Cuba’s education system is a global leader in the realm of publicly funded education: It contributes 7% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to education, allowing it to be fully state subsidised from primary school to university, while enjoying some of the highest teaching standards in Latin America. Dan Domenech, Executive Director of the School Superintendents Association (AASA) stated that “Cuba’s education system might as well be considered the ultimate wrap-around institution for children”.
How has Cuba created such as system and can it be replicated?
The Cuban education system
Cuban education starts from the age of 1 at a preschool, in both formal and informal settings, which includes education from a number of local experts, including tuition from families or family members who are trained in various professions to give children a wide range of experience, as well as more formal teaching in a classroom setting.
Primary school is from grades 1 - 6 and consists of exposing students to different subjects, including art and drama, and trying to forge a strong bond between family and state. Next comes the basic secondary schools, from grades 7 - 9, which largely focus on general education and practical skills.
Grade 9 constitutes the end of mandatory education: From here, students decide whether they wish to choose a polytechnic or academic route in their education or pursue a career-based option. This sees them continue to a pre-college school, to educate them in their preferred field of study, or enter a technical school, where they are educated as a mid level technician in their chosen field.
Cuba’s education curricula is primarily based around education on loyalty to the state: There is an increasing focus on political education, with recent reforms mandating a closer allegiance to the state. Additionally, there has been a push towards a more technical education, which seems to be a trend in Latin America, addressing the dearth of technical workers in Cuba.
In pursuit of universal education: Quality or quantity
Universities are plentiful, with Cuba being home to more than 60 to choose from. However, none of these breach the top 50 universities in Latin America, which may indicate a quantity over quality approach. Indeed, this ensures Cuba’s policy of guaranteeing everyone is tutored that wishes to be; but not necessarily ensuring good quality.
Indeed, the policy of ensuring universal education may have required a sacrifice in the quality of education facilities, with some classrooms being based in disused garages, poor internet infrastructure across the island, and many teachers having to make do with fewer than adequate government sanctioned textbooks.
The role of quality teachers and literacy campaign in education outcomes
Even so, less than adequate facilities do not necessarily imply inadequate educational outcomes: Cuba’s students in the worst state schools test similarly on most academic tests as some of the best private schools elsewhere in Latin America. This is attributed to an emphasis on teacher quality, receiving education from a young age, consistent teacher training and assistance, and a strong national curriculum, which is lacking in many other states.
Overall, Cuba has one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the Caribbean, with barely 0.5% of the population being illiterate. The country has implemented multiple literacy campaigns: For example, their 1961 literacy campaign mobilised 280,000 social workers. Within a year, 700,000 people who were previously illiterate received educational support.
Education: A human capital asset
Today around 7% of the population has a university education, the average level of education is around 9th grade, and enrolment levels in university are about 68%. Many other nations have looked to Cuba’s education approach for inspiration. For example, the teaching method of “Yo si pedo” (Yes I can), has been used in 28 different countries and 14 languages to educate 3.5 million people to read and write.
Cuba’s education provision as a component of social protection has provided an impetus for concrete engagement with the international community. MEDICC is a non-profit organisation that works to enhance cooperation between Cuba and the United States (US) “to inform the quest for health equity and universal health worldwide”. This is achieved by publishing regular journals on the latest research by scholars from Cuba on medical inequity. Additionally, they assist US medical students and graduates of the Latin American school of medicine to return home and practice in areas of provider-shortage.
Such efforts are an example of an ever increasing interest in Cuba’s education and knowledge assets: Spanish speaking countries are pursuing cooperation with Cuba and there has been an increase in diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US – in recognition of the county’s human capital. This will likely reinforce and further incentivise Cuba’s approach to education and social protection.
Strategic social protection
Cuba’s education system certainly has room for improvement in terms of its facilities and even its content. Even so, thanks to high teaching standards and well targeted education campaigns, it has produced one of the most literate and well educated populaces in the world. By ensuring education within its social protection system, Cuba has developed the human capital of the country, which has improved livelihoods, while inspiring engagement from the international community at large.
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