What does school look like in Cuba? Thomas Timar, professor of
education and faculty director of the Center for Applied Policy
in Education (CAP-Ed), designed a UC Davis Quarter Abroad program
in conjunction with Cuban instructors to demonstrate a hands-on
comparison of Cuban and American education systems. Literature,
language, arts and culture, and Cuban classroom visits were
incorporated into the students’ experience at Casa de las
Américas of Havana during Spring Quarter 2010.
According to Timar, UC Davis is one of very few universities in
the United States licensed to have an educational program in
Below are excerpts of Timar’s written observations during his
quarter in Havana.
April 9, 2010
The most striking thing about arriving in Cuba is how little, as
Americans, we know about the place. Cuba is like one of those
blurred out spots on TV when they don’t want the viewers to see
something. Havana is larger, more diverse as a city, and
historically significant than any of us here had anticipated. The
city is full of contradictions. Cubans have reason not to like
Americans, but they can’t help liking them anyway because Cubans
are, on the whole, lovely people.
Signs of economic hardship are everywhere, yet the old part of
the city, La Haban Viejo, is undergoing restoration. Though the
city dates to 1521, most of the architecture is from the Spanish
Colonial period. As expected, because the Spanish came from Cadiz
and Seville, there is some Moorish influence in the architecture
(and actually in Cuban Spanish as well). There is a flowering of
new restaurants, coffee houses, and bars catering mostly to
tourists as Cuba is quite dependent on foreign currency for its
There are still lots of signs that the Russians were here. It
seems that Russia dumped as many of its cars that it
manufactured—the Lada—on the Cubans. There are also lots of
yellow buses running around that say “School Bus” on them. I
think there may be a story there. There are post-1959 buildings
that share the architectural charms of the Soviets.
We are almost through the first week. We’ve had a few rough
patches, mainly having to do with my housing. But, it is “being
worked out.” (This is no place for a Type A personality.) They
have done a nice job here organizing the program for the
students. By the time they go back, they should have a pretty
good idea of the education system and Cuban arts and culture and
April 30, 2010
We have had several lectures on the education system in Cuba—both
higher and lower education. Last week, we had the director of a
regional medical clinic talk to our class about the relationship
between the medical system and the education/preparation of
For obvious reasons, the education systems in the two
countries—U.S. and Cuba—are very different. The philosophical
foundations of education are diametrically opposed. The purpose
of education here is to create patriotic, well-educated Cubans.
And education does not mean literacy and math skills, but the
complete development of the individual. Because of the system of
government, the state provides the social, cultural capital that
in the U.S. is dependent upon family and peers.
We went to an elementary school this week (K-6) and the
differences between schools in the two countries could not have
been more glaring. The schools are very spartan and sparse, with
very small classrooms and about 15 to 20 in a classroom.
The children are very serious about school, even at an early age.
The level of work that children do in the early grades is
impressive. In a sixth-grade classroom, I watched part of a math
lesson. The teacher was teaching students the properties of
triangles—calculating angles, areas, etc. In general, students
cover much more material in school than they do in the U.S. The
middle school (grades 6-9) curriculum is comprised of Spanish,
mathematics (including algebra, geometry, statistics, etc.),
physical sciences (chemistry and physics), biological sciences,
history (world and Cuban), civics, computers, physical education,
arts, and English.
There is a very strong support system (supplied by the state) in
the schools. That includes social/family and medical services.
Teachers stay with the same group of students from grades 1
through 6. There are also mentors who are responsible for 10
students. Middle and high school teachers are trained for about 5
to 6 years. Most teachers begin their training in junior high
school. The Cubans are obviously very invested in their education
system and don’t leave much to chance.
Today, we went to a junior high school—grades 7 through 9—and it
was really impressive. The Cubans regard those years as critical
to the development—intellectual, physical, and
moral/social/political—of the child and take great care in making
sure that it is done right.
There is quite a bit of mentoring of new teachers and ongoing
professional development for all teachers. Professional
development focuses entirely on pedagogy and child development.
Each child has exactly the same curriculum. It does not matter
which school or which city or province. All students get the same
curriculum no matter where they are. The Cubans have video
lessons for each lesson and for each subject that is taught.
These videos have been developed by master teachers and are
available for teachers to watch. In some instances, the
instruction may be on video. The idea is to create a strong
professional culture among teachers and to reduce or eliminate
variation among teachers in terms of subject matter and pedagogy.
Teachers do not close their classroom door. In fact most
classrooms don’t have doors. Teachers are evaluated on a monthly
basis. Each teacher has a mentor who works with her/him.
We had students recite poetry for us, had a guitar concert, and
had lots of dancing, which they get in their physical education
classes. We had a student as our guide around the school—about 14
years old—who spoke perfect English. One of our Davis students
was blown away by one of the Cuban students who spoke English
with absolutely no accent. Finally, our students joined the
middle school students in a game of volleyball. Great fun.
The students all seem to be having a great time. We had a trip
planned to Varadero, one of Cuba’s nicest beaches, but it is
going to rain all weekend. That’s not good news for the May Day
parade on Saturday where Raul Castro is supposed to speak.
My housing is worked out. I’m getting out to ballet, concerts,
lots of very good music. There is a large outdoor concert venue
fairly close to where we are along the Malecon. Last Saturday
night, there was a major concert there by a group that is
considered Cuba’s best. Lots of people, many of them dancing the
samba, including our students.
While there are all of these wonderful experiences, one can’t
help but be reminded constantly of the effect that the U.S.
blockade is having on Cuba. In effect, U.S. policy is aimed at
starving the Cubans out. But, it hasn’t worked for over 50 years
and it won’t work in the future either. The people are too
resilient and resourceful.
There are lots of things here in Cuba that don’t work—the economy
being one of them. But how much of that is the system and how
much the embargo is hard to say.
Check back for additional photos and updates in mid-June 2010
when Timar returns to the U.S.
To paraphrase Dostoevsky, the quality of a society should be
measured by the quality of its schools, particularly the
quality of its schools educating the most disadvantaged
Thomas Timar’s areas of expertise include education finance,
policy, and governance. In addition to his faculty
responsibilities, he is also director of the UC Davis Center for Applied Policy in
Education (CAP-Ed) and a member of the steering committee for
Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).