By Walt Gardner | When President Barack Obama announced his plan to loosen restrictions on travel to Cuba, he signaled the start of a potentially new era in relations between the two countries. For educational reformers, the change provides an opportunity to study a system of schooling that has brought remarkable benefits to large numbers of the poor.
It’s easy to forget that accomplishment in light of Cuba’s long record of human rights violations. But if we can put aside the dark history of political repression, lessons emerge that have direct and practical application to the U.S. as it attempts to bring equity to education.
On January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro seized control of the government from Fulgencio Batista, he inherited a society in which more than 60 percent were either unable or barely able to read and write. Illiteracy was particularly rampant in rural areas, where some two-thirds of the population lacked access to schools.
Determined to improve education, Castro launched a massive literacy campaign. The government organized brigades of students and teachers who volunteered to teach peasants how to read and write. Although the need was most acute in the remote provinces, as captured by the slogan “Schools to the countryside,” it also existed in Havana, which had its share of slums.
Workers in factories and shops across the island were given time off to attend classes. Night school was started for Cubans who found this option more convenient. All classes were free. To deal with logistical problems, the government created a system of new childcare centers, with parents paying modest fees based on their income. The government also transformed many existing police stations and army barracks into schools, or built new schools where needed.
To ensure that efforts to eradicate illiteracy were on track, clear national standards were established for sixth, ninth, and 12th grades. This step was a forerunner of what the U.S. is now considering in order to make proficiency meaningful under the No Child Left Behind Act. Between 1958 and 1962, Cuba’s illiteracy rate dropped from 24 percent to 4 percent.
The success of this educational reform was reported in 1998 by the Latin American Laboratory of Educational Evaluation, part of UNESCO. It showed Cuban students posting scores in literacy and math nearly double those of any of the other 12 nations in the study. The results are particularly noteworthy because they compare countries with similar language, customs, and traditions. Although Cuba has never participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), nor in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), psychometricians have calculated on the basis of existing data that Cuban students would have outscored American students.
This accomplishment is more relevant to the current state of affairs in the U.S. than many people realize. Despite the investment of billions of dollars to teach reading, about 30 million Americans are still functionally illiterate, according to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. This means they lack basic written communication skills.
How has Cuba managed to succeed where the U.S. has failed? Educational researchers have identified several factors worth taking into account.
First, researchers have found that Cuban teachers are extraordinarily well trained in both subject matter and pedagogy. This combination translates into high achievement for all social groups. It is what distinguishes Cuban education from education in the other countries in the study by the Laboratory of Educational Evaluation. In fact, Cuba is one of the few countries where students achieve at a much higher level than their socioeconomic background would predict. One possible extracurricular explanation for this outcome, it should be noted, is that child labor outside the home is practically nonexistent in Cuba, despite a lower per capita income than the other countries studied.
For another thing, Cuban teachers challenge their students to think critically about a given topic by asking them to explain their answers rather than relying on rote memorization. This distinction is too often given short shrift by reformers in assessing educational quality. Cuba’s reputation for turning out highly skilled professionals has made them much in demand in other Latin American countries. Venezuela, for example, has attributed the strides it has made in reducing illiteracy to their presence as part of an exchange program.
But Cuba’s system is also known for its breadth. All students receive instruction in math, science, reading, arts, humanities, and civics. In addition, there is heavy emphasis on physical education. Even elite secondary schools require students to perform 20 hours of manual work per week. In this regard, Cuba was decades ahead of the U.S., which only now is taking steps to address the threat obesity poses. The goal is to provide everyone with the knowledge and skills to make them productive and healthy citizens.
To further achieve this objective, most schools have an on-site doctor, as well as a school nurse. Students who are diagnosed with medical or dental needs are referred to public health services. Moreover, food subsidies are provided to all schools to ensure that students receive proper nutrition. As a result, it’s not uncommon to find students eating two meals at school daily. This strategy contrasts sharply with the situation in inner-city schools in the U.S., where health conditions that interfere with learning often go unaddressed.
Cuba also understood early on the importance of tailoring education to serve a wide range of student needs and interests, from the academically gifted to the severely disabled. The country adopted a child-centric model in which elementary school teachers stay with their students for the first four years to develop long-term relationships. For children from broken homes, in particular, teachers often constitute the only adult role models present at this crucial stage in their lives. Building on the success of this strategy, Cuba has restructured lower secondary schools (grades seven through nine) along the same line.
For reformers in the U.S. seeking to narrow the achievement gap between ethnic groups as the country becomes increasingly multicultural and income disparity widens, Cuba’s approach provides a promising and comprehensive model that is way ahead of its time. But Castro’s impressive educational reforms have come at an undeniably steep price. Schools indoctrinate children to be good Communists who will unquestioningly support the regime. From elementary schools to university, Cubans learn that voicing dissent means marginalization or worse. This regimentation is anathema to the U.S., where freedom of speech forms the foundation of democracy.
Yet Cuban-style educational reform need not go hand in hand with Castro’s political indoctrination. The question is whether the practical elements of Cuba’s approach to schooling are feasible here. The closest the U.S. has come to date is the Harlem Children’s Zone, which is widely considered the biggest social experiment of its kind.
Its founder and leader is Geoffrey Canada, who was raised in Harlem by his mother after his father left the family when Canada was four years old. Despite his background, he won a scholarship to Bowdoin College and then went on to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Inspired by his own success, Canada set out in the mid-1990s to prove that poor children—especially poor black children—could succeed academically. He chose as his laboratory a 24-block zone of central Harlem (now expanded to 60 blocks) containing about 6,500 children, more than 60 percent of whom live in households below the poverty line and three-fourths of whom score below grade level on statewide reading and math tests. Canada takes great pains to recruit the hardest to teach by knocking on all doors in the neighborhood in order to avoid the accusation of cherry-picking.
Recognizing that efforts to address the issue of black underperformance were not new, Canada decided what was needed was a network of programs with no holes for children to fall through. He knew from his own experience that poor children go to school with unique deficits, so he added social and medical services that start at birth and follow children to college. In so doing, Canada uncannily mimics Castro’s successful strategies. And like Castro, Canada has shown promise in overcoming the cumulative disadvantages that too often account for the all-too-familiar dropout pattern.
On the face of it, the idea that Cuba has something to teach American educational reformers is bound to meet with resistance. Yet there are signs that we may be ready to learn. This April, the Cuban American National Foundation issued a 14-page proposal calling for a break from the past in relations between the two countries. It was all the more noteworthy because its president, Francisco Hernandez, a hardened veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, placed greater importance on the Cuban people than on their form of government.
It’s this same distinction that American reformers need to bear in mind, for in the final analysis, the real question is what the U.S. can learn about education from Cuba in spite of—not because of—its Communist system.
Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let’s hope reformers take the best that Cuba has achieved and apply it here. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.
Walt Gardner C ’57 taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.