In January 2012, my wife and I traveled to Cuba with Cuba Educational Travel to learn about the island, its educational system, its buildings and the country’s history.
The trip began with an overview of Cuba’s history, its political and economic systems and a broad overview of Havana and many of its cultural attractions. (For more details on the trip in general, see my travel blog www.ActiveBoomerTravel.com.)
Our primary mission, however, was to learn about the country’s educational system. We visited primary and secondary schools and some of the workshops and vocational programs that complement them, as well as one of the country’s most prestigious universities. We had lectures by and extensive chance for open discussions and questions with teachers, principals and students.
Cuba’s Commitment to Education
Cuba places an incredibly high value on education. The country dedicates about 10% of its budget to education (compared with 2% in the U.S.) and literacy rates are 98%. Classes are relatively small, with classes averaging 12 students per teacher, with a maximum of 25. (These ratios average 1:1 for severely mentally and physically-challenged students.) Education is compulsory through the ninth grade (secondary school) and high school graduation rates, although hard to measure in Cuba, are relatively high, especially in Havana and other large cities.
All education, including university and graduate school (assuming the student passes admission exams) is free and the quality is high, with elementary and secondary students consistently testing at the top of OECD’s ratings for Caribbean and Latin American countries.
The higher education system is also relatively strong. The country has almost fifty universities, plus pedagogical and polytechnic institutes that graduate an average of about 40,000 students per year. Its education and medical schools, in particular, are renowned throughout Latin America and Africa—regions which send students to study in Cuban universities and to which Cuba sends large numbers of teachers and doctors as part of the country’s large “soft diplomacy” programs.
Those who do not live close to these higher education institutions can take courses through a distance learning program which offers afternoon and evening courses through 15 different centers.
This being said, the Cuban educational system, for all its strengths, certainly has faults. As summarized by Catholic University professor Enrique Pumar, educational resources are highly vulnerable to economic cycles and graduation rates vary greatly between urban and rural schools. Moreover, Cuban educational institutions are not exactly bastions of free thought. All education is managed by, and all schools are operated by the state. All programs are, as per the country’s constitution, based on Marxist ideology.
This being said, we were generally impressed by what we saw in Cuban classrooms and what we learned speaking with administrators and teachers.
Cuba’s Primary and Secondary School System
Students attend schools for nine months a year. The school day begins at 7:50 AM and lets out at 4:50 PM, with a two hour mid-day break. This, however, is only part of the educational experience. After school, students go directly to “workshops,” for about two hours per day and another three hours on the weekend.
These workshops, whose programs are coordinated with teachers to build upon what the students are learning in school, provide opportunities to apply their school lessons to real-world tasks. Writing classes, for example, are complemented by exercises in conceiving and writing stories for, and publishing (via desktop publishing) newsletters; literature courses by writing and producing short plays, art classes by performing and even writing music, and so forth.
In addition to such “applied” programs, these workshops also provide a number of more generalized programs, such as those that teach and help demonstrate the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the history and how to address some of the needs of their communities, ecology and, for older students, sex education. High school-level workshops, are tied more closely to trades, academic specialties or even professions for which students demonstrate particular interest and aptitude.
College and trade schools
Admission into trade schools and universities are open to all who demonstrate aptitude, pass required entrance exams and possess appropriate skills (such as dexterity for skilled trades like carpentry, plumbing and metal work).
Some students go directly from secondary school to university, and those with the highest grades, admission test scores and aptitude in particular disciplines, to graduate or professional school.
Others take a less direct route that blends vocational and academic tracks. I found one program to be particularly interesting. The Havana-based Escuela Taller, is a trade school dedicated to restoring buildings in the city’s World Heritage Site historical district. Its staff consists of highly experienced trades people (masonry, carpentry, plumbing, electricity, etc.) and professionals and instructors in associated disciplines (urban planning, Spanish architecture, structural engineering and so forth).
While the program is nominally open to any 15-23-year-old boy or girl with a ninth-to-twelfth-grade education, admission is extremely competitive, with only about five percent of applicants accepted. Those who are accepted are assigned to a specific discipline, where they work with experienced trades people to learn their trades, while simultaneously taking academic courses in related disciplines.
Those who graduate from the rigorous two-year program can take one of two routes. Some go directly into the trade they have studied. Others, assuming they have completed their secondary educations (either before or part-time in the evenings during their time at Escuela Taller), may qualify for admission into university. (Although the Escuela Taller program is tailored to the needs of Havana, and are open only to city residents, other cities and provinces have similar programs.)
The Cuban education system, as evidenced by workshops and programs such as Escula Taller, focuses on integrating academic learning and the development of practical skills.
While the vast majority of this combination begins with generalized skills in primary schools, they become increasingly focused on career skills later in the education process. There are, however, a few exceptions to this broad approach of beginning with general education and skills, and gradually migrating to specialized disciplines and trades. The government considers a few areas to be sufficiently important and early focus and practice to be so critical, as to provide integrated career training from very early in the education process. These are primarily in:
- Arts, including music, dance, theater, visual and media arts; and
In both these areas, the system attempts to identify those with particular talent at very early ages and provides highly specialized integrated training programs to nurture these skills. Students are admitted at an early age, and take intensive coursework and workshops that are aligned to their specialties. They undergo regular, increasingly rigorous tests, with only the best admitted to the next level. Education in the arts culminates at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). This highly selective conservatory, championed by and built on grounds that were selected by Fidel Castro, is located on the old golf course of an exclusive country club and is graced by lovely (albeit also quite run-down) contemporary buildings designed by famous architects. The conservatory, which selects the best of the graduates of specialized high schools, provides a rigorous and comprehensive education, with tracks aligned to each of its four artistic disciplines. Many of those who graduate are destined for lucrative careers in Cuba’s leading theaters, orchestras and dance companies and for independent careers in art, jazz and other related fields.
Implications for the U.S. and Cuba
Although the U.S. has long since migrated away from the type of educational tracking Cuba applies to arts and sports, there may well be opportunities for us to learn from Cuba’s general practice of integrating academic education and vocational training to help students better grasp the real-world application of their coursework, deepen their interests, and identify and prepare for careers in which they have interests and skills.
Such, formal, integrated programs could produce particular advantages in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), areas in which the U.S. is facing an increasingly serious skills shortage (or at least severe skills mismatch). Such a system could help address the huge leakage we are currently experiencing in our STEM pipeline (see my recent blog, The United States’ Clogged Technology Education-to-Employment Pipeline). The advantages could be especially great if the private sector becomes more actively engaged in the education process, helping schools not only identify the types of skills they will need in graduates, but also designing the academic curricula, designing and sponsoring the practical exercises and providing volunteers to show how these skills are used in actual jobs.
Speaking of STEM, we have to wonder why Cuba does not appear to focus anywhere near the level of effort on developing its STEM talent as it does on developing its artistic and sports talent—and especially its medical and pedagogical talent. As shown in a 2009 report by the Cuban National Statistical Office, see Figure Pumar’s article), 34% of the prior year’s college graduates were in medical sciences, 33% in education and 12% in sports (although art represented only 0.28% of graduates, this is probably due largely to the national dominance and selectivity of ISA).
What about math and science (other than medical disciplines)? These are among the least popular of majors, with agricultural science accounting for only 1.0 and the broader categories of sciences/math a measly 0.8. This is despite the fact that agricultural goods (especially sugar), minerals and biochemicals and pharmaceuticals (along with tourism) are already among Cuba’s largest sources of foreign exchange. Why does the country not place the level of emphasis on disciplines such as metallurgy, biology and chemistry, as it does on medicine, education and sports?
Why does Cuba not provide the same type of systematic programs for identifying particularly promising students at an early age in these areas? Or in providing the type of integrated academic/practical approaches to developing such skills as it does in sports and art?
Perhaps one day—at least once Cuba finally gets and provides ubiquitous broadband Internet access to its citizens—it could also use its educational system to create another economic opportunity. That of using its highly educated, low-cost labor force to provide information technology services to other countries.
This leads to another question—just what is the state of computer and Internet usage in Cuba in general, and in education in particular?
Computers and Internet in Education
Although information is limited, from what we have been told and have seen, schools often have up to ten computers in central computer labs. After-school workshops often have one, or more depending on level and specialty. While modest numbers of elementary and high-school students have access to home computers, many university students apparently do have their own laptops. This having been said, the value they derive from such machines is limited. The primary reason—Internet access is severely limited by a combination of factors including the country’s lack of a reliable broadband communications infrastructure, the U.S.’s embargo, the high-cost of access and the government’s own restrictions on use by its citizens.
Although most of our group was relatively impressed by the facilities we saw, the people we met and our guide’s answers to our questions, we were under few allusions. We absolutely understand that what we saw, who we spoke with, and probably, most of what we were told, was carefully selected and approved by the government. Since none of us have specific knowledge of the Cuban educational system, we have no way of determining exactly what is true, how true it is, or how representative what we saw is reflective of the broader educational system.
This being said, the country certainly seems to be saying and—from what we saw—doing a number of the right things.
A forthcoming blog will provide my thoughts on the Cuban educational system in the context of the broader perceptions of Cuba gained from our January trip.