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Cuban students excel in Latin America.

When the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) gave math and language tests in 1997 to 3rd and 4th graders in 13 Latin American countries, researchers were only mildly surprised to find that students in Cuba's lowest-income schools outperformed most upper middle-class students in the rest of the region. These test data confirmed years of anecdotal evidence that Cuba's primary schools are by far the best in the region and may be better than schools in neighboring Florida.

UNESCO tested students again in 2007, this time in the 3rd and 6th grades of 16 Latin American countries. No surprise, Cuban students repeated as the region's top performers. Those students in the 25th percentile in Cuba scored higher in both 3rd and 6th grade mathematics than average students in all but two countries--Costa Rica and Uruguay. Although their advantage was not as great in reading, they still scored higher, on average, than students in any other country.

How does Cuba--a poor and economically inefficient country living under U.S. economic sanctions for a half century and dependent for many years on Soviet aid--have such high-achieving elementary school students when other countries don't? In 2003-04, two Stanford doctoral students, Amber Gove and Jeffery Marshall, and I set out on an ambitious research project to learn why. We analyzed econometrically the 1997 UNESCO data on individual students in seven of the Latin American countries covered by the survey, and then homed in on a more detailed comparison of Cuban, Brazilian, and Chilean classrooms. We filmed more than 30 3rd grade math lessons, about 10 in each country. We also interviewed teachers, principals, and ministry officials, and we visited university teacher training programs.

We found that Cuban children excel academically for fairly straightforward reasons: They attend school for a full day, unusual in Latin America, and the schools are intensely focused on instruction, staffed by well-trained, regularly supervised teachers in a social environment dedicated to high achievement for all. The Cuban system combines quality teaching, high academic expectations, and a tightly controlled school management hierarchy with well-defined goals and responsibilities. That combination distinguishes Cuban education from other systems in Latin America, including Chile and Brazil, where we observed little, if any, instructional monitoring or support by school administrators, and a lot of below-par teaching that could have been improved by knowledgeable instructional interventions.

Much more than in Chile or Brazil, the 3rd grade math lessons we filmed in Cuba focused on problem solving and math strategies. Cuban teachers were more likely to have students solve math problems from worksheets during class, then analyze their solutions in full class discussion. A higher fraction of Cuban pupils in the classrooms we filmed, including classrooms in two distant rural schools, were fully involved and seemed to be "getting" the concepts being taught. The closest thing we found elsewhere to this type of teaching and level of student engagement was in an expensive Chilean private school.

Since good teaching seemed to be a key element of Cuban students' success, we analyzed differences in how primary school teachers were prepared and inducted into teaching. Again, we found big differences. In Cuba, teacher preservice training programs focus heavily on how to teach the national European-style curriculum so that children learn language and mathematics skills. Then, when the young teachers start out in a school, they are closely mentored for three years by the school's administration and other teachers who have a clear idea of exactly what good teaching is. In Brazil and Chile, teachers are trained in autonomous universities that decide how best to train their teachers, with minimal control from the central or state governments. Chile has a national curriculum, but university teacher training programs spend little time training students to teach it. Brazil's highly decentralized system has many textbooks to choose from, so the focus in primary teacher training, as in the United States, is likely to be on generalities, not the specifics of teaching to particular curricular frameworks. Young teachers in Brazilian and Chilean schools are pretty much on their own, in keeping with the hands-off supervision systems in those countries.

Health and learning

It is not just in schools where we found explanations for Cuban students' higher performance. Cuban children grow up in a society that is strictly controlled but focuses on children's health and learning. Compared to other Latin American countries (and the United States), students report little student-to-student violence in Cuban schools. The government enforces child labor laws so that children find it difficult to seek work outside the home and makes parents accountable for their children's well-being. Even children from disadvantaged families are provided good nutrition, attend school regularly, and do their homework. If students' families are not being sufficiently supportive academically, school authorities make home visits to assess the home environment. And since housing is severely limited in Cuba, families rarely move, so Cuban children stay in the same school throughout (and usually with the same teacher for at least the first four of their elementary years).

Strict government social controls are not compatible with individual adult liberties, but in Cuba they assure that lower-income children get what they need at home, live in low-crime environments, are able to study in classrooms with few student-initiated disturbances, and attend schools that are more socially mixed. Teachers and administrators play the role of surrogate parents, representing the state in "protecting" dren against the vagaries of dysfunctional families. In Cuba, low-income children's rights are far better protected than in other Latin American countries; adults' rights and, to a lesser extent, upper middle-class children's rights are reduced. Cuban students can learn more in these conditions than similar low-income children who have to work for wages and attend frequently disrupted classrooms in schools that are highly socially stratified.

Recent changes

Since we did our study, Brazil and particularly Chile's schools have begun to improve. Chile invested in raising teacher salaries, shifting all schools to a fullday schedule, and increasing funding for low-income schools to a level above the per-student subsidy paid to both public and private voucher schools. These are positive moves. Like the rest of Latin America, Brazil and Chile have achieved rapid economic growth, education and incomes are climbing, and poverty is declining, which has also helped raise student achievement.

Nevertheless, neither Brazil nor Chile has solved the major disconnects between teacher preparation, classroom practice, and teacher supervision and support geared toward better instruction. Their school systems are also highly stratified with poor children concentrated in schools with the least prepared and supervised teachers. These are all issues that Cuba has largely solved, but Brazil and Chile continue to approach with market incentive schemes that up to now simply have not worked.

In democratic societies we stress individual liberties, and rightly so. Yet in practice, mass education--especially when its aim is to overcome the inequalities of free market economies--is more effective when the state is willing to constrain adult liberties in favor of children through mandatory education and children's health care, enforced parent participation in school activities, strong teacher supervision, tight requirements on university autonomy in preparing teachers, and sufficient taxation for adequate schools. Cuba's communism is an extreme example of top-down bureaucratic control. But there is an unavoidable lesson here: Delivering good education to the mass of Latin America's low-income students requires systematic, across-the-board state activism. How and whether economically unequal democratic Latin American states accomplish this will greatly influence their political and economic futures.

MARTIN CARNOY ( is Vida Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. He is the author of Cuba's Academic Advantage (Stanford University Press, 2007).
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Author:Carnoy, Martin
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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