Education in Cuba: A reform on the way?

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By José Jasán Nieves y Alejandro Ulloa •
ProgresoWeekly

The recent changes announced by the Ministry of Education (MINED) for the school year 2014-2015 describe another shift in a system that, since the early 2000s, has been correcting its course in the search of a more effective model of teaching.

Although classes in Cuba begin punctually each September and the state guarantees all students a desk, basic school supplies, uniforms and teachers, free of charge, education in Cuba has suffered the effects of the crisis and, apparently, some incorrect decisions that ended up accumulating problems outside the classroom.

Since the 1990s, pendulous movements have characterized the adjustments to the educational system, at both its elementary and secondary levels, amid a social crisis that has affected the entire country.

From the specialization of teachers in specific subjects, the system turned to the so-called General-Integral Teacher, accompanied by video teaching in the classroom. The technique caused massive boredom and waste of school time.

Then the system swung back to specialization by areas of knowledge or subjects, but this time without solving the numerical shortage of teachers and their lack of training.

More than 7,000 new teachers will enter the classrooms next September, although it is not clear whether they will fill all the vacant positions. As to their quality, there is no doubt that lack of experience will be a weighty factor in their selection.

They are young graduates from pedagogical schools that were recently reestablished. Rolando Forneiro Rodríguez, deputy minister of Education, said that these graduates received “a broad program of study with theoretical-practical contents that included teaching classes with the aid of tutors.”

Now, according to the authorities, a great many of the transformations that will be introduced at the various levels of learning have been agreed upon by the parents and teachers.

According to Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez, they are part of “scientific studies to create the theoretical and methodological basis of improvement in the Cuban pedagogical system” that should be completed by the school year 2019-2020 with the implementation of new plans of study and bibliography throughout the educational system.

Despite that, the promises haven’t allayed the skepticism and dissatisfaction of some Cubans who voice concern over the effects that a five-year delay in the reforms on an already reformed system might have on the lives of the students and society at large.

Some changes

The measures adopted this time restate the methods of evaluation and give more flexibility to the classroom schedules. They also relieve the teachers from some of the excessive weight they were carrying ever since the changes implemented through the so-called “Battle of Ideas.”

For example, in elementary schools, examination sessions will be extended to 4 hours. The basic subjects will be concentrated in either the morning or afternoon classes, alternating with the specialized courses — art, physical education, English, computer skills. This new order will allow the teachers to increase (from 2 to 8 hours a week) their pedagogical improvement studies.

At the Junior High School level, it will not be necessary for students to remain in school from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., because the “school snack” (a cold-cut or cheese sandwich or a hamburger, and a glass of soy yogurt, at room temperature or hot) will no longer be obligatory.

In the new school year, only those students who request it will receive the free meal, whose quality does not satisfy most of the consumers. Those students who do not desire it will be given time off to go home for lunch or stay in school and eat a meal they have brought in from home.

This way, too, the state budget for school meals will decrease. In the small province of Cienfuegos, school lunches cost about 29,000 pesos per day, about 1,450 U.S. dollars, at the current rate of exchange.

For university-bound students — and after the recent news of massive fraud during the tests for admittance to Senior High School — the authorities have announced a novel and controversial change in procedure for those tests. There will be no secret questionnaires. Instead, the students must know the answers to 100 questions about three subjects — math, Spanish and history — but the five topics of each exam will be selected at random.

The bell and the cat

The decision to impart general education free of charge as a guarantee of the Cuban social system is a key issue for any change or analysis that is made. For decades, the continuing deficit of teachers, the low wages and the difficult working and studying conditions have kept the system in a constant state of contingency.

“Mass education has to somehow generate mechanisms to guarantee quality, even though mass and quality appear to be incompatible,” says teacher Miriam García, who has more than 40 years’ experience in junior and high school education.

García believes that the opportunities for training and improvement that the MINED has provided are “enormous,” but that the teaching staff has lacked vocation and rigor.

“The teaching burden has had an effect, too,” she says. So have the insufficient wages, made worse (for teachers and all others) by the contradictions of currency duality and the sustained devaluation of the national peso over a period of decades.

“Emerging” teachers, teachers who are not sufficiently qualified, and a shortage of teachers weakened education in many aspects, especially at the elementary and high-school levels.

“As long as families like mine need to turn to paid tutors to give specific tests to our children or support their daily school work, something’s wrong,” says Yusmila Padrón, a mother in Cienfuegos.

“Fraud occurs first because of a breakdown in values, but also because of a breakdown in the teaching, which doesn’t justify [fraud] but provokes it, since a deficient education makes students feel insecure,” Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, Cuba’s first Vice President, told the Cuban parliament this month.

“Education is not just the acquisition of knowledge but also an integral formation,” says teacher García, who appreciates that the cultural changes generated by a deficient education represent a danger for the Cuban social project.

The educational process will see a new stage of modifications next September. Some see it only as Band-Aids required by circumstances, but the authorities insist that they add up to a thorough reform that — like reforms in other sectors of society — must not be hastened. We need to believe and see.

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