Ivan Garcia, 20 June 2016 — The choice facing Yolexis was simple. Either he studied teaching, or he would have to do two years in the armed forces. At the age of 18, he couldn’t think of anything worse than putting on an olive-green uniform and marching around for hours in the hot sun.
So, he decided to study to become a teacher in the east of Havana. “To be a teacher in Cuba is the last card in the deck. My parents told me that, before the triumph of the Revolution, to be a teacher was a source of pride in society. Now, to be a teacher is just shitty”, says Yolexis, who, because of the shortage of primary teachers in the capital, gives classes without proper academic training.
In order to add to his meagre 425 pesos a month salary (about $19), Yolexis offers tutoring lessons in the living room of his house. “I charge 20 pesos a lesson. Doing that I get over a thousand pesos extra, double my teacher’s salary.
If there once existed an ethical limit which ensured a teacher’s observation of certain rules and commitments, for quite a while now many Cuban teachers have been just jumping right over those precepts.
It is normal now to see directors of primary, junior high and high schools, giving private classes or tutoring for topics which then appear in the exams.
Let’s call her Olga. She is an assistant director of a Havana primary school. After 6 in the afternoon, she is providing tutoring classes to half a dozen pupils from her own school.
She charges 6 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) a month for each child, and in the neighbourhood she is well-known for covering the material which is almost exactly what then comes up in the final exams. “It’s a kind of hidden fraud. But what can we do? With such poor education, what every parent wants is that their kids get good grades” is what I am told with an air of resignation by Oscar, a father whose son is in the sixth grade.
Academic fraud on the island is old news. You could analyse different reasons for that detrimental behaviour. But let’s be blunt. It is Fidel Castro who is to blame for the fraud in Cuba, in whichever form it takes.
In his eagerness to set up a model system of public education, he established weird standards which encouraged academic fraud as a tool to promote the highest possible grades for students.
Let’s leave to one side the highly doctrinaire education, subsidised by a silent tax on incomes. The structural distortion of Cuban education started at the same time as Castro designed the system as a display cabinet to highlight his work.
Elsa, a retired teacher, remembers that time of schools in the countryside, in which “if a teacher did not pass more than 95% of his pupils, he was being troublesome, and even counter-revolutionary. On the day of the exam, I shamelessly whispered the exam answers to my pupils. That was when the fall in the quality of education started.”
Although there are more than a million university graduates in Cuba, Eugenio, professor of higher education, considers that quality standards leave much to be desired.
“There have been cases of fraud in the University, but not as serious as in primary, junior high, or high schools. The problem with university education is quality. More and more well-trained teachers are leaving the country. Our universities are not listed in the 300 best in Latin America. The recruits we are getting now have clear gaps in their knowledge of maths and grammar”.
In an article published June 3rd in the Vanguardia de Villa Clara newspaper, it was revealed that, out of the 3,300 applicants who sat the university entrance exam in that province, 1,200 failed in mathematics.
Eugenio repeated that, “There is a lot of talk about the poor standard of primary and secondary teaching, but there has also been a big drop in the quality of higher education”.
According to pupils studying for their degrees, some teachers sell exam papers for 20 CUC. “The final exams cost up to 40 CUC. On exam day, the teachers tells you the answers and then charge you outside the school. Those who are screwed are the pupils whose parents don’t have the money to pay for tutoring or the exams,” says a female student in the third year of High School.
Caridad pays between 25 and 30 CUC a month to a retired teacher who helps her two children do their homework. “It isn’t easy. After they have spent 8 hours in secondary school, many adolescents pass another hour and a half studying, because in school, with the teachers’ deficiencies, they find it difficult to take in their lessons. On top of that there is the money for a snack and lunch, which in my case is 50 CUC a month, quite apart from ’presents’ for the teachers and directors to get them to look after my kids”.
Maria Elena has lost count of the money she has spent on gifts and favours for her daughter’s teacher. “Those extra expenses started in the first grade. I usually bring her lunch, buy her clothes and cellphone cards. The more parents do for their childrens’ teacher, the better the grades that they get”.
René, father of an eighth grade student, complains about the number of requests made by the school. “They’ve got a cheek. They ask you for fans so that the students are not too hot in the classrooms. In my son’s secondary school, the parents have provided detergent, paper, curtains, electric sockets … and then the government says the education is free”.
The final exams are coming up, and more than a few few families open their wallets to pay for extra tutoring, or give subtle bribes to certain teachers. Juan Carlos recognises that perhaps it isn’t the best way to motivate his kids to be interested in their studies, “but what we are talking about is them getting good grades so they can get into a good university course. If I have to pay, I pay”.
What with gifts for teachers, English classes and tutoring, Yolanda spends a hundred of the two hundred dollars sent to her every month by family members living in Miami. “What is important is that my daughter learns and studies English in a private school. If she works hard she could get a scholarship to a university in the United States.”
After the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, many families have started to value the teaching in Cuban schools as a first stepping stone.
They see their kids’s professional future outside the island. And they are thinking big. University of Florida, Harvard, or perhaps the Massachusetts Intitute of Technology. It doesn’t cost anything to dream.
Photo by Calixto N. Llanes, taken from the blog Siluetas de Cuba. Primary school pupils with their satchels and lunch bags on the first day of classes of the academic year 2015-2016.
Translated by GH