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CUBA: Shoring Up the Educational System

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Aug 29 2008 (IPS) - In the new school year, which begins next Monday, Cuba’s educational system will be trying out several changes aimed at overcoming the decline in the quality of teaching, blamed on a shortage of teachers and other problems.

“I am waiting to see what happens. My daughter begins secondary school now, and if she doesn’t get good teachers and her grades drop, I’ll have to find another school or pay for private tutoring. These are the most difficult years,” a Cuban journalist who asked to remain anonymous told IPS.

This week, Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez said there would be more teachers on the payroll this year. A shortage of more than 8,000 teachers, identified as one of the most pressing challenges facing the educational system, has begun to be reduced as a result of the return to the classroom of retired teachers.

Velásquez said that 4,948 retired teachers were returning to work, under a decree issued in mid-July by President Raúl Castro. The emergency measure offers retired educators the opportunity to continue drawing their pensions while teaching and earning a full-time salary.

“There will be 235,943 teachers working this year, 32,070 of whom are teachers-in-training. The exodus is 30 percent lower than last year, with nearly 2,000 fewer teachers filing for retirement,” said the minister, as reported by the local press.

There are 2,549,845 preschool, primary and secondary school students enrolled for the 2008-2009 school year in Cuba.

Velázquez also announced that teachers would be given more time to prepare their classes. “That was sorely needed. Now we can also dedicate more time to studying,” Kruskalia Masa, a 45-year-old primary school teacher, commented to IPS.

In her view, the quality of teaching in Cuba has gone down because teachers are given very little time to prepare their classes, a problem that only worsened as the number of educators shrank. “In addition, we will now have more assistants, who obviously don’t replace teachers, but do provide support for their work,” Masa added.

A report by the education minister on performance in the 2007-2008 school year states that among the main challenges that students in the first few years of secondary school must overcome are difficulties in spelling and writing, and poor reading habits.

Veláquez was named education minister in April after the sudden removal of Luis Ignacio Gómez, who headed the ministry for 18 years.

“He had lost energy and revolutionary consciousness,” wrote ailing former president Fidel Castro in a column in which he backed Gómez’s replacement.

The deterioration of education, especially due to the shortcomings of the teachers-in-training system, courses taught by video, and distance learning courses offered on television, was a frequent complaint voiced in the popular debates called by Raúl Castro in a key Jul. 26, 2007 speech, when he was still acting president.

Such criticism was also voiced at the 7th Congress of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) in April, by intellectuals like Alfredo Guevara, one of the veteran cultural leaders of the Cuban revolution.

“Can our primary, secondary and prep schools properly educate children and adolescents and thus lay the foundation for the future as they are at present, governed by misconceived criteria and practices that ignore elementary pedagogical and psychological principles and violate family rights?” he asked.

During the congress, which was held behind closed doors, Guevara also reportedly warned that the teacher-in-training programme has produced “young student teachers whose training is lacking and incomplete and whose maturity level is far short of what it should be.”

Teachers-in-training are used to complete the teaching staff of schools, which have also been equipped with TV sets, VCRs and computers as learning aids. The changes introduced include a reduction of video classes to half an hour, with 15 minutes left for the teacher to provide explanations.

“Television is a support for teachers, it should not replace us,” said Masa, who stressed that “a sense of vocation and dedication” are indispensable in her profession. “Unfortunately, the mass training of young people as teachers does not ensure that they all have these two qualities,” she added.

In the plans for the new school year, the main task of retired teachers who return to the classroom will be to supervise and advise the young teachers-in-training.

In Masa’s view, that is an “essential” step towards strengthening education in Cuba.

Education, which has been universal and free in Cuba since the 1960s, is considered one of the main accomplishments of the 1959 revolution. But like other sectors in Cuba, it was unable to escape the impact of the severe economic crisis that hit Cuba in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European socialist bloc.

Nevertheless, in the latest study on scholastic performance carried out by the Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE), which is coordinated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) regional bureau, Cuba was found to have the highest performance levels among the 17 nations studied in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the study released in June, “Student achievement in Latin America and the Caribbean; Results of the Second Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (SERCE)”, Cuba was the only country whose third-grade pupils attained math and reading scores more than one standard deviation higher than the regional average, that is, over 100 points above the 500 points representing the average of all the countries studied.

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