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Entrance Exams: An Assessment of Education in Cuba

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Photo: "Paradise"

They're no longer dressed in blue uniforms and some boys even show off their rebellious manes. Hair that no teacher will demand they cut -- at least for the next few weeks -- hair that will ultimately fall to the razor of Obligatory Military Service. They still look like students, but very soon many of them will be marching with rifles slung over their shoulders. They are young men who just, days ago, finished their school days at different high schools all over Cuba. The college entrance exams are long past and this week they've learned who will have a place in higher education.

Just outside the schools, the lists of the accepted and unaccepted speak for themselves. José Miguel Pérez High school -- in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality -- could be a good example to explain the situation. This educational center is one of the best performing high schools in the capital. A situation partly due to the professional and economic composition of the neighborhood, which means many parents can afford after-school tutors (we refer to these as "dishtowels" -- they clean things up). Despite these advantages, the end-of-year statistics for this school are more alarming than satisfying.

Of 233 12th grade students in this high school, 222 took the entrance exams and only 162 managed to pass all tests. The rest will have to go to a second round, or content themselves with failure. The highest number of low marks was in Math, in which only 51 students achieved a score of between 90 and 100 points. In the applications for careers, teaching specialties are repeatedly put down as a back-up choice; "To guarantee getting a place, even if the tests don't go well," these potential teachers of tomorrow say, with a certain indecency.

Statistics from José Miguel Pérez High School
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Categories L to R: Total Students in Grade 12; Passed All Subjects; Failed One or More Subjects; Did Not Appear

The beginning and end (?) of a mistake

The young people who completed secondary school this year are the products of the educational experiments led off by the so-called Battle of Ideas. They are 17 and 18 today, so they started junior high as the "Emergent Teachers" program was gaining strength, a program that put hastily trained young people barely out of their teens -- if that -- at the front of the classroom. Today's graduates were educated in classrooms where television and VCRs were the protagonists, for lack of sufficiently trained teachers. At the most difficult times they could count on receiving at least 60 percent of their classes from a screen. They also went through puberty at a time of rising ideological indoctrination. While it is true that this has always been inherent in teaching in Cuba over the past five decades in, its climax came after the Elian Gonzalez case. Fidel Castro took advantage of that event in the late nineties to impart a twist to the political discourse in all aspects of national life.

Those who graduated from the twelfth grade a few weeks ago, are the first batch who did not have to go to boarding schools in the countryside. Encouraging news for the young people themselves and especially for their parents. However, the readjustment for teachers caused by the change forced many of them to rethink careers based on study, books and binders. The teachers who came from these schools in the countryside had to adapt to new conditions. Despite the difficulties of the former regime of internment, for the teachers these countryside schools were sites of direct contact with the farmers who sold or traded for agricultural products. One of the few incentives for working in such a place was being able to take some bananas, taro, pork or fruit to the city at a much cheaper price than in the markets of Havana. The loss of that little privilege discouraged some teachers from continuing on the path of teaching. Memorize or question?

The countless hours lost in the classroom to teacher absenteeism is another of the hallmarks of recent graduates. To this we have to add the decline of the investigative character of science instruction, due to the deterioration or absence of chemistry, physics and biology labs. In many high schools chemistry experiments were practically canceled due to the shortages and fear that students would have access to the chemicals. Physical education, computer science and English were the biggest losers in the exodus of teachers to other areas of employment. High school education emphasized rote learning of dates, names, events, without progress in creating their own opinions, a spirit of asking questions, or the capacity of discernment. Graduates can hold in their heads the years and important days of our country's history, but fail to form their own opinion about what it all means.

The quality of handwriting, spelling and the correct use of Spanish also fell short as educational objectives. This coming September, university classrooms will see students with serious deficiencies in all three areas. But that does not mean that they will be faced with excessive demands or be unable to complete their programs of study. They will attend a University whose quality of teaching is far from that once exhibited in Cuba. In the 2013 ranking of Latin American universities, the University of Havana fell from position 54 to 81, another sign pointing to the urgent need to review the entire educational model. The educational level of the new entrants to higher education, has forced them to lower the bar.

The tinkering with the alchemy of learning, the successive experiments marked more by the voluntarism than scientific analysis, the excessive presence of ideology in every subject, the encouragement of docile, rather than questioning, minds, students' limited access to updated materials (read internet) and the educational fraud that flourishes where ethics is absent, are all undermining one of the main pillars of national identity: that which consists of knowledge, academics and teaching. But a problem can not be remedied unless we confess that it exists. So while they continue speaking in a triumphalist tone about Cuban education, it will continue to sink into mediocrity, into material and pedagogical deterioration.

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