06/25/2008 10:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are Cuba's Schools Better than Ours?

Sylvia came to Miami from Cuba in the early 1960s, when she was just eight years old. For the past decade, she has been helping resettle Cuban families who arrive from the island to Miami. We met at a seminar of Cuban-American academics in May, in a session discussing economic and social conditions in Cuba. She told me that when she first started her work, her main concern was that the school age children she helped would have a hard time adjusting to American schools. She had not had this problem herself, but that was a long time ago.

To her amazement, when she checked on how the first kids she placed were doing, the principal of the school told her that they were far ahead of the other students in both reading and math, so the teachers were just focusing on teaching them English. Even that was not much of a problem -- they were catching on fast. Sylvia told me that this experience was repeated again and again. Cuban immigrant children coming from Cuban schools into Miami's Dade County system were usually as good at reading and mathematics as the very best students in their new schools.

There is no systematic evidence that can prove Sylvia's story to be the rule. Cuba has never participated in the two international tests that U.S. students take: the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) that surveys eighth graders in a large number of countries every four years, and the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) that does the same for random samples of fifteen year-olds every three years. The results of these tests are broadcast worldwide and become grist for nations' political mills. But comparisons can only be made among countries whose students have actually taken them, and Cuban students have not.

Yet, Cuban third and fourth graders did take a Latin American test in 1997, sponsored by UNESCO's office in Chile, and third and sixth graders took the second round of that survey in 2006. In 1997, thirteen Latin American countries participated, and in 2006, seventeen countries did. In 1997, Cuban students scored much higher than the Latin American average and much higher than the second highest scoring country, Argentina.

Eight years ago, I did a lot of research using the 1997 survey, and it led me to find out more about why Cuban third and fourth graders did so well. I videotaped and analyzed third grade math lessons in Cuba, Brazil, and Chile, and interviewed teachers, principals, and ministry officials to get behind the test scores. What I saw convinced me that the achievement differences were no fluke. The Cuban classes were well taught, Cuban teachers well trained, and Cuban schools responsibly administered. I ended up writing a book with two of my students about Cuba's educational success called Cuba's Academic Advantage. I couldn't say anything in the book about my suspicions, but I was fairly sure that despite Cuba's obvious lack of resources, the third graders I filmed there were doing better in math than most American students I had observed.

So when UNESCO's 2006 Second Regional Comparative Study (SERCE, in Spanish) results were announced on June 20th, I was eager to see how students had fared in the three countries I studied. Not much had changed. Cuban students were again in a league of their own--but still only compared to students in Latin America.

However, one thing did change since 1997: seven Latin American countries participated in PISA tests, and these same seven countries also participated in SERCE. This creates a kind of bridge between a test (PISA) that U.S. students took and a test (SERCE) that Cuban students took. True, the PISA test was for fifteen year-olds, mainly in ninth and tenth grades, and the SERCE test was given to sixth graders. But even with only seven comparison countries, the PISA 2006 and the SERCE 2006 results are highly correlated. So highly correlated that we could develop a reliable statistical formula between the two tests. By plugging in the Cuban sixth grade scores on the SERCE test into this formula, we got a fairly accurate estimate of what Cuban fifteen year-olds would have scored on the PISA 2006 tests in mathematics and reading had they taken them. We could then compare these estimates with how well U.S. students actually did on the PISA 2006.

Sylvia's and my hunch that Cuban education may be better, on average, than American turned out to be probably right. According to my calculations, Cuban students would have scored higher in math than the average score of U.S. students. Cuban fifteen year-olds would have achieved about 499 in mathematics and 501 in reading on the PISA 2006. U.S. fifteen-olds scored 474 in mathematics in 2006 (no score reported in reading), and in PISA 2003, U.S. scores were 486 in math and 496 in reading.

The Cuban results on PISA are projections and could be off by the usual statistical error. Cuban middle schools might be of lower quality than elementary education, so scores would be lower than I estimated. But the estimates are logical. The Cuban government puts a lot of effort into education, and good schools are a high priority for Cuban society. Cuban schools use a European curriculum in math that, according to experts, is better than the variety of math curricula used in U.S. schools. Cuban teacher education is tightly controlled by the Ministry of Education, which insists that teachers know how to teach the curriculum. When young teachers begin teaching, experienced colleagues and the principal mentor them for several years. Students do not change schools, and at the elementary level, usually have the same teacher for at least four grades.

It is definitely a formula for success, one that many U.S. educators have pushed for years. We have had sanctions against Cuba for almost five decades because of human rights abuses. There is no doubt that adults in Cuba lack most of the freedoms we cherish here. Yet, maybe we could learn something from the Cubans about the rights we deny many of our children -- a safe environment, decent health care, and schools that guarantee them high levels of learning.