Fernando Ravsberg*

Classroom with one of the “instant teachers”. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — No one in their right mind would think of ceasing to invest in the business that brings in 80% of their income. In Cuba, the sector that is that profitable is education: everything invested there yields huge dividends and is pulling the nation out of its worst crisis.

We should not let our enthusiasm over the growth of tourism blind us. We would need to bring in more than 10 million tourists every year – and create far more efficient infrastructure – to secure the revenue produced today by the sale of professional services abroad (more than US $ 8 billion).

Those professional, however, do not appear spontaneously, they are the outcome of Cuba’s national education system. That system is a “factory” with unlimited human resources when enough is reinvested to improve its facilities, technology and the wages of its “laborers,” the teachers.

However, some days ago, Minister of Education Ena Elsa Velazquez acknowledged that the current school year had started with a large shortage of teachers, a trend the country has seen for years without developing a solid plan of action to revert the crisis.

For fifty years, Cuba’s educational system was able to offer all children a classroom and teacher. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

Between 2012 and 2013, the number of students to graduate as teachers went down by 2,600 and, this year, only 4,000 people applied to enroll in pedagogy, leaving 15,000 empty spots. Clearly, young Cubans do not consider teaching a good option in life.

For years, the country has applied different formulas to counter the crisis, such as the creation of “intensively trained” teachers. People called these “instant teachers,” because they taught a subject first and studied it afterwards. This had powerful repercussions on the quality of education.

Today, we continue to see such emergency plans. This school year, “we have retired persons who’ve come back to education, teachers in training and students in fourth and fifth year at the Agrarian University,” Daylexis Cabrera, a teacher at the Republica de Argelia school in Batabano, tells us.

Now, Cuba is betting on making teachers out of the students with the poorest academic performance. They set up a mid-level, 2-year course to turn people who couldn’t pass university admittance exams into primary and secondary school teachers.

The Decline of Education

Universities have graduated over one million professionals, but very few opt for careers in education. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

young man who had been a secondary school teacher until three years ago tells us he quit teaching because working conditions are awful. “I would work from 7:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon for a monthly salary of 590 Cuban pesos,” the equivalent of US $25.

“I would teach 7 classes and even had to go on Saturdays, sometimes just to hear the principal give us some pointless political spiel. Everything’s so poorly organized that one doesn’t have time to prepare for classes. Sometimes, you don’t even have time to properly correct exams,” he tells us.

Today, he earns considerably more giving private lessons that prepare students for university admittance exams. Ironically, he now works to plug up the holes in the system created by the loss of teachers.

The consequences of the crisis will also be social. If public education is unable to prepare students adequately, only those with the money to pay for private lessons will be able to enroll in university, in violation of the principle that everyone should have the same opportunities.

Cuba’s educational system has even been able to guarantee schools for those with special learning needs. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

The solution appears to be to raise the salaries and improve the living conditions of educators. It’s already being implemented in the public health sector, where wages have been raised and several proposed measures would give medical professionals privileged access to housing, automobiles, the Internet and contracts, among other things.

Cuba’s educational project began in the 1960s, when all Cubans were taught to read and write. For fifty years, the country guaranteed 100 % of children, including tens of thousands of disabled individuals and others with special educational needs, a classroom and teacher.

Betting on accessible, quality education meant spending an enormous part of the State budget, but it ultimately allowed universities to graduate over 1 million professionals whose work abroad now sustains Cuba’s economy.

Despite these achievements, this nationwide effort and the entirety of this investment could well vanish into thin air if the country does not adopt measures that will guarantee the creation and maintenance of a base of educators who have the professionalism, energy and maturity needed to educate the new generations.

The future of its children, the national economy and Cuban culture depends on the accessibility and quality of education. To lose the nation’s main source of income by not investing enough in teachers would be tantamount to suicide.

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