The Blackboard Mafia / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

High School Students in Havana (14ymedio)
High School Students in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 5 July 2015 — “Everyone knows which teachers accept money,” a group of young people tells me. In fact, some not only accept, but clearly require it from students who know they would not be able to pass the exam on their own.

The final days of the 2015-2016 school year are here, and once again the recurring theme of fraud by students and teachers surfaces, poor preparation of students, low quality of education and the shocking loss of values among not a few education professionals.

A group of five 10th and 11th graders of the pre-university Gerardo Abreu Fontán, of Centro Habana, agreed to offer their testimony on the subject under conditions of anonymity, in an interview that lasted more than two hours and uncovered before me a broad and deep network of corruption.

“You know you are going to have to come straight with me…” says a professor to a bad student, in a full classroom and in the presence of all other students. A phrase that, from a pure semantics point does not say much, but that in marginal code says it all. The aforementioned understands and abides: the game’s move is set.

Around this sunspot there is a whole system of tariffs and strategies that work seamlessly interlocked with the precision of a Swiss watch. Impunity in this maze of fraudulent trickeries is almost absolute.

The teacher acting as proctor will charge 5 CUC for each student thus strategized in the case, of which he will pay a portion of the professor who teaches the subject and another to the person in charge that year.

There is a kind of unwritten agreement In Havana that stipulates an approximate rate, depending on the type of examination (whether oral or written), the period evaluated (if the test is partial or final), the neighborhood where the school is located (which is usually indicative of the purchasing power of the student’s family) and quality and/or experience of the professor.

Thus, to achieve a good grade on a mandatory mid-term (known as a “Partial Control Work” with the initials TCP), a student from a relatively solvent family who is generally behind must pay between 2 or 3 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) to the subject’s teacher. Some teachers, however, charge at a rate of 4 CUC per grade per question, so, considering that a TCP contains three questions; the cost can go up to 12 CUC for each TCP for each core subject.

Meanwhile, the final exam contains five questions, but the system and the going rate in this case vary, depending on what manoeuver is used. For example, a variant is that a certain number of students previously disclose to the subject’s teacher their interest in paying for the proctor during the exam so he will let the students cheat, whether it is looking up each correct answer in books or notebooks or copying among themselves.

The proctor, in turn, charges 5 CUC for each student involved in the plot, from which he will pay a portion to the professor who teaches the subject and another to the person in charge that year, who will turn a blind eye when he makes the classroom rounds to guarantee the transparency of the evaluation process.  So the circle of what we might call a blackboard mafia is closed.

Assuming that there are four subjects with written finals—Spanish, Math, Biology and History—and that there are an increasing number of students interested in using this negotiated evaluation process, it is easy to conclude that the dividends to these “educators” stemming from fraud far exceed their paid wages.

Dividends obtained by these “educators” through fraud far exceed the amount of their wages.

Another variation, usually applied when the teacher has a close relationship with the student and his family, is to conduct the review of examinations at either the home of the student or teacher, where the professor will dictate the correct answers to the student, thus allowing for corrections of mistakes made in the classroom. In these cases, payment is not in the form of cash, but masked in the form of a more or less expensive gift, accompanied by the corresponding eternal “gratitude” of the adolescent’s family.

Finally, there is also the old trick of altering official assessment records, so the teacher gives the student a higher grade than the grade received in the evaluations, which raises the student’s rank so he will have easy access to better university career choices once he finishes high school.

However, the juiciest peculiarity takes place at the provincial level, where the tests are prepared and the final exams and revaluations are “guarded.” According to the students interviewed, both can be bought for a price of about 30 CUC, although the student or his family must know the right person to contact, because otherwise it could mean severe sanctions.

Meanwhile, the new form of oral assessment for subjects like Physics and Chemistry in pre-university education, which was established in the 2014-2015 school year to “facilitate” student grades and elevate their advancement, has only managed to diversify the corruption behaviors of teachers to defraud the system.

These tests are performed through paper forms known as “ballots,” developed at the provincial level. The procedure is simple: the “paying” student will speak to that subject’s professor, who in turn will coordinate the gimmick with some member of the hearing panel to whom he will deliver a list with the names of those students who will pay for their grade in advance. Meanwhile, on the date of the exam, the corrupt faculty panel member, once he has verified the student’s name on the list, gives the student a ballot containing the answers, or he points out the answers to the incorrect ones written by the student, in cases when the student chooses to fill out the ballot himself.

Another variation is to conduct the review of examinations at either the home of the student or teacher, where the professor will dictate the correct answers to the student.

Each subject has a different price, depending on its complexity. A Physics test, for example, costs 15 CUC this year. Chemistry is often cheaper, 5 to 10 CUC, or a gift, which can be anything from perfume, a wallet, or any article of clothing to a bottle of rum.

Evaluations of subjects that are “not important,” such as Political Culture, English, or Computing, almost always are bought, because they are cheap and almost everyone can do it, and so you get it off your mind easily with 2 or 3 CUC or a modest gift, if it is a TCP”.

For a final exam, those who can will pay 5 CUC so they won’t have to make a presentation at the evaluation seminars, which is how they are evaluated. “Sometimes you pay the teacher to give you seminar from a previous year, and you can then transcribe it, as if it was your own work.”

“And all that without taking into consideration that, in addition, on Teachers Day, they get lots of presents,” says M, the most lively of the students interviewed.

But the corruption of the education system is not limited to the evaluation process. According to testimonies from students and parents, access at the end of the ninth grade (secondary school) to a pre-university slot higher than the student’s rating would entitle them to, costs about 100 CUC, paid directly to the school board, or it is “negotiated” through some municipal official with the Ministry of Education (MINED) responsible for the “grants.”

Judging by these statements, corruption is decaying the previously formidable Cuban educational system and it is sprinkling into everyday life, so much so that even students who have not succumbed to the mechanism of fraud—whether for moral reasons or their family’s financial limitations—perceive it as commonplace, perhaps a questionable issue, but not a crime at all.

Each subject has a different price, depending on its complexity

“It’s normal to some extent,” states G, an 11th grader who dreams of making a career in design. “It’s not that I feel respect for those corrupt professors, but I don’t care. It’s not my problem.”

In the case of R, an adolescent with beautiful features and pleasant manners who wants to be a doctor, he believes that what these educators do is not right, but “each person is worthy of respect, that is their livelihood.  If we had a different economy, other wages, different teacher training … perhaps it would be different.”

Once again, M intervenes with a sharp reflection for his young age.  He expresses himself with ease: “The problem is that the Government doesn’t pay them enough. It doesn’t invest in professors or their training, because they don’t produce immediate gains, as in the case of doctors, for instance, who go to foreign assignments and the government takes almost all the money they get paid abroad. Of course teachers are looking for any way to make money, especially the younger ones, who want to go out, have fun and buy fashionable clothes and shoes, just like us.”

All the teens assent in tacit agreement, while something akin to despair invades my being. These youngsters have offered me a glimpse of the true dimension of the damage inflicted to the spiritual body of Cuban society, not just to the economy. I am impressed by the colossal task that will be entailed in rebuilding the moral fragments of our nation, once the long nightmare of the Castro regime has ended. Of course, I don’t accept defeat in advance, but, for now, corruption is continuing to spread its tentacles and threatening to win the game.

Translated by Norma Whiting