The Cuban educational system has long enjoyed a reputation for high quality. Recent studies comparing achievement tests scores from Cuba with those from other Latin American countries, have further highlighted the achievements of the Cuban system.2 Figure 1 provides illustrative comparisons, in which Cuban students score significantly higher than do students in other Latin American countries, often by as much as two standard deviations. See also Table 1, Annex 1.
The Cuban education system has performed most satisfactorily on other conventional measures as well.3 According to official data, for example, 98% of Cuban children of the appropriate age attended pre-school in 1997-98. The enrollment rate for 6 to 16-year olds was 94.2%, and primary school gross enrollment exceeded 100%. Repetition rates were 1.9 % in primary school, 2.8% in secondary and 1,8% in pre-university school. Age-grade distortion was about 2.5% in primary, 3.7% in basic secondary and 0.9% in pre-university.4 In the mid-1990s there were 241,000 illiterates, out of a population of 11 million.5 In 1959, in stark comparison, half of Cuba’s children did not attend school at all, 72% of 13 to 19 year olds failed to reach intermediate levels of schooling, and there were over one million illiterates.6
Cuba’s schools have been remarkably successful in achieving gender equity, reaching rural and disadvantaged populations, and fostering community participation, even in the context of rapidly dwindling resources. Cuba is a poor country, and the past decade has been particularly difficult economically. Yet the success of its schools flaunts conventional wisdom: Education in Cuba is entirely public, centrally planned, and free, in a global reform environment of privatization, downscaling of the state role, and cost recovery.
Figure 1. Comparison of Achievement Test Scores in Language, Cuba and Other Countries in Latin American and the Caribbean (Source: UNESCO/OREALC)
T he Cuban education system is characterized by:
Sustained and high levels of investment in education;
Consistent policy environment and political will in support of education for all;
Quality basic education, including early childhood and student health initiatives, literacy, adult and non-formal education programs;
Universal access to primary and secondary school;
Complementary educational support systems: early childhood and student health, literacy, adult and non formal education;
Highly professional, well-trained teachers of high status;
Ongoing professional development of teachers;
Low-cost instructional materials of high quality;
Creativity on the part of local educators in adapting and developing instructional materials;
Solidarity within schools and classrooms; competition among schools and classrooms;
Compensatory schemes for disadvantaged and rural children;
Clear connections between school and work; and
An emphasis on education for social cohesion.
The remainder of this paper elaborates these points in an attempt to understand these elements of Cuba’s success.7 Essentially, we ask what factors account for the high performance of the Cuban education system. Then, in the final section, we raise some of the questions facing the system in the context of a decade of austerity and Cuba’s growing participation in the global economy.
II. Elements of a Successful System
Sustained Investments in Education
High levels of investment. Cuba devotes about 10% to 11% of its GDP to education, a very high percentage compared with the rest of the region8 or with the 6% recommended as adequate by UNESCO.9 Of course, the size of GDP allocated to education alone is insufficient to define an effective education system.10
High levels of non-salary expenditures. Cuba has invested substantial resources in non-salary items. Until March 1999, 60 % of the Education budget was devoted to teachers’ salaries with the remaining 40% for non-salary items used to support instruction. Both of these policies correspond to current understandings of best practices in education finance. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to maintain such a high percentage of expenditures on non-salary items. In March 1999, teachers received a 30% salary increase, a move that decreases the resources available for non–salary costs. Teacher motivation and retention are also threatened by decreases in the purchasing power of salaries and the attractiveness of new professional activities, especially in tourism and in foreign firms, as evidenced by teacher attrition of 4-8% per year in the eastern oriental provinces, where tourism is more developed.
Sustained and coordinated investments. Investments in education need to be sustained over a long period of time to achieve maximum results. Greater investments or allocation of resources to education as an isolated strategy do not necessarily bring better educational results.
Consistent Policy Environment, Supportive of Quality Basic Education
As in many other socialist countries, the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of praxis inspires the objectives of the education system11 of educating a “New Human Being,” to:
assume its most basic social duties, to educate this being to produce material and spirituals goods that will serve society in a way that every human being participates in material production, in order to eliminate the contradiction among school and society, producer and consumers, intellectual work and physical work, and among cities and rural areas.12
Clear objectives. These objectives were set, of course, by the same party that has run the country for almost 40 years. Continuity of educational policy and strategy--quite unusual in most countries of the region--has contributed to the achievement of goals set by party and government. The different components of the education system are articulated around common objectives, subject to constant evaluation with the participation of the broader educational community, and centered in the classroom.
Stability. In many Latin American countries, frequent political changes may impede the development and consolidation of educational strategies and achievements. The Cuban experience suggests that measures are needed to protect the education system from the disruptive effects of continuous changes in strategies and plans. Education is a long-term investment requiring consistent policies and political stability to grow. This stability, however, was achieved at the cost of one-party rule.
Access to quality basic education. The great emphasis placed on education and the high degree of collective control ensure that access to education is effectively universal. The high levels of investment permitted an emphasis on both equity and quality. Comprehensive early childhood and student health services, widespread literacy, adult, and non-formal education programs support the objectives of basic education for all.
Professional High-Status Teachers & On-Going Professional Development
Life-long training. Teacher training is a life-long process including training on the job as well as formal and informal training. Its major aim is to support teachers to improve classroom practice. Fifteen higher education pedagogical institutes (HPI, institutos pedagogicos superiores) and the pedagogical faculties provide formal preparation of teachers for day-care centers, primary schools, and intermediate schools. HPIs offer formal daytime courses for pre-university graduates and mid-level graduates of technical and vocational schools. Pre-service courses consist of five years of training, while in-service courses last six years. Training for school directors is provided at the same time as teacher training, so that directors will understand the teacher development process.
School-based. Pre- and in-service teacher preparation emphasize basic knowledge, skills, values and attitudes. There is a balance of didactics, pedagogy and subject matter knowledge. Teachers’ professional development is characterized by a strong linkage between theory and practice during both pre- and in-service teacher phases. Both pre- and in-service teacher training are school based, to foster greater relevance of teacher training to school and student needs and to link training institutions and schools. To reduce the distance between academic teacher training and schools, a teacher trainer candidate must complete as a pre-requisite a significant number of years (usually 6 to 7) as a teacher at the level at which he or she intends to prepare teachers.
Community of learning teachers. Strong emphasis is given to teamwork and exchanges of experience. Each area has a "colectivo pedagogico" for each discipline (ciencias naturales, ciencias sociales, etc.). These “colectovo pedagogico” meet periodically to discuss teaching methods, produce learning materials, adapt curricula to local needs, and exchange experiences. The "colectivo pedagogico" develops a “bank of problems” (banco de problemas) and develops plans to address these problems. Every program has a methodological guidebook for teachers of each grade that provides examples of good lessons and guidance on how to teach different learning units. The “colectivo” of teachers meets every two weeks to discuss teaching strategies, the problems of the school, evaluation, and the general educational “climate” of the school. Institutional support is provided to schools to promote professional development among teachers. A "metodologo" works with teachers to support them in different subjects. Such approaches to ongoing professional development are consistent with the best current thinking in education internationally.
Action research. Every teacher is expected to carry out applied research on ways to improve learning achievement and systematize pedagogical experience. During training, teachers are prepared to carry out classroom studies on how to address student problems. Every two years teachers present their best work on innovative teaching practices to a “municipal education conference” (pedagogia). Municipalities select the best research for the provincial conference, and the province selects the best for a national conference where the best 900 research projects are presented to an audience of national and international participants. Moral and material incentives are provided to teachers presenting the best research. Pedagogical research is guided by two institutions, the Instituto Central De Ciencias Pedagogica (ICCP), and the Instituto Superior Pedagogico (ISP).
Links to the community. Teachers interact regularly with community members and parents through mass organizations and other participatory modalities (parents’ councils, parents’ schools). Such interactions allow teachers to learn about local communities, and the conditions facing children and their families. This enables teachers to create a broad collaborative environment supportive of education. In this way, school-based innovations seem to last because they are supported by several actors (teachers "colectivo," students, parents, community) rather than a single individual, however talented. Teachers act as community activists and are involved in activities such as parents’ education and similar activities that have a positive impact on children’s education. Teachers help plan school life. They spend about 80% of their time with students at school and the rest of their time in student’s homes. According to the principle that “education is a shared responsibility,” students meet to study together, from one to three times a week, in “study homes” (casas de estudio). Teachers visit parents and identify families with potential problems as well as families able to host a group of students.
Evaluation and accountability. Continuous evaluation is considered a part of teachers’ professional development, providing useful information to improve teaching practice through action research and life-long learning. Continuous assessment of teachers is a participatory process that includes all the major actors of the education process and the “teacher working group” (colectivo). Teacher evaluations provide recommendations for teachers’ self-development plans (plan de superación autodidacta o postgraduada) for the following academic year. The university also participates in the evaluation of teacher performance, and by doing so receives feedback on its activities, enabling it to adapt its offerings to the realities of schools. Teacher accountability is a reality in Cuba. Inspection is not an autonomous function; career growth depends primarily on positive evaluations of teachers’ classroom practice. Teacher salaries are often related to student performance. Teachers whose students fail to perform at the norm risk cuts in pay.13
Professional status. Cuban teachers are regarded as true professionals. Their social status is high, and there is little difference between teachers’ salary scales and those of other professionals.
Low-Cost, High Quality Instructional Materials
Nationwide coverage and care. The Cuban state has a monopoly on all aspects of production of educational materials--design, publishing, and distribution. As a consequence, the state says, it is able to keep costs low, address the learning needs of the poor, and distribute all educational materials free. Before the Periodo Especial, about 25 million books were produced each year. In 1976, bookstores and schools were full of low-cost high quality textbooks and books of every kind. Books were offered free or at very low cost to countries with which Cuba was cooperating, i.e., Angola and Mozambique. However, the austerities accompanying the Periodo Especial have strongly cut back the production and distribution of textbooks. To deal with these shortages, schools works hard to maintain books in good condition. Most of the books currently in use were published around 1992. Students continually rebind books and repair other learning equipment and school furniture as part of their weekly “labor education” (educacion laboral). Exercise books are often used several times: students write with a pencil and when they complete the exercises, erase the book for reuse. Thus in Cuba, teacher and student initiative and creativity appear to compensate, at least partially, for the lack of resources.
Nationwide coverage, local adaptation and development. National curricula (see Annex 4) are subject to continuous reform and adaptation to local realities. In addition, the school calendar varies according to local production schedules. These measures allow for both unified educational standards and respect for local diversity. Teachers and students take an active role in examining the learning environment and adapting the curriculum to learning needs. Classroom observations suggest that teachers have great latitude in choosing the means to implement the curriculum. Teachers went to great lengths to prepare instructional materials and utilize them actively as integral parts of their teaching. In Cuba, teacher and student initiative and creativity appear to compensate, in part, for the lack of resources. When resources are scarce, teacher motivation and creativity in the use of external inputs act as major inputs and determinants of learning achievement. Indeed, instructional inputs, however sophisticated, have no instructional value unless used by teachers and students.
At the same time, there is substantial evidence of the closed nature of Cuban education. Basic Western authors such as Montessori, Dewey, Piaget, Bloom, etc. are generally ignored, and when they are considered, they are usually critiqued. The pedagogical institutes place a great deal of emphasis on the educational research and tradition of Cuba and Latin American authors such as Marti and Bolivar and on thinkers from the former USSR, Vigotsky, Lurija, Makarenko, Gorki, and many others. Similarly, social science curricula have been overshadowed by four decades of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.
System-Wide Evaluation & Competition among Classes and Schools
Cuba has developed an extensive evaluation and school improvement system. School performance evaluation is a constant formative process, aiming at improving educational quality. Evaluation is based on a participatory approach designed to detect and correct problems of poor educational process and achievement through a comprehensive set of indicators. School performance is evaluated holistically, that is, taking into account the several variables that determine the relevance and efficacy of the education process and learning achievement, as opposed to a single measure of cognitive achievement. Schools have “banks of problems” that identify the problems as well as plans of actions to solve them.
Example of teacher assessment. Continuous teacher assessment provides an example of the role and approach to evaluation. The “chief of the pedagogical unit” (jefe de círculo pedagógico) visits every teacher each month during classes, assesses his/her activities and addresses any problems detected, deciding, for example on in-service training needed for teachers in different areas. A “municipal specialist in teaching methods” (metodologos municipales) helps the school address pedagogical problems. If a problem cannot be solved with the “metodologos,” the Instituto de Capacitacion Pedagogica gets involved. Administrative and pedagogical inspectors set deadlines by which time problems must be solved. Assessment takes place at all levels of the system: the nation assesses the province, the province assesses the municipality, and the municipality the school. Teachers’ performance is assessed by the school director, the party, the union, the Organization of Young Communists, and the “pedagogical guide” for each cycle (pre-primary, primary, secondary). Teacher diligence, punctuality and commitment are taken into consideration as part of the ongoing assessment as well as their students’ diligence, punctuality, and achievement. Teachers’ “volunteer” participation in the Workers’ Guard (Guardia Obrera), which guards school property and security during weekends and at night is also part of teacher assessment. All teachers are “activists” in the Party but only a few are “militants.” As in other socialist countries, volunteer work is quite common in Cuba, for parents, students, teachers and school staff14.
Emulation, not competition. A form of competition permeates all classrooms as well as the school atmosphere and is promoted among groups in the same class, different classes, and the school and other schools. However, competition in Cuba is called “emulation” because it is not considered an end in itself, but a method for self-improvement, developed through solidarity and collaboration among peers. “Emulation” among schools and municipalities is assessed by the following centrally-defined public list of “emulation indicators of school performance,” which were illustrated in a poster hanging on a school wall:
Political and ideological work
Results of the teaching-learning process
Student continuity in school
Children of the area with less then 16 years of study
Data concerning teachers
Support and stimulation of children
Staff development policies
Initial diagnostic examinations
Integration with the instituto pedagogico superior (teacher training institute)
School organization, discipline and health
Activities with the population
Physical protection of the school, school secrecy
Schools are classified on the basis of these indicators. The school that qualifies as first in a municipality hosts the annual July 26 celebration of the anniversary of the Castrist assault on the Moncada barracks. Schools where problems are detected are asked to define a plan of action to overcome the problems. Incentives are basically to boost morale, but there are some material incentives, such as paid holidays in state tourist centers, tickets for theater and concerts, etc.
In these ways, competition is transparent and based on public acknowledgement of results. In contrast to other countries, competition among schools in Cuba does not lead to greater selectivity and stratification but to school improvement. In Cuba all catchment areas are local. The overall financing of a school does not decrease or increase as a consequence of its performance, and families do not select schools on the basis of academic performance.
Participation in School Management
School management is guided by the principle that ”education is everybody’s responsibility,” and participation is an important means of addressing problems of the school. The participatory mechanisms include student assemblies, parents’ councils, “council addressing minors,” school councils, parents’ schools, and study homes.15
Involving children. Cuban schools give children responsibility for a variety of tasks appropriate to their ages. In primary school, for example, children clean the school, fix broken facilities, help fellow students with difficulties, discuss class and school problems, and work in the school garden. The director we interviewed considered the student work in the school garden more of a pedagogical than a productive activity and declared that the school invests more in this activity than it gains. Such work encourages a more active role for students in school life.16 In Cuba this is called “pioneers protagonism” (protagonismo pionieristico) since students participate in school life through the Pioneers Association.
Outreach to Rural Children
Cuba considers itself duty-bound to provide education for all. As a result, the government has developed explicit strategies for reaching children unlikely to be well-served by the standard school model, in particular children living in isolated rural areas, i.e., mountainous areas, as well as children with disabilities and other special needs. Overall, Cuba has approximately 2,000 schools with less than ten students, usually located in remote areas. Such small schools offer multigrade instruction through 4th grade, in which case teachers receive training on teaching in multigrade classrooms. In achievement scores, there are no significant statistical differences between rural and urban areas. The dropout rate overall is about 2.3 %. There are no dropouts at the primary school level.
These results challenge the notion that schools must be of a certain size to be effective. Perhaps more importantly, they also question the perception that rural schools are necessarily of lower quality. In Cuba’s case, rural schools are provided with adequate levels of human and physical resources as well as special features to meet their needs. In return, rural schools provide education that contributes to the development of rural areas, thus motivating families, teachers and students.
To encourage rural populations not to emigrate to urban areas, a special plan was developed to provide education in the mountainous areas.17 Schools were planned to provide the entire education cycle, with curricula adapted to local needs. To ensure the stability of the teacher workforce in rural schools, the system promotes volunteer teachers who commit themselves to staying in the area for two or more years. Young teachers living in such areas are provided incentives—assistance in home construction, radios, lamps, etc. About 725,000 people of the total population of 11,000,000 live in mountainous regions, in 47 municipalities, including about 152,000 students. These areas include 27 pre-primary schools (circulos infantiles) and 2,400 primary schools, many of which teach as few as four children in multigrade classrooms. In addition, the mountainous areas include 27 special education schools, 89 basic secondary schools, 17 pre-university schools, 28 polytechnical institutes for agronomists, and three “mountain faculties” (facultades de montaña) for agronomist engineers. Educational institutions are developed in conjunction with regional plans. Infrastructure and services were developed to attract people to the region, for example, along with production incentives such as cooperatives entitled to credit from the state.
Box 1: Republica Oriental del Uruguay: A rural school in the mountains
The Republica Oriental del Uruguay School is located in the Las Terrazas community in a natural park in the Pinar del Rio region. The school is part of the sustainable rural development project, Biosphere Reserve Project, sponsored by UNESCO, based on tourism and agriculture. The school serves 122 families of farmers, a total of 920 inhabitants, in an area of 5,000 hectares. This school provides all levels of the education system, with 140 students enrolled in pre-primary and primary levels, 78 students in secondary school, seven students in the polytechnic specializing in gastronomy and environment related to local tourism, and 18 university students. There is no teacher absenteeism, and 98% of students graduate each year. Curriculum, teacher didactics, and research are centered on environmental conservation and rural development. Several teachers each year submit applied research papers for the Pedagogia congress, related to specific local environmental problems, such as energy saving habits, low-cost machinery, and technologies such as solar energy. In view of the importance of agriculture and tourism to the area, primary and secondary school students are involved in practical activities related to ecology and gastronomy.
Attention to Special Needs
Cuba’s emphasis on providing access to schooling for all children extends to those with special needs and is one of the initiatives accounting for the country’s virtually universal primary enrollment. “The public role in education is to be there for students who otherwise would not be able to develop their talents in full. (…) Compensatory schemes provide stability to the education system and social cohesion, which is so necessary in a society.”18
Cuba meets these needs in both special education centers and in regular schools. Before 1959 there were eight special education centers in Cuba.19 Now the country has 425 special schools enrolling 57,000 children and employing 13,000 teachers (out of a total school population of 2,300,000). In addition, many students with special needs attend regular schools. Depending on the type of impairment, these children may receive supplementary attention by the regular school teacher or in specific working sessions out of the class by an advisor teacher providing guidance to teachers and students.20 In order to attend to all children with special needs, a group of “itinerant teachers” (maestros ambulantes) reach students who cannot be transported from home or who are hospitalized.
However, while the mainstream of educational thought emphasizes the integration of children with special needs into regular schools, Cuba continues to maintain separate facilities for many of its special needs students. The Director of the Latin America Special Education Reference Center (CELAEE) in Havana, representing Cuba’s official position, describes separate special education institutions as the best way to attend to diversity. He criticizes those who advocate integrating special needs children into regular schools as adopting an “integrationist façade” (fachada integracionista), denying the culture of diversity. These policies are in direct contrast to a growing consensus among special educators in the rest of the world. The Salamanca World Conference on Special Needs Education (Spain, 7-10 June 1994), for example, stated that children with special needs must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within a child-centered pedagogy capable of meeting their needs:
Regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency an ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system 21.
Box 2: Panama Special Education School
Havana’s Escuela Especial Panama enrolls 162 children grades 4 to 9 with physical and motor handicaps. The school is staffed by 132 workers, 51 of whom are teachers. Children from Havana go home during weekends, while children from distant provinces go home twice a year, in December and during the summer. School workers “adopt” the children and create “pedagogical families.” Teachers and families are trained on how to receive and work with the children. The school provides periodic “fathers’ schools” (escuela de padres) to teach parents living in Havana how to support and educate their children. Parents residing far away are hosted in facilities near the school during special training events, and the school assumes the costs of transportation and feeding. Days during which parents attend training are considered working days, and their salaries are regularly paid by the employer since their activity is considered beneficial to the overall society. Teachers receive a supplement of 40 pesos over and beyond their base salary because the school is a boarding school. Teachers lacking a university degree devote one day per week and one afternoon per month to distance training. Graduate teachers spend the same amount of time on post-graduate studies. Since the beginning of the Periodo Especial, the school has faced severe difficulties. The center is given priority for supply of food and medicine; nevertheless, we observed a serious shortage of basic teaching, learning and rehabilitation tools, which personnel tried to compensate for with personal commitment and creativity. Panama School students are integrated into the same organizations as regular students, Pioneiros, CDR, etc. Most children transfer to regular schools after some years of rehabilitation at the special school. Once in regular schools they continue to receive support by Panama School personnel for 2 years. Children reintegrated into regular schools are invited to the Panama School to share their experience with the students of the Panama School. It was interesting to observe how the Panama School does not create false expectations in the children and works to help them accept their limits and develop their strengths. Teachers and rehabilitation staff, for example, ask children with no hands which part of their body (mouth or feet) they wish to reinforce in learning to write. Cuba has three schools such as the Panama for children with physical handicaps.
Linking School and Work
Since the Revolution, Cuba has placed a high value on relating study and work.22 In a classically Marxist formulation of praxis, education emphasizes the holistic development of the “new human being,” to be achieved by relating study and work through lifelong education programs that involve students in working and workers in study and reflection. In addition to these Marxist educational principles, the economic situation facing the country called for mobilization of all available labor. Indeed, in the original formulation, the entire cost of the education system was to be covered by students’ productive labor,23 though this is no longer an objective of the system. Still, a high value is given to labor in the priorities and goals of the system. In addition, productive work continues to form an important part of the school curriculum. Finally, the system emphasizes technical, vocational and polytechnical education.
Compulsory education. The primary curriculum includes 480 hours of “labor education” over six years, out of a total of 5,680 hours. Here the Marxist principle of combining study and work is applied to school gardens (las huertas escolares). By participating in simple agricultural activities, students are expected to develop a positive attitude toward work along with attitudes of solidarity with workers. School gardens size range from one to more than 20 hectares. When schools do not have their own garden, students work in “collective gardens” in the provincial capitals. “Education and not production,” is the aim of this experience, we were told while visiting a few schools, thus disclaiming possibility of exploitation of child labor. (At the same time, of course, this contradicts the initial intent of the experiment.)
As part of labor education, all students take one year of drawing. The following year, there is a bit of wood carving, using the models designed in the first year. In the third year, the boys go to woodwork and the girls to sewing.”24 In secondary school (grades 7 to 9), labor education represent 280 hours of a total of 5,799 hours, a less significant share than in primary school but still equivalent to half the time devoted to History and a significant amount of time compared to that given to classic academic subjects (see Annex 4).
Work, when appropriate to children’s age, appears to have become an instrument of intellectual and social development and a sharing of responsibilities. The danger is that compulsory work may lead to exploitation and an aversion to work on the part of students. The initial idea of linking education and work from primary school appears to have lost its original motivation, and risks turning into a ritual or, in Claudio de Moura Castro’s words, a “relic” of Soviet influence, or “perhaps an ever older relic of Western education.”
In the early years of the Revolution, Cuba developed “secondary schools in the countryside” (escuelas secundarias basicas en el campo, ESBEC) boarding schools as a major initiative to bridge the gap between rural and urban populations. At one time, these schools were considered one of the major achievements of the Cuban education system. Each school was part of the agricultural development plan of the region, and students worked every day for a few hours on plantations growing coffee, tobacco, citrus or other products. During the study tour, although we requested a visit to such schools, we were not able to do so. The ESBEC, we were told, have been controversial and have not met the expectations of students and their families, who have resisted such boarding schools. The tendency today is to give more emphasis to family responsibility in their children’s education and postpone the boarding schools to the “pre-university institutes in the countryside” (IPUEC) for students aged 15-17. Although related to the development plan of the area, ESBECs appear to have frequently ended up isolated, having failed to develop the linkages between school, community, rural reality and urban students that were the original initial aims of the experiment.
Box 3: Escuela Ciudad Liberdad25
Escuela Ciudad Liberdad is a laboratory of experimentation in pedagogical methodologies, in collaboration with the Pedagogical University. The school devotes about 30% of the school calendar to extracurricular activities. Every student in secondary school is involved in agriculture work two hours per week (for example, planting trees in a wood nearby, or working in the school agriculture garden), two hours on music, and two hours in military preparation. (We were surprised to see secondary school children managing real arms.) Productive activities are planned according to local production schedules. In addition to the two hours per week, students devote the entire month of May to agricultural activities in a neighboring city. Labor education (educacion laboral) is considered a subject like any other which students need to pass to advance to the next year.
Technical and vocational education. Preparation of a productive working class is a primary objective of the education system, and so approximately 50% of students who complete grade 9 enter Technical and Vocational Education (TVE). This centrally-planned decision reflects the political choice to consolidate a state based on industrial and agricultural manpower. Public employers’ organizations participate in defining the curricula and training activities. Students carry out professional practice 20 hours per week and are continually evaluated both by teachers and technicians. Employers and schools carry out a joint “final integral evaluation” (evaluacion final integral) of student achievement. Only a small group of the best students continue to university. Students are selected for university during school assemblies, with parents participating.
However, the TVE system has come under extreme pressure with the economic austerities of the Periodo Especial, and the new economic conditions posed by the partial opening of the Cuban economy. At one level, the infrastructure and technologies used in TVE schools are obsolete, having been brought from the Soviet Union between 1960 and 1980. With important new, potentially lucrative sources of employment and labor demand--foreign firms, joint ventures, small enterprises, and tourism, traditional university studies, academic careers, and public sector employment are less attractive and less guaranteed paths to financial security and social mobility. In addition, in an increasingly market-driven economy, it has become more and more difficult for the Planning Ministry, and the Ministries of Labor and of Education to predict labor demand and plan appropriate courses of study in TVE. In such an environment, links to private enterprises are necessary to ensure curricular relevance.
Education for Social Cohesion & Values Education
Implicitly and explicitly, Cuban education is organized to promote social cohesion around the values of the Party and state. Values Education is a core subject in the Cuban curricula. Education, specifically Values Education, is expected to promote social cohesion by preventing internal disruption from violence, drugs, and criminality26. Values Education is taught as a separate subject two hours a week27. Teachers are selected from those with exemplary behavior. They teach values and attitudes aiming at consolidating internationalism, national identity and patriotism, a morality of work, solidarity and defense against external threats.
In addition, teachers reinforce values and practices that permeate the entire life of the school. For example, the "colectivo" is at the center of the school life. Individualism is discouraged, both among teachers and students. Cooperation and solidarity between students of the same group or class coexist with competition between classes and groups. Competition is called “emulation” to emphasize that its aim is self-improvement and not a fight against the other. Self-sacrifice and rejection of individualistic attitudes are also seen as characteristics of the “new human being” that the education system aims to produce. Both individual and group responsibility are encouraged in striving to reach collective aims. This emphasis on competition and solidarity in the education system is a typical feature of socialist education systems. Still, students develop self-confidence and a sense of solidarity by assuming responsibility for the school. Racial and gender integration are a fact in Cuban basic education. Gender equity is quite significant in a country mainly agricultural, where women were limited for centuries to traditional roles and where stereotypes and discrimination permeated the entire society. With the collaboration of parents’ councils (consejos de padres), special programs are developed in collaboration with the mass media on drugs, sexual education and criminality.
The dilemma facing Values Education in Cuba is its top-down approach. Where there is no need to address diversity and conflict, because consensus is compulsory, there is the risk of indoctrination. When conflict is disregarded, it can later manifest itself in social unrest. The recent growth of youth criminality and prostitution are likely a consequence of the current economic crisis and of increasing poverty, but may also be symptomatic of the fact that values that have not been internalized are easily abandoned in periods of crisis. Cuba faces the task of teaching national values in an increasingly global environment. The dilemma is how to consolidate solidarity and a collective sense of responsibility in a context of scarcity, while individualism and material consumption are increasingly appealing. In private, the study team noticed diffuse criticism of the rewards of political and ideological conformism favoring access to higher levels of education and career advancement.
Ongoing Tensions: Quality and Equity
Such tensions have never completely been eradicated from the Cuban education system. Despite efforts to equalize opportunity, the best schools still enrolled, primarily, the children of the elite, as illustrated by the school discussed in Box 4. The system, after all is said and done, is still more equitable at the bottom than at the top.
Box 4: Centro Vocacional Lenin en Ciencias Exactas: A Pre-University Institute
The Centro Vocacional Lenin en Ciencias Exactas enrolls 3,300 students with a special aptitude for science. Employing 200 teachers, the center is located in the periphery of Havana. Organizations such as the Union of Young Communists (UJC), the Communist Party, the Students Federation (FEM) and the Teachers Union are active in the life of the school. The Teachers Union and FEM have the right to vote on the school board, while the Party and the UJC do not. Student admission quotas are set in order to guarantee equal possibilities to different municipalities. Admissions scores tend to start from 85 points up, in comparison with scores for other pre-university schools, which start from around 60. As part of the curriculum, students are prepared to defend themselves from natural disasters and military aggression during military preparation activities. The school has a farm, where students observe applications of theoretical scientific studies such as plant mycosis and other pathologies. The Director of the Center commented that the school’s production is for self-consumption, but that it is not cost-effective, as it barely covers costs.
The learning-teaching methodology adopted by the Lenin Vocational Center combines a clear emphasis on autonomous research and learning, with a strong sense of community and group work and “emulation.” We observed a high level of cooperation among peers, where the best students were responsible for mentoring students having problems in different areas. In talking with students, we noticed no shame among those receiving support, nor was there arrogance among the mentors, but instead a common understanding of the mutual responsibilities of students for the group. Flexibility allowed students to focus on the different curricula areas, building on their specific strengths. While the curriculum is the same as that adopted in other pre-university schools, teachers in these schools for excellence act as learning facilitators to prepare students for university learning and for managerial tasks.
Unfortunately, the school population was not representative of the national population in terms of gender and race. The school director, when asked why there were so few Afro-Cuban students in the Center, answered that cultural, social, and economic transformation takes a long time, that the school still reflects families’ cultural and social backgrounds. As observed in other socialist countries, the Center provides high quality education for children of the elite, despite quotas designed to mitigate inequities in student recruitment.28