International Opinion

For an Educational Model, California Should Look to Cuba

By Contributing Blogger — October 26, 2015 5 min read
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Third grade math score comparisons among Latin American and Caribbean countries showing Cuba’s relative position.

By Tom Luschei

In my last piece I argued that as a country, California could be a northern extension of Latin America, or “Alta California.” In addition to many cultural and social connections between California and Latin America, California shares with most Latin American nations the problems of high degrees of social inequality and child poverty. In Latin America, many school-aged children are out of school and many must work to support themselves and their families. One exception is Cuba, where the distribution of income is much flatter and child labor is virtually nonexistent (Carnoy, Gove, & Marshall, 2007).

Cuba’s 1959 revolution sets the island nation apart from the rest of Latin America for a number of reasons, perhaps most significantly for its impressive educational successes. Cuba has never participated in major international educational assessments like PIRLS, PISA, or TIMSS, so it is not mentioned in the same breath as Finland, Singapore, or South Korea. Yet in assessments conducted by UNESCO’s regional office in Latin America, Cuban children have consistently scored far above children in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. In UNESCO’s 2006 assessment, Cuba scored more than a standard deviation above the average of all participating countries in third grade math and reading. By comparison, Finnish 15-year-olds scored about one-fourth of a standard deviation above the OECD average on PISA’s 2012 math assessment.

What are the educational lessons that we can take from Cuba? According to Martin Carnoy and Jeffery Marshall, one of Cuba’s most important educational innovations is state-generated “collective social capital, expressed in reduced classroom violence and reduced afterschool labor” (p. 260). Cuban children do well in school in large part because they are in school to begin with, not working. They also study in much more peaceful environments than children in most of Latin America, and they are more likely to receive healthcare. Cuba also owes its educational success to well prepared and supported teachers. Stanford professor Carnoy argues that rather than revolution, these teachers, as well as doctors, represent Cuba’s greatest export. Carnoy notes that although developing nations have imported tens of thousands of Cuban teachers to address teacher shortages, “the real payoff for countries importing Cuban educators would be the opportunity for these teachers to train their young educators through co-teaching, classroom supervision and mentoring local counterparts, especially in low-income rural and urban schools.” Cuban teachers earn similar wages that, albeit very low, rival those of other professionals like doctors and engineers. This makes recruiting talented young people to become teachers much easier than in California, where wage differentials between teachers and other professionals are much greater. Cuban teachers also receive rigorous preparation and continual support in the form of induction and professional development. None of this, except possibly wage equalization for teachers, would require a revolution.

In contrast to Cuba’s top-down, state-centric approach, Chile’s extreme version of privatization places it on the other side of the centralization spectrum. The majority of Chile’s schools are private, with a large fraction of them funded through vouchers provided to families by the state. Does the Chilean model make sense for Alta California? Aside from the challenges of implementing such a radical change, there is insufficient evidence to support large-scale adoption of this model. If Chile’s approach were superior to Cuba’s, Chile’s economic edge should make it a leader in educational performance across Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet while Chile has performed well relative to most countries in the region, its performance considerably lags that of Cuba.

There’s another lesson from Latin America: In addition to structural reforms like centralization in Cuba and privatization in Chile, countries south of our border have pioneered “targeted reforms” that are designed to increase school participation and achievement of the most disadvantaged children. These targeted reforms include “conditional cash transfer” programs like Mexico’s Oportunidades and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, which provide cash directly to poor families, conditional on enrolling their children in school. Both of these programs have been credited with boosting school participation of poor children and raising families out of poverty. In fact, Oportunidades inspired a short-lived conditional cash transfer experiment in New York City called “Opportunity NYC.”

Opportunity NYC is one of the few cases (maybe the only case) of an education reform traveling from the south to the north; educational policy borrowing usually works in the opposite direction. But the poverty and inequality experienced by many Californian children demand that we examine promising solutions in societies facing similar challenges.

This brings me to the best-known targeted educational reform in Latin America, Colombia’s Escuela Nueva (New School) program. Escuela Nueva was founded in 1975 to confront difficult teaching and learning conditions in Colombia’s remote, rural schools, most with only one or two classrooms attended by children of different ages, grades, and abilities. Escuela Nueva supports children and teachers in these “multigrade” environments through a flexible, child-centered system of curricular support and consistent professional development of teachers provided through teacher networks. Escuela Nueva’s success in rural environments led to the establishment of the model as official policy for rural education in Colombia in 1983. The Escuela Nueva model has been adopted in 16 other countries and the program’s co-founder, Vicky Colbert, has received recognition from the Clinton Global Initiative, the Skoll Foundation, and the Kravis Leadership Institute, among many others. In 2013, Escuela Nueva was awarded the Qatar Foundation’s WISE Prize, which was established to honor achievements in education much like the Nobel Prize recognizes accomplishments in literature, the sciences, and peace.

Should Alta California look to the example of structural reforms like privatization, targeted programs like Escuela Nueva, or something in between? I devote my next piece to examining this question.

Tom Luschei is associate professor and co-director of the Urban Leadership Program at the Claremont Graduate University School of Educational Studies.


Carnoy, M., Gove, A., & Marshall, J. (2007). Cuba’s academic advantage: Why students in Cuba do better in school. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Carnoy, M. & Marshall, J. (2005). Cuba’s academic performance in comparative perspective. Comparative Education Review, 49(2), 230-261.


Student Achievement in Latin America (2008). Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean OREALC/UNESCO: Santago.

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