We could learn a lot about education from Cuba

The school year is ending, the economy is humming along, profits are up, unemployment is down but there is not enough money for the schools. The drama in Salem goes on, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to privatize public education and Oregon schools are getting another cut.

How is this possible in one of the richest countries in the world?

I reflect on this after a visit to Cuba in February where I, along with four other Eugene educators, attended an international conference with 3,000 educators from around the world.

We wanted to learn more about the people and the educational system that is producing a highly literate population with one of the highest literacy rates in the world. We wondered how a poor, Third World country could have a 98 percent literacy rate and provide free education to its youth from preschool to graduate school.

We attended workshops led by educators from Cuba, Latin America and Europe. We visited several schools and spoke to teachers, students, professors and regular Cuban citizens. We learned that half a million Cubans are involved in the educational system in some capacity in a country of 11 million people.

We learned a lot. We were impressed with the priority the Cuban society places on education. Education is considered to be a human and a civil right of every Cuban citizen.

Before the revolution, more than half of the population was illiterate. One of the first actions taken after the revolution was to start a literacy campaign that reached the most remote villages in the countryside.

Children are highly valued in Cuban society. They receive quality high-pre-school education, free elementary and secondary education and free higher education. Every student receives free breakfast and lunch in school and after-school activities are available for all who need them. Cubans also receive free health care throughout their lives.

The education system places high value on connecting schools to families and communities. Many schools open at 6.30 a.m. and close 12 hours later, providing free morning and after-school care for children of working parents.

The first part of the day is devoted to breakfast and free play. Core academics take place from 8:40 a.m. to 12:30, p.m., followed by lunch and games or recess. In the afternoon kids engage in a broad range of activities including health, art, music and sports. After-school programs are organized around areas of interest that the young people choose.

Cuba’s schools offer a variety of opportunities for the students in academics in addition to offering incredible music and art education. Schools offer several hours a week of music and art for students at all levels. Students in every school we visited greeted us with musical and dance performances. It was impressive.

Cuban educators were astonished when we told them that music and art have been cut in many schools in the United States because we couldn’t afford electives. They told us that art and music are essential part of Cuban educational system and are very important for human development.

The values of peace, justice, cooperation and humanism are important elements of the curriculum. Cubans believe that by being grounded in their authentic culture and history, young people will become strong citizens who will contribute to further development of their country. Pride in Cuba’s independence is very evident.

Teachers’ wages, along with the wages of other public employees, are very low by our standards. They benefit from the free health care and education systems, and housing and food are highly subsidized. Also by law the maximum class size in elementary schools is 25 students. The class over 25 gets a second teacher. In secondary schools the maximum is 30.

This experience has had a profound effect on us. At a time when public education in the United States and much of the world is under an unprecedented attack, we were able to see a system that is child-centered, protective of its youth and committed to providing high-quality education under challenging economic conditions. The products of this educational system are students who seem confident, well-adjusted and enthusiastic.

Cuba is a poor country with many economic and political problems, made much worse by the U.S. embargo, but its treatment of its youth and the focus on education is exemplary. We have a lot to learn from Cuba and its people.

Pete Mandrapa, a teacher in Eugene-area schools since the late 1970s, is a member of the Eugene Education Association and the Community Alliance for Public Education.

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