Affiliate Spotlight: Raquel Bernal on early childhood education and the importance of lifelong learning

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Photo: Raquel Bernal

Raquel Bernal is Professor of Economics and President at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. Her research focuses on social policy, education, human capital, household decisions, and labor economics.

Raquel Bernal’s inclination toward math, statistics, and programming first emerged while she was an undergraduate economics student, but her path to a career in social impact began with a desire to pursue something meaningful to her personally and professionally. 

Influenced by her advisor and her interest in understanding the effects of maternal employment on children’s development, Raquel began her PhD at NYU. “I had an interest in understanding labor market decisions of women and how these relate to choices about family and children.” Her research resulted in a heightened understanding of other education-related issues beyond early childhood. It also led her to a more profound realization: “Really, my interest is understanding how to prevent the emergence of inequality if we invest wisely starting in early childhood.”

Over her career as an economist, Raquel has researched topics such as social policy, human capital, household decisions, and labor economics. Yet, the subject of education remains at the forefront of her work. In particular, Raquel seeks to identify the specific features of education that can have the most significant impact. 

“We know that qualifications of teachers, infrastructure, and resources…explain very little in terms of test scores and other outcomes,” said Raquel. “As it turns out, we have learned that the details of what goes on in the classroom are what’s important: meaningful interactions, pedagogical activities, curriculum and specific learning goals, and experiences that lead to individuals who learn to learn throughout their lives.” 

Her reflections point to the future of education research. For instance, the wide variety of students' skills, experiences, and characteristics often makes it difficult for teachers to guarantee a rich learning experience for every child in their classroom. Raquel predicts that “an area that will be very important in the near future is the possibility of leveraging technology to offer more personalized, high-quality educational experiences that understand the variability in learning across children.”

While Raquel’s work spans many sectors tied together by her interest in education, most of her research takes place in Latin America, where she is based, due to its economic and social features, which she describes as entrenched with high levels of inequality for reasons that are not yet fully understood. “It probably arises as a combination of many factors, including quality of education, quality of health systems, political economy issues, taxation and redistribution systems,” said Raquel. Providing insights from randomized evaluations to effectively address these challenges holds great potential for impact. To that end, she advises researchers interested in the region to consider the importance of “evaluating many policies and programs for which we have little data,” along with “focusing on key areas that might have a long-term impact on inequality.”

When reflecting on her work, Raquel recalls her experiences that highlight the difficulties in promoting early childhood development in highly vulnerable contexts to be among the most impactful. “I spent an entire day in the countryside with very vulnerable women, some of whom carried their babies on their backs for most of the day,” said Raquel. “I noticed most of them did not talk to their babies a single time during the long hours we spent together.” She asked one of the mothers why she hadn’t talked to her baby for all those hours. The mother told Raquel it was because she believed the baby did not understand what she said. 

“This made me realize the huge barriers to child development: Parents in vulnerable conditions do not know and do not understand the effect of their interaction with their children on their development,” said Raquel. Her research suggests it is vital to reach women and help them build better parenting practices that can often be difficult and expensive, especially in the context of vulnerability in dispersed rural areas.

In addition to her work as a researcher, Raquel is the President of Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, where she has worked as a faculty member for close to seventeen years. Although her research agenda has slowed down for the time being, she is still approaching new challenges with an eye to enacting long-lasting change. As such, she confronts the many challenges higher education institutions face worldwide, like demographic changes, geopolitical conflicts, sustainability, and advancements in technology. 

From Raquel’s perspective, recent technological advancements continue to impact the labor market, requiring people to upskill and reskill constantly to keep up with the innovations that are changing many professions. She emphasizes the importance of educating new cohorts of young people in this rapidly evolving context. “We are responsible for guaranteeing that people will fulfill their purpose in life, and at the same time that they are responsible citizens in a changing world with many uncertainties.” 


Research in Action: Improving preschool quality in Colombia

The challenge: Global access to preschool has increased dramatically, yet quality is often poor. Recent evidence suggests that increased spending on early childhood education is insufficient if services are of poor quality. While infrastructure and resources are frequently used to measure school quality, Raquel and her team took another approach. They believe teaching practices and the quality of teacher-child interactions may significantly affect child learning.

The research: Raquel and her colleagues evaluated different quality enhancements introduced to a public early childhood care program in Colombia. They aimed to test the impact of approaches to improving preschool quality on child cognition, language ability, and school readiness. 120 public preschools were randomly assigned to one of three groups (additional classroom resources (HIM), other classroom resources + teacher training (HIM+FE), and a comparison group where the implementation of HIM was delayed) of 40 schools each.

The results: Raquel and her team’s results indicate hiring teaching assistants had a detrimental effect on children because teachers transferred some of their activities to the assistants who did not have sufficient knowledge. However, teacher training offsets this adverse effect to the extent of having a total positive impact on child cognitive development. Raquel hypothesizes that teacher training makes teachers more knowledgeable about the things that matter for child development and only transfer less productive activities to teaching assistants.

Read more about Raquel’s work in our recent evaluation summary

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