Lessons from Cuba

March 5, 2010

A still from part three of Humberto Solás' Lucía

When I was in the Zona Reyna, visiting the houses of the women who had withdrawn from the literacy groups, I couldn’t help but remember Humberto Solás’ epic 1968 film, Lucía. A product of Cuba’s revolutionary cinema, Lucía is divided into three parts, each of which features a different Lucía who represents a different phase in Cuban history. The third film centers on a post-revolutionary rural laborer. Recently married, Lucía is also a literacy campaign participant taught by a young man from Havana. Her husband is overwhelmed with jealousy, nailing up the windows to their house and forbidding her to return to work. Is he seeking to protect her from her handsome teacher or the revolution itself?  Because the film is not just a movie about individual women: the three Lucías symbolize the Cuban people, and their romantic relationships the political alternatives available to it. To leave behind the machista husband is to enter into a new marriage with the Revolutionary state, a marriage in which the first (but not the last) benefit is literacy. But this marriage requires the sacrifice of femininity, sexuality and individuality. At the end of the film, a shot of an almost masculine Lucía standing with her fellow workers, staring resolutely into the camera, is juxtaposed with the image of her fighting her husband, rolling and screaming on the beach. The choice is clear:  Lucía can either “enter History” as a Cuban citizen or remain “behind” as a rural wife.

The end of Lucía illustrates the challenge of  Cuba: the possibilities and limitations that arise when a country sacrifices choice- economic, political and educational-  in favor of equality.  But Stanford professor Martin Carnoy argues that this sacrifice has made Cuban schools some of the best in the world. The powerful analysis presented in Cuba’s Academic Advantage: Why Students in Cuba Do Better in School seeks to explain why Cubans consistently outperform their Latin American counterparts on international standardized tests. There are lots of reasons why, including high quality teaching, but Carnoy points to the ultimate importance of state-generated social capital in addressing educational inequality, ensuring that every child has an equal chance . Carnoy defines social capital as the “output of goods and services (in this case, student achievement) that is embedded in relationships among individuals or among institutions and benefits all involved in those relationships by making their work more productive.” When educators recommend that parents read to their children from a young age, when community activists organize supply drives, or when families help their kids through their math homework,  social capital is at work.

But in Cuba, the state, not communities or parents or even schools, is the central social “capitalist.” Education has been a central priority since the revolution, when universal access and universal quality were enshrined as primary goals for the education system. Because of the extraordinary power of the state apparatus, Castro’s government exercises power over everything from teacher training programs to school building infrastructure to curriculum, meaning that the commitment to equality shapes every aspect of the education system. The combination of power and commitment begets results: Carnoy compares Cuba’s recent attempt to reduce class sizes with that of California. In both places, this reduction required the construction of thousands of new classrooms. But the Cubans built all the new classrooms in less than six months before the beginning of the school year. As those of you who attended public school in the United States can attest, construction work never, ever gets done before the beginning of the school year.

This commitment to equality extends beyond the classroom, and is also an important factor in explaining the achievement gap between Cuba and other Latin American states, particularly Brazil and Chile. (The other two countries Carnoy discusses in the study.) He argues that in simulations of student performance, much of the gap can be accounted for by “equalizing human capital inputs” (he’s an economist kids, I’m sorry) to Cuban levels. Carnoy approximates  using four measures: the frequency of child labor outside the home, classroom violence (a proxy of poverty and social disorganization), preschool attendance, and the average socioeconomic background of students. Child labor in Cuba is practically nonexistent as the state subsidizes consumer goods and provides other forms of economic support to families, as is classroom violence. And although income per capita is much lower in Cuba, parents are better educated (again, the revolution at work), are much more likely to read to their children, and expect their children to achieve. Ultimately, Carnoy’s analysis of social capital suggests that student achievement is inextricable from economic and social inequality, a claim that has been largely ignored by American policy makers in the last three decades and that must be returned to the American education reform debate.

But even if Brazilian children didn’t work and Chile’s levels of classroom violence were on par with Cuba’s, their students still wouldn’t achieve at the same level as the Cubans. To explain why, Carnoy turns to school organization and classroom practices, both of which point back to the importance of state-generated social capital. Because of the high prestige of teachers in Cuba, some of the best, most committed students enter teacher training schools. The training itself, all state-run,  is focused on curriculum delivery, and teachers are extensively supervised and mentored throughout their first few years in the classroom. Indeed, the primary function of school administrators is to ensure effective classroom teachers. Following the child-centered theories of Soviety educator Lev Vygotsky (who, to be clear, is also taught in American education programs),  teachers “loop” with one group small group of students, guiding them through their elementary and middle school careers. The math curriculum, based on an East German model, covers fewer topics but with greater depth and and more difficult problems. State-generated social capital, it would seem, creates coherence and consistency in the educational system.

The story of Lucía is then an unwitting-but fitting- parable for the successes and failures of the Cuban revolution. Students may not have freedom of expression in schools, and teachers are not granted autonomy within the classroom. But students are guaranteed a better education. From Guatemala, a country with the second highest illiteracy rate in Latin America where the national literacy initiative receives less than .01% of the national budget, Cuba looks like a utopia. After all, the literacy campaign that reached Lucía famously taught 700,000 people to read, reducing the national illiteracy rate from 23 to 4% in one year. The question for American readers should be how we can adapt the Cuban model, a model which is based on a fundamentally different definition of freedom, to our own democratic society. To do so, we’ll have to expand our own definitions of liberty and question our dismissal of the value of formal equality. Looking beyond Miami, without looking past Lucía, is the first step.

Note: Special thanks to my Dad (a white man named Lamont) for giving me the Carnoy as a Christmas present, wrapped up in red wrapping paper along with a copy of a Che Guevara biography and a tag that read “From Red Santa.”  He also introduced me to Freire, community work, and tamales, and whenever I’m feeling down about Spanish he cheers me up by practicing his own language skills (“Hola Pepe, ¿Qué tal?”).  My Pop is the best.

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One Response to “Lessons from Cuba”

  1. reb said

    Another great post emma. Keep fighting comrade!

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