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Cuban students excel in Latin America

Prof. Martin Carnoy
Prof. Martin Carnoy

Cuban students excel in Latin America

How does Cuba--an impoverished country living under U.S. economic sanctions for decades--have such high-achieving students? Ask Martin Carnoy.

By Martin Carnoy

Abstract: How does Cuba, a poor, economically inefficient country living under U.S. economic sanctions for half a century, have such high achieving elementary school students? What we can learn from Cuba is that 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 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.

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.

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