Cuba’s Academic Advantage

Reviewed by Peter

Martin Carnoy, Cuba’s Academic Advantage (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2007)

Over the past thirty years, when researchers and educators visited classrooms in Cuba and in other countries, Cuban pupils in every grade seemed to know much more math and seemed to read better. In the late 1990s, an international organization, UNESCO, tested pupils in thirteen Latin American countries. What researchers and educators had believed for years about Cubans was confirmed. (48)

When people defend and praise Cuba’s accomplishments under socialism, what is frequently mentioned is healthcare and education. But specifics are usually lacking to explain the achievements in education. This volume helps fill that void. Written by an education professor at Stanford, who is apparently not a socialist, it employs standard educational theory to analyze the reasons behind Cuba’s success in primary and lower secondary school education. Carnoy compares Cuba’s education system with those of Brazil and Chile in terms of performance, techniques and results. He visited schools in rural as well as urban areas. The results of the study indicate not only that Cuba outshines the other two countries in all categories, but also that there is little difference in Cuba between urban and rural schools and between schools in poorer and wealthier districts, and that the elite Chilean private schools provide the closest match to the Cuban schools. Much of Cuba’s success can be directly attributed to socialism.

Cuba’s educational reforms were initiated in the 1960s, beginning with “top-down mobilizations implemented islandwide,” including the massive literacy campaign, expansion of secondary schools, curricular reforms, and lowering of class size. By the end of the decade, “universal tenth-grade education had been reached. A massive effort was made in the 1960s to equalize Cuban education in urban and rural areas and among urban neighborhoods” (29). Teaching became a highly regarded profession and a teacher-training school was created.

Carnoy also notes at the outset that the Brazilian and Chilean social structures are much more unequal than Cuba’s, and that, for example in Brazil, “children in low-income regions go to schools with far fewer resources than are found in schools of more affluent areas” (35). Cuban schools are superior in classroom physical conditions, materials and textbooks available, and class size (20 in grades 1-6).  All Cuban schools visited had computers, computer software, and a computer specialist. Since in socialism the state is also involved in healthcare and other social services, “families trust in the state’s ability to produce high-quality education for all” (53f). Furthermore, poor children in Brazil and Chile are more likely to be sick, hungry and homeless. Cuban children have little access to “drugs, gangs, child prostitution and child labor.” As a result there is far less absenteeism among children and teachers in Cuba (a chronic problem in developing countries), and there are fewer incidents of violence in the classrooms (35f, 67).

In Cuba the role of the state in guiding children’s lives is greater. The schools, families, and municipalities share responsibility for a child’s academic progress. Children stay with the same teacher through the sixth grade, which means that the teachers know their students and their families well. Other factors include an eight-hour school day. The ability of teachers to become well acquainted with their students is enhanced because people in Cuba do not change jobs and/or move frequently. If a student is absent for a few days or is having difficulties learning, the teacher will visit the family. “A principal of a primary school with 400-600 pupils could name every child with learning difficulties and the steps that were being taken to help the child…” (107).

Cuban students are also stimulated to attend school since it can lead to a white-collar job, and “Cuban children from less-educated families have much greater opportunity to succeed academically than their counterparts in Brazil and Chile” (39, 43). Since Cuban parents are more likely to be educated, their expectations are higher. “It is much easier for a teacher to deliver high-quality education in a society where essentially all children come to school at the ‘right’ age and are well nourished, where educational success is believed to be important by most families, and where families consider the teachers and the school to be dedicated to high-quality education for their children” (111).

The overall quality of those who enter the teaching profession in Cuba is high because most jobs outside of teaching do not pay better. A higher percentage of teachers in Cuba are university graduates. Teacher training is centrally controlled, and is based on the education philosophies of Vygotsky, Makarenko, and Dewey. Teachers are well versed in the curriculum, particularly in math, which “is more focused on teaching well a limited set of skills than covering a lot of material” (87). What stands out in Cuba is the intense and extensive teacher supervision and guidance, especially for new teachers. “Practice, not theory, is at the center of their teachers’ education” (94).

Beyond teachers’ initial education, most teacher training takes place takes place on the job, where new teachers are closely mentored by experienced teachers and school principals and vice principals. The job of these supervisors is defined specifically as ensuring that teachers in their school are teaching the required curriculum effectively and that students are learning it. (83)

In comparison with Chile and Brazil, Cuba is much more efficient in classroom management, because of much smaller class size with less time spent in interruptions and transitions. The emphasis is on problem-solving by individual students. Cuban students were very involved in the lessons and showed few signs of being bored. There is a high level of discipline. Every student’s work was checked. Students were asked to explain their answers and correct other students. Superior teacher content knowledge also helps explain the more demanding cognitive skill content of the lessons.

Cuban primary and early secondary education for all students is superior to Chilean and Brazilian, where students are far more segregated economically and socially. Thus, Cuba is on track towards fulfilling the socialist goals of educating all children together, in the context of protecting the rights of all children. It also destroys the myth that children of all economic and social backgrounds cannot be educated. We now have a better understanding as to some of the reasons why.

The only criticism I have of this well-written and well-documented study pertains to a few unsubstantiated remarks implying that a tradeoff for better schools in Cuba is a lack of political liberties. Carnoy writes, “Strict government social controls are not good for individual adult liberties, but they do assure that lower-income children live in crime-free environments, are able to study in classrooms with few student-initiated disturbances, and attend schools that are more socially mixed.... Chile and Brazil—especially Brazil—have much more political freedom for adults and much more inequality, poverty, crime and greater numbers of street children” (142, 144; Carnoy’s emphasis).

These comments are not part of Carnoy’s research. After detailed analysis focusing on Cuba’s educational system, it seems out of place to just assert that people in Cuba lack political liberties. Recent publications have shown that scholars freely express their political differences with governmental policies in Cuba (see the collection, Cuban Perspectives on Cuban Socialism, S&D #52).  Furthermore, Carnoy presents no argument supporting a necessary relationship between a superior educational system and lack of political liberties.

I recommend this book to all those interested in understanding practical applications of the socialist experience. Peter Roman Hostos Community College City University of New York