The cuban education system

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Effective Schools and Teachers



Knowledge type:

Case studies


by Lavinia Gasperini

September 27, 1999


This paper was inspired by a study tour of Cuba undertaken by representatives of the Government of Colombia, the Ministry of Education in Cuba, and World Bank staff. The seminar was entitled “Interchange of Experiences on the Education Systems of Colombia and Cuba.” It sought to provide a comparative basis for understanding educational problems and issues across the two systems. The seminar represents a growing dialogue between Cuba and Latin American neighbors on educational issues. The information presented here was gathered during the study tour, and supplemented with other documents. Needless to say, the opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the World Bank or any of its affiliated institutions.


Executive Summary

I. High Quality Education in a Poor Country

  1. II. Elements of a Successful System

Sustained Investments in Education

Consistent Policy Environment, Supportive of Quality Basic Education

Professional, High-Status Teachers & On-Going Professional


High Quality Instructional Materials & Creativity in Their Use

System-Wide Evaluation & Competition among Schools

Participation in School Management

Outreach to Rural Children

Attention to Special Needs

Linking School and Work

Education for Social Cohesion & Values Education

Ongoing Tensions: Quality and Equity
III. Questions for the Future of the Cuban Education System



Executive Summary
The record of Cuban education is outstanding: universal school enrollment and attendance; nearly universal adult literacy; proportional female representation at all levels, including higher education; a strong scientific training base, particularly in chemistry and medicine; consistent pedagogical quality across widely dispersed classrooms; equality of basic educational opportunity, even in impoverished areas, both rural and urban. In a recent regional study of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba ranked first in math and science achievement,1 at all grade levels, among both males and females. In many ways, Cuba’s schools are the equals of schools in OECD countries, despite the fact that Cuba’s economy is that of a developing country.
What has allowed Cuba’s education system to perform so well, even under the severe resource constraints of the past decade, is the continuity in its education strategies, sustained high levels of investments in education, and a comprehensive and carefully structured system, characterized by:

  • quality basic education and universal access to primary and secondary school

  • comprehensive early childhood education and student health programs (established as part of the commitment to basic education);

  • complementary educational programs for those outside school--literacy, adult and non-formal education (again as part of the basic education commitment);

  • mechanisms to foster community participation in management of schools;

  • great attention to teachers (extensive pre- and in-service training, high status and morale, incentives, transparent system of accountability, strategies for developing a culture of professionalism, rewards for innovation);

  • low-cost instructional materials of high quality;

  • teacher and student initiative in adapting the national curriculum and developing instructional materials locally;

  • carefully structured competition that enhances the system rather than the individual;

  • explicit strategies to reach rural students and students with special needs;

  • strategies to link school and work; and

  • an emphasis on education for social cohesion.

The importance of these factors is affirmed by a growing body of school quality and effectiveness research carried out in other parts of the world, mostly subsequent to or at least independently of their adoption in Cuba. Thus, Cuba’s experience is instructive in several ways. It provides evidence of the importance of certain critical inputs, around which research consensus is growing. Though unlikely to be replicated in full, many of these inputs can be adopted—clear standards of accountability, provision of textbooks, attention to the professional development of teachers, etc.. Most importantly, perhaps, the Cuban case demonstrates that high quality education is not simply a function of national income but of how that income is mobilized. A highly-mobilized people can realize high quality education by ensuring the necessary inputs, paying attention to equity, setting and holding staff to high professional standards, and caring for the social roles of key stakeholders—teachers, community members, children.

As Cuba opens itself to global economic influences, these elements are likely to undergo considerable stress. One set of challenges revolves around the affordability of high quality education. Cuba will increasingly face issues of direct cost, such as the continued provision of textbooks. Indirectly, the system will be affected by external issues such as the salaries potential teachers will be able to earn outside the education system versus those inside. It is unclear whether Cuba will be able to maintain the consistency of educational investments and policy strategy in a more open environment. The system’s commitment to equity will surely be tested, as economic opportunities provide greater opportunities for families to purchase high quality education for their members, directly or indirectly. The challenges are daunting, but then who would have predicted that Cuba--after a decade of economic turmoil--would have built the region’s highest-achieving schools? The next few years are likely to be critical ones if Cuba’s educational excellence is to be maintained, whether Cuba follows the path of other transitional economies and education systems or charts its own course.

The growing body of international research on educational quality and effectiveness, while continuing to evolve in many ways, has developed broad agreement on many of the factors associated with high school quality and effectiveness. Much of this consensus was developed at the World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 1990) and subsequently elaborated. These factors range from systemic factors such as a sufficiency of facilities and resources, a supportive policy environment, and parent and community involvement in schools, to school-based factors such as high expectations, clear goals, creative use of high-quality instructional materials, employment of motivated teachers, ongoing professional development, comprehensive assessment and feedback, and teacher and student involvement in defining, carrying out, and evaluating learning processes and outcomes. Interestingly, the Cuban education system adopted many of these features independently of the school effectiveness and quality research. This paper discusses those features as well as ongoing tensions facing the system.

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