The Myth of Cuba’s Education System

When UNESCO speaks of the high level of education in Cuba, it refers to it as “free,”,. but that does not mean the Cuban system educates its new generations well. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rolando Gallardo, Quito, 16 January 2022–Determining the quality of the education system in Cuba is a task filled with pitfalls and endless assumptions as it is impossible to access verifiable macro data. So much secrecy incites even more suspicion.

In the Latin American and Caribbean region, we know that the countries with the best educational outcomes are Chile — paradoxically, a window into reviled neoliberalism — followed by Uruguay, Costa Rica and Mexico, according to the list created by PISA testing (Program for International Student Assessment), which measures the application of acquired knowledge in daily life after the completion of mandatory education. Cuba does not appear in the data, for one simple reason: it does not participate in the measurement.

In 2013, the tough nucleus of “21st-century socialism”, Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela, refused to participate in these evaluations. For the governments of these countries, education was considered a strength of the social processes they developed and they preferred their “achievements” not to be questioned.

Without access to government information and refusing to provide data to international organizations, one must ask from where the idea came that Cuba is the point of reference for the best education system in the region.

The United Nations itself is responsible for presenting the Cuban system as the paradigm, but if one reads between the lines, the indicators highlighted by UNICEF are not reliable evidence of the quality of education.

When UNESCO speaks of the high level of education in Cuba it refers to it as free, but the absence of a cost does not mean the Cuban system educates its new generations well.

While in Latin American countries textbooks are updated, on average, every five years, in the case of Cuban textbooks, from physics to Spanish and literature, these were last updated between 1989 and 1990, with the objective of eliminating Soviet propaganda and strengthening the unique social nature of the Cuban revolution.

Indoctrination in textbooks from preschool through the last year of high school is the only thing that has not varied in Cuba in the last three decades. This can be corroborated by reviewing the Cuban Ministry of Education’s books which have been digitized.

When a rigorous measure of poverty is applied to Latin American education systems and the real impact of the lack of family resources has on the quality of education is understood, one forgets that Cuba transitioned from ranking as the 23rd economy globally, in 1958, to compete with Haiti on poverty indicators since the 1990s when the USSR collapsed.

Cuban civil society estimates that 51% of the population currently lives in poverty and rural and suburban areas are in extreme poverty. The minimum monthly salary is 19 USD, according to the real value of this hard currency on the black market. The annual income per capita for Cubans is 300 USD, similar to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a country where the average family income is so low and access to protein has been difficult since 1990, what can be said about the nutrition students need to face classes in the morning and complete their homework in the afternoon.

Despite the palpable reality in classrooms, UNICEF and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) accept, without questioning, uncorroborated data from the Cuban government about “nonexistent child undernutrition” in Cuba. These types of approaches generate more questions about the role international organizations play in the country.

The starting monthly salary for Cuban teachers is 4,825 pesos (70 USD). To support themselves in the midst of runaway inflation, teachers take on extra work as tutors, for which they charge 100 pesos per session (less than 1.50 USD). Receiving tutoring is not an option for all students, the family’s ability to pay determines who has a greater chance to achieve the best test scores and subsequently secure a university spot in their desired career field. Evidence that the “free” system for all is just a cover for the surreptitious social Darwinism of the system.

The idea we have in Latin America of an average quality education includes the use of the internet and information technologies. In Cuba, this vision is limited to learning the parts of a computer and mediocre use of Microsoft’s Office package. Social access to the internet was approved in the country in 2013 and its use as a resource for research and classwork is a dream which still has not arrived, in accordance with the state policy of maintaining a traditionalist system of education.

The layout of classrooms, the forms of organization, the methodologies, and the promotion of innovation are static and eminently theoretical; in practice, the changes in the last 40 years are barely perceptible. Among the transformations that require a meritorious mention is the implementation of inclusive education policies, which integrated special needs students who formerly were destined for special schools. The first students to be integrated with average students were children and adolescents from reform schools, where they were marginalized as juvenile delinquents until 2003, when they were assigned to regular schools.

Despite these changes, teacher training has had to deal with massive desertion, constant migratory crises, and demotivation as a result of the lack of financial incentives and the declining social recognition of teachers, who are viewed as the spokesmen and spokeswomen of a totalitarian regime and responsible for decades of indoctrination.

Faced with this crisis, in 2000 Fidel Castro opened Emerging Teacher Training Schools, which as their name suggests, train teachers in an accelerated manner. At first, teachers were expected be ready to go to the classroom in six months, later it was after a year. This fix reduced the prominence of university education for teachers and spread the learning weaknesses of these adolescents-turned-teachers.

The dictator’s direct intervention in public education policies resulted in the systematic destruction of the management structure in schools. It reached the point of assuming that a secondary school teacher could teach physics, mathematics, literature, chemistry, and art under the assumption that if “Aristotle could teach his disciples several sciences, integrated general teachers (PGI) could as well.” In the end, the PGI were unable to offer a deep knowledge in anything, though they were required to talk about everything.

Twenty years after the “Emergent Training” disaster, 70% of the teachers in the country at all levels of Cuba’s education system are the result of poor training. When we pay attention to academic training and teaching practices, that should be an indicator when determining the quality of the education provided in Cuba.

Putting these data in the context of the Cuban reality, we should reconsider whether its education model should be the paradigm for Latin America. How many of us would be willing to guarantee free education accessible to all at the expense of our individual liberties? How many parents would choose an ideological education with explicit indoctrination? How many teachers would prefer an education model that is static, traditionalist, in addition to being the lowest paid in the western hemisphere? Some stories are poorly told.

Translated by: Silvia Suárez


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.