Student Achievement

A Revolutionary Education

By Robert C. Johnston — March 05, 2003 16 min read
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Castro's Cuba outscores the rest of Latin America in literacy and math. But its schools face a loss of teachers and other strains.

It is 4:30 p.m., more than eight hours after classes began at Manuel Bisbe Secondary School here, and Yoel Sanz Muñez can’t get his 12 industrial arts students to put down their hammers and turn off the drill press.

Finally, the exasperated, silver-haired classroom veteran barks out, “You stay, I’m going.” It works. By 4:45, the 7th graders are heading home. “You just can’t get them to leave,” Muñez says. Once the room is quiet, he inspects a metal strainer the students are making. Nodding his approval, he notes that the holes are drilled at precise angles according to his charges’ technical drawings.

Calling it a day, the 65-year-old Muñez wheels his weathered black bicycle to the front of the school, easily mounts, and churns the pedals for the 40-minute ride home.

Another school day has ended in Cuba, the enigmatic Communist island-nation just 90 miles across the Straits of Florida. A political pariah in the eyes of the United States for more than four decades, Cuba has long drawn notice for its schools. Interest has heightened, though, since a 2001 study by an international task force reported that Cuban 3rd and 4th graders, based on UNESCO research, easily outscored all their Latin American peers in language and mathematics.

The Bisbe school provides a glimpse into Cuba’s educational successes—and challenges.

Muñez is a popular and skillful teacher with 42 years in the classroom. But, when he retires this year, he will join legions of colleagues also retiring, or defecting to Cuba’s growing tourism industry, where tips for taxi drivers and waiters can far surpass the monthly teacher salary of about $15.

The shop equipment at Bisbe, while functional, is old, Russian-made, and would be costly to upgrade. To be sure, Cuba is spending millions to improve schools and equip them with computers, televisions, and video players. All are in use at Bisbe. But many schools are dilapidated, and materials often are in short supply.

Then there are the students. Eager. Bright. Hard-working. Assertive. And increasingly exposed to pop culture and consumerism—forces at odds with the revolution’s “New Man,” who is supposed to put the needs of the state over those of the individual.

Such influences pose new challenges to the Union of Young Communists and the Organization of José Martí Pioneers—pro-revolutionary youth groups with nearly universal participation.

When a visiting American asks a biology class of 35 students at the elite Lenin School of Sciences who wants to be a teacher, a single hand goes up. Young people, explains one, “want more possibilities” than a teacher’s salary affords.

And, while Cuba’s reverence for learning is strong, it is at times contradictory.

Cubans, who can be jailed for anti-government activism, fondly quote their national hero José Martí. The writer-activist orchestrated Cuba’s revolution against Spain before dying in 1895 in the first armed conflict. Celebrated in mass rallies by flag-waving students, Martí expressed an oft-cited sentiment about education: “To be educated, is to be liberated.”

Walfriedo Cabezas is one of those taxi drivers foreign visitors hope to meet. He is charming, speaks enough English to help with directions, and drives a cool 1956, candy-apple red DeSoto Diplomat—an antiquated workhorse and a clichéd exemplar of Cuban ingenuity.

But Cabezas is part of another Cuban legacy. In 1961, at age 12, he joined more than 200,000 young people responding to the call of the nation’s leader, Fidel Castro, to saturate the countryside and teach literacy. “I cried because my dad would not let me join the brigade against illiteracy,” he recalls. “He said I was too young.”

The young Cabezas prevailed and spent five months living with a family several hours from his home.

According to official accounts, the campaign succeeded in virtually eradicating illiteracy. As a final test, Cabezas says, members of the family he taught wrote a letter to “Fidel” to demonstrate their progress.

To this day, many credit the campaign with essentially wiping out illiteracy. Others, though, point out that it also planted the seeds of an education infrastructure that exists to indoctrinate students in Communist ideology.

Cabezas does not doubt that the campaign put education at the front and center of the new regime: “This was the battle for education. Without this first step, we could not have had the education we now have.”

UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children Report 2003" puts Cuba’s adult-literacy rate at 96 percent, compared with 88 percent for all of Latin America and the Caribbean. (The United States reports a 99 percent rate.) More telling, perhaps, is that 95 percent of Cubans reach at least grade 5, compared with 76 percent in the region.

Young people in Cuba ‘want more possibilities’ than a teacher's salary affords, says one student.

Cuba, however, is fighting to keep its successes alive. The 1991 fall of the Soviet Union—and the 4-decade-old U.S. trade embargo—have led to what the government of President Castro calls the “special period” of economic hardship.

The tough times have been acute for teachers, many of whom have taken their five years of college education to the tourism industry in search of dollars.

In response to the growing need for teachers, the government is again turning to its youths. Through an “emerging teacher” program, thousands of secondary school students are being recruited and trained to teach, beginning as young as 16, in exchange for getting into competitive university programs of their choice.

But, even in Cuba’s most austere times, it has managed to spend around 11 percent of its gross domestic product on schools. In contrast, Argentina and Chile spend about 6 percent and 7 percent, respectively, according to a recent report. And officials still count on education to rally Cubans behind the revolution that brought Castro to power in 1959.

“As can be seen, we are already far above the most developed countries in most of the main educational indicators,” Castro boasted last summer in a speech kicking off the 2002-03 school year. “Almost without noticing, we are leading the way. They [developed countries] do not have the slightest possibility of surpassing us within their capitalist social and economic models.”

Stretching more than 700 miles from east to west, Cuba is about the size of Pennsylvania, and includes nearly 2,000 small islands. The terrain is mostly flat to rolling hills, with the rugged Sierra Maestra range rising in the southeast.

Aside from Havana and Guantánamo Bay, where the United States has a naval base under leases that predate the Castro government, the Bay of Pigs, or Bahía de Cochinos, is among the places most familiar to Americans. This is where, in 1961, some 1,400 Cuban exiles, with backing from the United States, launched a botched attempt to invade Cuba.

Today, the region is known as a wetlands home to crocodiles and migratory birds, and as one of the most forgotten areas of Cuba prior to the revolution. Life remains hard here. Many locals cut wood or make charcoal for a living. Horse-drawn carriages are a common form of transportation.

Still, there are lots of schools—almost all products of the revolution. Before the overthrow of President Fulgencio Batista, Cuba had the third-highest number of students enrolled at the university level in Latin America, though the average level of schooling among all Cubans was less than the 3rd grade.

Escuela Claudio Arguilles Campo sits at the end of a bone-jarring, 30-mile drive through the Cienega Zapata Peninsula. The school has eight students now. Several families left after Hurricane Michelle struck in November 2001.

The two-room cinder block school, though lacking in reliable electricity, has a computer, a television set, and a video player powered four hours a day by two solar panels.

Over the past two years, the government has sought to provide every school in Cuba with at least one computer, and every classroom with a television. A video player has been distributed at a ratio of about 1 per 100 students.

One member of the Association of Independent Teachers says he lost his teaching job because the government said that, with his political beliefs, ‘I corrupt the children.’

Three state-controlled TV channels publish schedules of educational programming. Elementary teachers can turn on a music lesson for primary students in the morning or a museum tour in the afternoon. In the evening, shows from the United States, whether entertainment such as “The X Files” or offerings from the Discovery Channel, are broadcast. One channel, University for All, is dedicated to educational fare.

Internet access, however, is unavailable via the computers used by students in the schools that an Education Week writer and photographer visited.

Escuela Primaria Iluminado Rodriguez, in the same jurisdiction, is a jewel. It is a model for the primary schools the government hopes to build in coming years.Many post- revolution schools were set up in expropriated homes, convents, and offices that have held up well. Others are in shabby structures that are showing their age—and then some.

Josefina Oset Lamora, the director of the new school, is giddy over the fresh paint, shiny tile floors, and spacious classrooms, each of which has an adjoining small plot of land for gardens or play.

“The teachers appear more motivated and more enthusiastic to work,” she says. “Others want to work here because of the conditions.”

Alberto Rodríguez García, the regional director of schools, points to an untilled field. Explaining that students will help grow the food they eat, he declares: “You don’t do this in your country. Your students are not as integrated.”

Indeed, the idea of “integration” comes up a lot in Cuba.

Academics and labor are interwoven at the primary and secondary levels, as well as in the vocational and pre-university levels of 10th through 12th grades. Students are required to sweep floors, pull weeds from school gardens, or, as in the case of the thousands who attend residential schools, clean dormitories. Most secondary students must complete work details, usually in agriculture, lasting up to seven weeks.

In a 2000 report on Cuba’s schools, World Bank education specialist Lavinia Gasperini noted that age-appropriate work “appears to have become an instrument of intellectual and social development and a sharing of responsibilities.” But she added: “The danger is that compulsory work may lead to exploitation and an aversion to work on the part of students.”

Students also form groups to raise and address problems at their schools in a process known as bancos de problemas, or problem banks.

At the Manuel Bisbe school, members of the Pioneers lead their classes in the monthly “bank” sessions. Class representatives then raise their concerns, such as unclear assignments or time between classes, in another meeting with school administrators.

“The students present a resolution,” Mercedes Reece Castillo, the school’s director, explains. “The plans are then evaluated by the administrator.”

Beginning next fall, secondary teachers, or those who teach the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades, will begin teaching all the core subjects, such as science, mathematics, history, and Spanish. Specialists will teach English and physical education.

The change is based on the approach called “looping,” in this case, placing students with the same teacher from 1st through 4th grades. Cuban students, as part of another change, soon will remain together through 6th grade.

“They’re used to two teachers, and then they take a [summer] break and then they have all these teachers,” says Castillo, referring to the current setup. “It’s too abrupt.”

Some educators who have been in charge of preparing secondary teachers for the new job concede that some teachers are resisting. Says one teacher-educator: “One of the things we have to do is teach teachers how to learn again.”

Tucked away in an inner-Havana apartment building, Roberto Miranda cultivates a new movement. He heads the Association of Independent Teachers, a 300-member group opposed to the state monopoly over education and its Communist underpinnings.

“The Pioneers are the children who from an early age put on their bandana and have to respond to the doctrine of the party,” Miranda says.

School officials say that students can opt out of membership in the Pioneers on religious grounds without being marginalized. But members of Miranda’s group contend that the youths may be ostracized or denied university admission if they are not active in such groups.

Miranda, a college-educated technical drawer, says he and his colleagues have paid a price for their opposition—from losing their teaching jobs to being jailed. The dissent is shared on a Sunday afternoon in his home, where he has converted a room into a tiny schoolhouse, complete with a Cuban flag, the ubiquitous Martí bust, and a small collection of books.

He says a few dozen students, ranging in age from 17 to 40, come here to study and review. He is particularly proud of the students’ drawings that cover the wall.

Several other members arrive. They eagerly explain their concerns: national politics, lousy teachers, and their desire to see private Roman Catholic schools allowed again in Cuba, among them.

One man says he lost his teaching job six years ago. The government said that because of his political beliefs, “I corrupt the children.”

He says he used to be a Communist. “But the moment arrived that I took note that things don’t function like they tell you when you are young.”

In general, the group has little good to say about the quality of education in Cuba, and warn the visiting reporter of manipulation.

“They have the ability to say at any moment that a stranger is coming. At this time, the children have to be at their best and answer all the questions,” Miranda says. “We invite you to give them a test of Spanish, of math, and you will see what a grand disaster there is on the island.”

Cuban educators and outside observers who believe that Cuba’s schools provide a sound education offer various explanations, particularly for achievement in literacy.

Some credit a culture that simply eats up the written word. For example, thousands of adults, with children in tow, lined up under an unrelenting sun for two hours or more to buy an estimated 800,000 books during the annual international book fair in Havana last month.

Then there’s the technical explanation. Marguarita Quintero López, a teacher and the chief organizer of an international conference on pedagogy held here every two years, says the success lies, in part, in a demanding timetable and phonics- based teaching methods used across Cuba.

In “pre-escolar,” or kindergarten, children are introduced to basic sounds and vowels. In September through December of 1st grade, pupils learn the most familiar letter groupings, or phonemes.

In an impromptu demonstration, López sounds out “mm, mama, mono.” By January, “it is very cute” as students begin to read simple sentences, she adds. As an example, she offers, “Cuba es mi patria (Cuba is my motherland).”

Beginning Jan. 28, the birthday of José Martí, students can receive stars they pin to their shirts announcing they can read. Says López, “This is really stimulating for the child and family.”

Reading instruction, she adds, should improve as primary classes across the country are reduced to 20 or fewer pupils, a change that is being phased in. “Teachers are going to have more of a chance to work with students who have the most problems,” she says.

‘Cuba delivers to school principals the capacity to evaluate and then terminate [teachers]. That is a powerful part of decentralization, and Cuba does it.’

What’s more, the Cuban school day is long—running generally from 7:50 a.m. to 5 p.m.—with core subjects taught in the mornings. That’s the time, Cuban researchers say, when children are most receptive to learning. And while students in the United States are in school about 180 days a year, the Cuban school year is about 220 days.

Martin Carnoy, a professor of education at Stanford University, is studying school systems in Cuba and other Latin American countries. The lack of extreme poverty in Cuba compared with elsewhere in Latin America, he says, means fewer distractions in the classroom related to hunger, health, and students who work.

Cuban teachers, unlike many elsewhere in the region, also are prepared by their universities to teach a national curriculum, Carnoy says. “Even though many wouldn’t want to live in that kind of society, maybe you need that kind of regulation to get Cuban results.”

Though the system is highly centralized, it hands key power to school directors. The country’s rigorous system of reviewing teachers and linking raises to student performance may help lift the level of instruction, some say.

“Cuba delivers to school principals the capacity to evaluate and then terminate [teachers],” points out Larry Wolff, an Inter-American Development Bank education consultant. “That is a powerful part of decentralization, and Cuba does it.”

Preschool also aids Cuba’s schools, he notes.

Last month, the Ministry of Education celebrated the 10th anniversary of Educa a Tu Hijo, or Educate Your Child. Started as an outreach program for expectant and new mothers in rural areas, it reaches almost every family in Cuba with children up to age 5.

Education and health workers, relying on the organizational support of local political groups such as Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, meet with young parents to talk about child health and promote school-readiness activities.

As with many speeches by Cuban officials, Education Minister Luis I. Gómez Gutiérrez takes a jab at U.S. policies during a speech praising the program. “No one can ignore our economic problems,” he declares on a recent, sunny Havana morning. “This country, blockaded by the most powerful force in history, was able to bring the program to more than half a million families.”

Nine-year-old Moises is polite but a bit flustered when a reporter interrupts him. “I’m calculating a multiplication problem,” he explains.

Brushing his fingers over the dots on the paper produced by a 40-year-old Braille typewriter, Moises, who has been blind since birth, returns to work.

He is one of 184 students at the Escuela Especial Abel Santa Maria. All have some form of disability, ranging from blindness to cognitive impairment. Sixty students board here. The school is located in Ciudad Liberdad, a sprawling, forested education community outside Havana where Batista headquartered troops before his overthrow.

Today, numerous schools here serve hundreds of students in small, single-floor rooms where troops once lived.

The Santa Maria school has 66 teachers, each averaging about 17 years of experience in special education, says the school’s director, Delfina Carballo González.

Contrary to the mainstreaming philosophy of many countries, including the United States, special-needs children in Cuba attend 429 special schools to receive preparation and skills for work.

Santa Maria also runs an all-day program for parents whose children were born blind, and a kitchen and dining room where students are taught skills needed to care for themselves.

Little new or high-tech equipment is here. Several of the Braille printers date back to the 1950s. But González makes no apologies, nor does she complain.

“In your country, you have equipment so that when something breaks, you replace it. We can’t do that,” she tells an American. Smiling cheerily, the director adds: “We respond with intelligence. We are going to find alternatives. We are not going to die.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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