A week-long training workshop takes place four times a year. The workshop is first carried by the facilitators with the tutors, and then the tutors model the same activities with their groups of teachers. This represents the “top-down” component of the program, through which the Ministry assures that all teachers get access to the same guidelines. The second intervention activity, follow-up and coaching, however, was successful in providing personalized support and guidance to teachers. Once tutors enter the teacher’s classrooms, they observe lessons and model better teaching strategies, as well as provide feedback to teachers. With the goal of helping teachers deeply reflect on their own classroom practice, tutors applied various resources from student-centered pedagogical documents to classroom management strategies.

Initially, the evaluative element of the coaching cycle was profoundly intimidating to the teachers, as they had not traditionally been the subject of formal assessment and appraisal. This led to a temporary loss in teacher trust and ultimately to a teacher strike in the early years of the program. This was the lowest point in the implementation trajectory of the program. However, teachers soon began to appreciate the role of evaluation (which results were confidential) as a useful component of the program and which calmed their fears about being evaluated. As a result, teacher’s trust in the program increased and this contributed to a turnaround point, garnering significant support for the program from a wide range of stakeholders. Apart from regular coaching in classroom, tutors spend additional time with teachers, reviewing subject matter and curricula materials and following up with the most challenging concepts and issues. Part of teachers’ duties includes developing curricular and instructional strategies tailored to the needs of their students. This opportunity to receive support in curriculum and lesson planning was especially significant given the fact that the Colombian education system is highly decentralized and devoid of national curriculum, and that teachers are generally informed only of general educational standards but not provided a curriculum to help their students attain them. Given this context, teachers benefited from the personalized follow-up coaching framework focused on curriculum development and lesson planning.

Other positive results of the teacher-focused intervention activities included a PTA developed network of professional learning communities where teachers empowered teachers. This was possible owing to the program’s built-in trust in the expertise and experience of teachers, in contrast to the traditional viewing of teachers as having “deficits” to be “fixed”. The Ministry of Education of Colombia had previously promulgated the idea of learning communities as “to promote an exchange of experiences and best practices, teamwork, reflection, and collective problem solving to classroom-specific challenges” (MEN, 2011). Following this idea, peer coaching and collaborative practice were established as the norms in which teachers regularly observed each other’s practice, exchanging feedback and learning from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Such proximity and interactions rapidly disseminated good teaching practices to large numbers of teachers with different teaching styles. Teachers could observe how the differences in instructional practices drove changes in student outcomes, and thus were held accountable for leveraging this evidence-based inquiry into finding out what would work best for their students. The creation of this inquiry stance and learning orientation helped shape a common aspiration and motivation for teaching not only in improving one’s individual practice but that of others as well. As a result, effective collective learning was generated.

3.4 Provision of Textbooks and Learning Materials

In addition to the teacher-centered approach of the program, the development and distribution of textbooks and learning materials was another key component that positively impacted the instructional improvement. Most importantly, given the lack of national curriculum in Colombia, PTA textbooks served as guidelines for unit plans across the year, thus facilitating planning and communication across learning communities. Colombia underwent an ambitious education reform in the 1990s, characterized by institutional capacity building in both national and local institutions. While the national ministry centralized some functions of the system (i.e. the consolidation of information systems), other functions were transferred to local government or individual schools. Until the recent introduction of national education standards (Estándares Básicos de Competencias), curriculum remained one of the decentralized functions. In the absence of a national curriculum, each school was responsible for selecting the topics to be taught each year.

In 2006, the Ministry of Education developed a series of curricular frameworks which, while not officially national standards, served as a guide of what the year plan could look like in a school. One of these documents was Derechos Básicos de Aprendizaje (DBA), or Basic Learning Rights. Despite being a great resource for teachers, its use was not mandatory and the frameworks did not reach a wider audience. As such, PTA became an ideal mechanism for these curriculum resources to reach schools. PTA developed and distributed a series of textbooks, learning guides and other learning materials based on these curricular documents. The use of the book was not mandatory. However, thousands of teachers found this resource extremely helpful in organizing the progression of content within and across years and as a guide for lesson planning. Furthermore, learning communities of teachers in the same schools could collaborate in the adoption of these resources and in this way coordinate instruction across subject matter and grades.

The second key feature of the textbooks was their content. Educators know that teaching quality usually improves when teachers learn about new effective teaching practices, not only by reading or being lectured about them but by engaging themselves in those new instructional practices. This is the reason the in-service component of the teacher training of PTA was instrumental to the success of the program: tutors had the chance to model practices with the children in the classrooms, and to give direct feedback to teachers whose instruction they observed. Textbooks provided a guide to teachers about possible instructional practices. PTA textbooks did not include isolated content but suggested activities to be implemented in the classroom aligned with the teaching practices promoted by PTA. Both language and math textbooks were focused on higher order cognitive skills rather than memorization of factual knowledge. These practices and textbooks differed considerably from those aligned with the use of traditional textbooks, and tutors were essential in helping teachers learn how to use these resources to transform their practice.

The third reason the use of textbooks for PTA was a success was that they allowed children from underserved families to have access to resources that had historically been limited to children from privileged families. In Colombia, access to textbooks and learning materials was mainly restricted to urban and higher income family children. Since PTA targeted schools and communities that were vastly isolated, children in those schools had access to school textbooks for the very first time. Parents appreciated that their children had gained access to high-quality materials that had historically been absent from their communities. As mentioned, there were questions about the sustainability of PTA as the change in administration was expected. The high appreciation of the textbooks led to the support of families in rural areas.

3.5 Successful Implementation

The disappointing results of the 2014 impact evaluation led the Ministry of Education to redesign the program. The evolution of PTA to PTA 2.0 narrowed the scope of the program to focus exclusively on teacher-training and on the design and delivery of instructional materials. The Ministry realized that the multiple components of the original program design made implementation challenging and as a result the intended impact was unrealized. Eliminating some components of the program would also minimize the bureaucratic hurdles that could impede successful program implementation in the vast, diverse areas of Colombia. As a result of such streamlining of the program, Ministry staff transformed the purpose of the school visits from oversight of the various program components to a clear focus on in-classroom training and provision of feedback to teachers. Learning from the results of the impact evaluation and soliciting feedback from the tutors, the program leadership streamlined program implementation. This illustrates the value of evaluations to revise program and implementation theory and enhance program implementation. Using evidence to support the need for program restructuring the Ministry was able to focus on the areas which needed redesign. This use of evidence for program redesign illustrates a culture of evaluation use in program management.

PTA’s implementation success was also due to its unique ability to reach diverse areas of the country, including remote rural schools in the states of Amazonas, Guainía, Guaviare, Chocó, Vaupés, Vichada, and the Guajira. As one interviewee noted, PTA was known for going “the last mile”, reaching remote and isolated parts of Colombia that had typically been beyond the reach of government. Especially after the program was redesigned, efficiency became a primary goal of the Ministry. They wanted to be thorough and swift in their implementation, committing to send tutors and textbooks regularly across the country, despite the immense geographic barriers. This vision came directly from the top. Although a program of such scale had yet to be successful in Colombia, the team would not allow past failures to dictate the future success.

Former program administrators also considered the partnership with the private sector as an important contributor to implementation success. From the outset of the implementation of Todos a Aprender, the Ministry of Education maintained a robust relationship with Empresarios por la Educación, the organization which had played a key role in the adoption of the program. The partnership between Empresarios and the Ministry was vital to the launch of the program. Acting as the program sponsors, Empresarios suggested to focus PTA on rural areas of Colombia. They also advocated for program evaluation, encouraging the completion of impact evaluations by the University of the Andes.

Moreover, the Ministry was also able to rely on the private sector to hire tutors, which directly aided in the rapid implementation of Todos a Aprender. In the first few years, the Ministry was in great need of tutors, as they sought to engage qualified teachers with strong leadership and pedagogical abilities. A new legal mechanism provided the necessary flexibility in the government’s hiring process to recruit tutors from beyond the public sphere. Relieved from the standard bureaucratic obstacles, the Ministry was able to quickly and easily fill the openings for tutors around Colombia.

Lastly, another factor which contributed to the sustainability of Todos a Aprender, across two different presidential administrations, was its relative invisibility to the public eye. This low political visibility of the program is evident when it is contrasted with another flagship program from Colombia’s Ministry of Education, a college access scholarship program named Ser Pilo Paga. The program enabled high-achieving, low-income students to attend a university of their choice, including the most selective and prestigious universities in the country, by funding the cost of their studies if they gained admission. The program was widely publicized within the media, making it a recognizable public policy achievement of the Santos administration. Such high visibility also brought increased scrutiny from opposing political parties. Despite markedly expanding access to higher education for marginalized students, Ser Pilo Paga was controversial among adversaries who claimed that the program was an unsustainable investment (Semana, 2019). The new President Ivan Duque ended the program within a month of entering office. While visibility was certainly not the sole reason for the downfall of Ser Pilo Paga, it is notable that Todos a Aprender, which was also a flagship program of the Santos administration, did not face the same level of political backlash. Ultimately, PTA lacked political branding and therefore it never became politicized. As a program for teachers, the only people who were aware of the existence of the PTA were those who directly benefited from it, school stakeholders and engaged parents. As a result, when President Duque took office Todos a Aprender survived the typical policy cleanout that is customary in political transitions. While not explicitly outlined in the strategic implementation plan of PTA, keeping the program out of the public eye allowed for a seamless transition from one government to the next. Thus, while it is advantageous at times for a policy’s success to be heavily marketed to garner support, in this case, the discretion of the program likely contributed to its survival.

3.6 Conclusion

Todos a Aprender, Colombia’s most ambitious program for teacher professional development, has been operating successfully in reducing the existing rural–urban gap in educational achievement. With a teacher-centered approach, the inclusion of valuable textbooks and learning materials, and strategic implementation, the Ministry of Education was able to overcome many of the obstacles that tend to inhibit the success of education policies. Now spanning the lifetime of two presidential administrations, Todos a Aprender is improving teacher quality in Colombia. As a mature program, shaped by constant evaluation and renewed commitment from program staff, PTA is becoming an international reference for the education community. In 2018, the Regional Program for the Development of the Teacher Profession in Latin America and the Caribbean (PREDALC) recognized Todos a Aprender as an innovative example of teacher professional development. The program is intended to reach all teachers in Colombia in the next 8 years.

Another key lesson learned from the implementation of this large-scale program is that it is possible to both improve the learning of traditional contents (such as basic math and language) and spread a twenty-first century skills framework. Todos a Aprender has managed to change language and math teaching practices across the country in a way that allows students to develop a breath of cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills needed in this rapid changing world.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.WashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Harvard Graduate School of EducationBuenos AiresArgentina
  3. 3.Harvard Graduate School of EducationCambridgeUSA

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