The 360-page release, “Great Teachers: How to Raise Student Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean,” focuses on the challenges associated with government education throughout the region, and offers analysis of teaching and policy practices on a country-specific basis. Authors Barbara Bruns and Javier Luque assert that the continued development of Latin America and the Caribbean is largely contingent upon the implementation of widespread education reform.
Amid rampant inefficiencies, from Argentina to Mexico, the report consistently points to Cuba as an example of education done right in the region.
“No Latin American school system, with the possible exception of Cuba,” it reads, “has the high standards, strong academic talent, high or at least adequate salaries, and high degree of professional autonomy that characterizes the world’s most effective education systems.”
Education, but for What Purpose?
Such high praise for Cuba’s education system has failed to impress regime critics, some of whom have characterized it as misleading.
“There have undoubtedly been achievements in Cuban education, but at the expense of how many millions of dollars?” asks Karel Becerra, a former Cuban student and current secretary of international relations at the NGO Independent and Democratic Cuba.
“From my personal experience,” he says, “education in Cuba is less about learning and more a ‘system of indoctrination’ beginning in first grade.”
Cuba’s education system has been state run since 1961, and is 100 percent paid for through taxation and regime funds. All teachers are required to adhere to a state-mandated curriculum, which espouses the nation’s communist political beliefs. And any teacher or parent caught teaching an alternative viewpoint may be found in violation of the “Code for Children, Youth, and Family,” and sentenced to jail time.
“The Cuban government has devoted enormous resources to promoting their achievements and covering up their failures through the media,” said Becerra. “The World Bank report is an advertising gimmick that feeds into false, misleading, and controlled data.”
The World Bank Makes Its Case
This is not the first time the World Bank has praised the Cuban education system. A 2003 report stated that “Cuba has become internationally recognized for its achievements in the areas of education and health.”
Among the reasons for Cuba’s touted success is the cultivation of a quality corps of teachers, which the report considers the only one of its kind in Latin America. Cuba is the only Latin-American nation, for example, to require teachers to complete a five-year education program at university prior to entering the classroom.
Prospective Cuban teachers dedicate 72 percent of this five-year training period to actual in-school practice, an exercise that requires teachers to be videotaped and critiqued by master teachers throughout their training. For comparison, the report cites Mexico as the country with the second most practice-based pedagogy in the region, but still only 25 percent of the Cuban requirement.
According to the report, the rigorous Cuban teacher-training process encourages educators to develop and deliver lessons themselves, while receiving feedback that promotes reflection and self-improvement. Prospective Cuban teachers are assigned a school during their second year of study, a practice aimed at integrating pedagogical theory with practical experience — a model the World Bank report calls “exemplary.”
Of course, implementing such a tight education system comes at a cost. Through the first decade of the 21st century, the Cuban government spent an average of over 10 percent of its total annual budget on education, the most of any country in the world.
Less Love for the Rest of Latin America
Far from the commendation offered to Cuba, the World Bank report chastises the rest of Latin America for poorly planned education policy and wasteful implementation. The authors point out that teachers in Latin-American countries, with the exception of Chile, score lower in test results than teachers in countries renowned for their high-quality education systems, like South Korea, Canada, and Taiwan.
The report notes that throughout Latin America, 7 million primary school teachers (kindergarten, elementary, and high school) constitute roughly 20 percent of the region’s technical work force. However, teachers remain notoriously underpaid.
Such compensation relegates teachers to a lower socioeconomic status than comparable professional and technical workers. As a result, teaching as a profession has failed to attract Latin America’s best and brightest professionals, who tend to choose more lucrative careers such as engineering.
The report’s authors assert that teaching positions in Latin America tend to attract the lowest performing professionals on the job market. In a 2006 evaluation of mathematical proficiency, 84 percent of sixth-grade Peruvian math teachers scored below a sixth-grade level. Colombian and Ecuadorian teachers weren’t far behind.
Further, the World Bank raises the alarm that teachers often skip school without notice, and only devote 65 percent of class time to actual teaching — “the equivalent of wasting an entire day of instruction per week.”
Rosá María Payá, a Cuban exile and contributor with the PanAm Post, has responded to this article. Read “Cuba’s Days of Education Excellence Have Come and Gone.”
Fergus Hodgson and Alex Clark-Youngblood contributed to this article.