We hear terrible stories of Fidel Castro’s terrorist regime but one of the Castro promises that succeeded was the government’s fight against illiteracy. When Castro won control of the country, one of his first acts was to seize control of the country’s entire private and public school system. Like other nationalistic actions, no compensation was provided for the sweeping takeover of private school education facilities.
The government operates every school and university in the country. As a result and buoyed by provisions in the country’s Constitution, the educational instruction includes strong ideological influences. Cuba’s students grow and learn in an academic environment that has a strong Marxist base.
However, government’s educational approach has been a consistent fight against illiteracy, a major problem when Castro became president. Ten percent of the annual budget is dedicated to education. This compares favorably with the 4 percent provided by the UK and 2 percent contributed to government operated educational centers in the US. Of course, the US and UK both have strong private school systems.
Class size cannot exceed 25 students in any Cuban school. By 2010, the trend was actually toward smaller classes averaging about 15 students per class. Many elementary schools open the doors at 6:30 a.m. and students receive supervised lessons for 12 hours. This is designed to help working parents who cannot afford daycare.
More than half the teachers in Cuba have at least five years education. When children are unable to attend schools, “mobile teachers” are dispatched to ensure students stay on top of their studies.
Yordi has fond memories of her school days in Santiago de Cuba and was able to visit one of the elementary schools on a recent trip. Children were eager and enthusiastic and teachers were thoroughly engaged. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Cuba’s educational system is the successful fight to raise the country’s literacy rate.
In the early 1900’s, Cuba’s literacy rate fell between 36.1 percent and 42 percent. Before 1959, 22 percent of Cubans aged 15 and over were illiterate. And, 60 percent of the total population was found to be semi-illiterate. The literacy problem was compounded by the fact that much of the rural population only had a third grade education.
Government immediately made elementary school education mandatory. To help improve the literacy rate, teens and college and university students from metropolitan areas were dispatched to rural environments to teach and encourage reading. This plan achieved two important goals; it ensured that rural communities would learn to read and it ensured that metropolitan residents became familiar with rural life.
By April, 1959, 817 literacy centers were opened across the country. Progress was taking place. By 2000, the literacy rate among Cubans aged 15-24 was 97 percent, an admirable achievement by any standard.
A UNESCO study performed in 1998 revealed that Cuba’s third and fourth grade students scored an average of 100 points higher than other students in the region in test of language and mathematics. Students that were in the bottom 50 percent scored higher than students in the upper tiers of other Central and South American countries.
Cuba remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere but its commitment to literacy and education must be respected.
Hiland Doolittle, Travel Guide Cuba
July 28, 2014