A Look at Cuba's Education System: High Literacy Rates, Free College Come at a Price
Editor’s note: Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, led a delegation of educators to study the education system in his native country of Cuba last month. Following are his reports on the Cuban system of education.
A Look at the Educational Structure in Cuba
Havana – Cuba’s education system might as well be considered the ultimate wrap-around institution for children.
All children are considered to be wards of the state and in partnership with the parents. All pertinent institutions work in tandem to provide support for their educational and socio-emotional needs. The infant program is available for ages one to four and incorporates child care as well as meeting the medical needs of the children. Parents are taught to be the child’s first teacher.
After school programs abound in every community, attempting to keep students of all ages engaged in constructive activities. Our group visited “La Colmenita”, an after-school program center that uses visual and performing arts as social development tools.
While there, we saw second and third graders making impressive sketches. We were treated to musical performances and dances that brought our group to standing ovations.
This happens not in modern, well-maintained facilities, but rather decaying structures in need of much maintenance and repair.
The staff is not paid. They are parents, artists and performers who volunteer to work with the children.
These programs extend throughout the summer vacation period when parents are required to take their two-week vacations so they can participate in activities with their children.
Cuba’s Education System Paying Dividends
Public education is one of Cuba’s top priorities. Within a year of ousting President Batista in 1959, the country set the ambitious goal of eliminating illiteracy throughout the island. By 1962, illiteracy in Cuba had dropped from 23.6 percent to a mere 3.6 percent. Today, Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
We heard this at a meeting with Dr. Paul Torres, a high-ranking official in Cuba’s Ministry of Education. Cuba offers a free education from cradle to grave. From pre-school programs to doctorates, education is free and available to all.
Education is mandatory through the 9th grade. After that, youngsters have the option of three years of a pre-university program or going to a vocational school.
Currently, about 60 percent of Cuba’s students opt for the academic track but the country is attempting to reverse those ratios. The economy is demanding more trained skilled workers and fewer academicians. This is due in part to the growing private sector in Cuba where skilled workers are in demand and can earn higher wages than academicians.
With increased tourism, privately owned restaurants (known as “paladares”) as well as privately owned night clubs are in need of skilled workers to reconstruct and modernize the aging buildings they occupy. It’s obvious that Cuba has its toe in the capitalist lake. How far they are willing to go is a topic for conjecture among many of the Cubans we met.
A Teacher Shortage in Cuba
Shortly after the Castro regime took over the Cuban government, more than 100,000 youngsters, aged 10-16, were recruited to go into all corners of the island to teach all citizens how to read and write.
These literacy volunteers received several weeks of training with the materials they were to use in their work. They went out to the countryside and moved in with the “campesinos,” the Cuban farmers, working the fields during the day and teaching them to how read and write at night. In urban areas, military barracks were converted into schools and thus began a very intensive and successful indoctrination program that brought Socialism, along with literacy, to the island.
Over the 57 years of the regime, those 100,000 literacy volunteers bonded and became some of Castro’s biggest supporters. Today, Cuba’s teachers continue the literacy initiative while focusing as well on the principles of the “Revolution”. Moral, ethical and civic conduct are seen as important as academic achievement. Teachers are on the alert to detect what issues might be affecting the child’s ability to come to school ready to learn. Every school has a “school council” made up of not just teachers and parents in the school, but other professionals in the social and health arenas who offer support services to families and students.
Teacher training and professional development is a process, not a product. It is ongoing, with two days of in-service per month and weekly on-site activities. The evaluation of teachers is a collective process involving peer review and emphasizing development rather than the documentation that might lead to dismissal. According to the officials charged with the professional development of teachers, dismissal only happens in the event of fraudulent or other criminal activity. Indeed, they see a teacher’s failure as the failure of the entire system.
The country is currently undergoing a teacher shortage. Fewer students are opting to go into teaching, paralleling the reduction of individuals opting to pursue college careers in favor of higher paying jobs in other sectors of the economy. Attempts are being made to begin the teacher recruitment process as early as the primary grades in the hopes of establishing a pipeline of future Cuban educators.
Higher Education in Socialist Cuba
Cuba has made education of their citizenry a high priority. They are proud of the fact that their education is free from cradle to grave. Individuals can attend the university system and earn as many undergraduate and graduate degrees as they might have the inclination to achieve, at no cost. Although higher education is available and free, students have to go through an interview and examination process and meet the university standards in order to be admitted.
For grades 10-12, students have the option of pursuing an academic track that would prepare them for the college entrance exams or vocational programs that will prepare them for the world of work. For many years, Cuba has been graduating an impressive number of engineers, medical doctors, scientists and college professors. The socialist economy guaranteed them all employment after graduation. However, recent changes in the economy have reduced the number of jobs available to those holding academic degrees while at the same time, there has been an increasing demand for skilled workers.
Our group had the opportunity to visit the Restoration Workshop in Old Havana. Many young Cubans apply for admission into a program that will only accept 200 students. Applicants have to be at least 18 years old and must go through an interview process that gauges their personalities and abilities. Throughout the two years of the program, participants are taught the skills necessary to restore the many historic, but aging and decaying, buildings in Havana. They earn a modest salary while in the program. We saw the quality of their work in many of the buildings they have restored in Old Havana as well as at the current reconstruction of the Cuban Capitol.
The graduates are now very much in demand by Cubans who are buying many of the old buildings to establish restaurants and night clubs in the burgeoning privatization sector. Although in the prevailing socialist economy the majority of Cubans still work for the government, there is a growing number of individuals who have set up their own businesses and are employing individuals to work for them. Most of the 1950s vintage American cars that Cuba is so famous for are now taxis owned and operated by individuals, not the state. Trained mechanics are needed to keep those cars running.
Because of these factors, more students are opting to learn job skills that will earn them a higher income than if they had a college degree. In this regard we note that, as Cuba’s tourism grows, many of the tour guides are well educated professors and professionals who have abandoned their careers for the higher income they earn as tour guides.