HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 25 — The fact Cuban education is free is completely true and known around the world. It’s a right held by each child born on the island, and is something about which the Cuban State feels pride.
It’s even an obligation. Every Cuban child must be registered with a public school starting at the age of five to enter the pre-school. They subsequently move on to elementary school and then to junior high school.
Later come the options of technological or trade schools, or —if the youth has enough interest in continuing to study— they can move into pre-university high school and then to the university, if they qualify on the entrance exams.
Throughout this entire time, Cuban parents need not invest a single cent on the education of their children. This right is the same for everyone, no matter their social background.
One of the topics of conversation that arises when I talk with anyone of my generation or of the previous one is the issue of education in our country. We compare current day instruction with that in our time, we recall teachers we had and the level of demands at each grade.
We also recall how difficult the exams were, especially those for entering the Vladimir Lenin or the Martires de Humboldt pre-universities of exact sciences. Likewise, the tests for getting into the university were rough. We had to really study. Our final conclusion at the end of all of this is simply…we were lucky.
Currently we can see the quality of teaching has declined in comparison to our time and earlier. Consequently, demands on students and their knowledge have also nosedived.
The ‘Special Period’ downturn
With the arrival of the ‘Special Period’ and the deep economic problems that struck the country in the 1990s, one of the areas affected was education. The salaries of teachers and professors —which until that time could cover their living expenses— suddenly became merely symbolic.
Many experienced teachers left the classroom to devote themselves to activities that were more economically rewarding.
Many recent graduates didn’t complete their social service obligation. Barely graduated and with their university diplomas in hand they began to look for employment in tourism, entertainment-culture, food services or agricultural markets – anything except teaching.
I don’t know if these were the ones who did the most damage or if it was those who discovered the “alternative” in the educational system itself. These were the ones who began accepting pay offs for passing students and/or giving higher grades in exchange for gifts.
“In any case, someone has to approve the final exam, whether the students know the material or not,” they’d say. “And since one may have lost their voice trying to teach them over the length of the course, the fair thing is to pay them for it. People gotta eat.”
That was the argument I heard from a colleague when I worked as an English teacher in a tech school from 1999 and 2002.
It’s true that teachers were questioned if their students failed. Moreover, a lot of failed students represented a bad evaluation for the teacher, which in turn could mean a wage decrease for their next course. This encouraged a trend we called “promotionism” or passing independent of what they learned.
But I also knew professors who didn’t give in to the pressure to pass students who hadn’t gained the required level of understanding. They were backed up by the fact of having worked until exhausted during the whole course and having addressed individual needs.
I know these people never accepted pay offs, but they also had to live, and the wage increases for teachers were not enough to improve their situation because the cost of living had increased even more.
Some teachers I know have worked in small home pizzerias, done peoples fingernails and sold candy and soda pop on the street. Part of their clientele was made up of their own students. That took place during the time that school administrators could look the other way; that’s to say, for a few months.
Then came individual remedial classes. Guess who were the first ones to propose this solution: the parents of the students themselves. This is a phenomenon that has expanded. Students receive instruction in schools and then they receive individual classes from the same teachers or from others with more preparation and experience in the classroom.
One of the solutions that the government resorted to facing the tremendous exodus of teachers was the “emerging teachers” program (employing students who have just finished pre-university high school, and who naturally don’t have the necessary preparation, though the idea was that they would learn “on the job”).
Moreover, the training of future junior high teachers was no longer based on their teaching a single subject, but several. When they graduated they would be “Integral General Teachers” (PGIs). This measure also included experienced teachers who for years or decades had taught a single subject (Spanish, history, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology or geography). Now they would have to be prepared to teach several course areas. Those who have been exempt up to now are English and physical education teachers.
Although experienced teachers now also teach several subjects, the term “PGI” is generally used to refer to young teachers who in fact teach classes well before they’ve graduated.
Most parents lack confidence in these young teachers and professors. While youth always arouse a certain amount of distrust, in this case it’s not completely unjustified, though like in all situations there are exceptions. I could fill two pages with examples I know concerning “content errors” (serious ones) made by PGI teachers.
Just yesterday I heard a woman on the bus telling somebody that her daughter had returned home ecstatic because she had gotten 16 points out of 18 on a spelling exam. When the girl showed the exam to her mother, the woman counted 12 spelling mistakes that had been missed by the young fourth-year PGI who teaches her daughter.
As a general rule, in each classroom there is an experienced teacher who, besides teaching several subjects of their own, is in charge of supervising the work of the PGI, guiding them and sharing their experiences with the novice teacher.
Nonetheless, this is not enough to reduce the distrust of students’ parents, who turn to private classes for their children even when the kids haven’t failed in school or present particular difficulties.
Many parents feel their children really don’t learn in school and they don’t trust their “good grades.” It’s sad to recognize that in many cases they’re right. This is proven in subsequent courses when teachers give tests to confirm previous knowledge. Students who had received high grades up to that moment, suddenly fail and it’s discovered they have poor foundations.
I find it logical that many students want to lean more. When I was a student, my parents searched for a private English teacher for me because I liked the language a lot and wanted to learn more. They also paid a retired typing and shorthand teacher for me.
However, I don’t remember any of my classmates or anyone I knew at that time having to pay for individual classes on the same subjects they studied in school (except for the university entrance exams when we completed pre-university high school).
What is occurring now is an even more delicate problem. Personally I think that the extra effort made by the teachers should be paid for. After being at school for eight hours doing their work, there’s no reason these teachers should have to continue working in their home for free.
If somebody needs a review for a high school or university entrance exam and they have to go to a teacher, it’s fair that the student pays him or her. It’s their labor. But what’s happening is that parents are paying so that students learn what they should be learning in the school. They’re paying because they don’t trust what their children are being taught there.
From this point, it could turn into a situation in which true instruction is received through individual classes and not in school; and that only those students whose parents are interested in or have the means to pay a private teacher can receive the necessary knowledge.
If this ends up happening, our education will continue being “free” from a formal point of view, but in practice…
A solution to this problem will only come with good quality classes in the classroom and with the return of trust on the part of mothers and fathers in the free instruction that’s offered to us by the State.
Fortunately, at this time many experienced teachers who have worked in other fields, and others who have retired, are returning to the classroom. It could take a long time to reverse the damage that has been suffered by our educational system, but this is a situation I’d like to be optimistic about.