President's Corner

In Cuba, Child-Teacher Relationships Are Key


When it's all said and done, the main ingredients for academic achievement depend on that magic relationship between a teacher and a child. We all know that, and we have fond memories of our days in school to prove it.

That point was driven home during a recent study mission to Cuba, accompanied by educators and school board members from across the nation. Arrangements for this unique mission, co-sponsored by AASA, were developed by Nolan Estes, a professor at the University of Texas. The trip was particularly significant for me since I was born in Cuba and left the island at age nine.

Here I was, 44 years later, studying the Cuban education system. I was curious, skeptical and more than a little concerned that all children have access to a sound education. All children are ours, in a sense, no matter where they live.

What did I learn? First, I learned that Cuba has a substantial commitment to education, which has helped it erase illiteracy. The education experience begins with child care and preschool and extends through the university level. All students have an opportunity to pursue higher education and professional degrees. For example, Cuban officials boast that there is a trained medical doctor for every 120 of the island’s residents.

Second, I discovered that some of the best Cuban secondary schools are residential facilities. Students live there Monday through Friday and go home on weekends. At school, they follow a strict regimen of academic preparation and work experience. They are also subjected to socialist and communist doctrine. Those who study the history of the revolution know that Fidel Castro’s literacy campaign focused on recruiting Cuba’s youth as the first target for indoctrination. The premise was that they would then become the tool for the spread of socialism throughout the island. Indeed, the education system has been one of Castro’s most effective means in thwarting critical thinking and free expression among the people.

Third, I found a lack of what we consider essentials in U.S. classrooms We are accustomed to a wealth of equipment, materials and supplies. As a group, we were taken aback when we found they simply weren’t available in the Cuban educational environment. Computers are rare, and where they exist, they are generally old and outdated. What passes for a school library is often a collection of old books setting on steel shelves collecting dust.

Fourth, I observed that despite the fact that Cuban schools operate with the barest of essentials, children learn in a highly disciplined environment. Teachers are willing to impart knowledge and fertile minds are willing to learn. In a way, this example serves as a reminder of what education is all about when it is reduced to its most basic components--the teacher and the child. Those of us on this study mission wondered, at the same time, how much more effective the process would be if those schools and their teachers had access to the abundance of curriculum, instructional materials, equipment and supplies that most U.S. schools enjoy.

Travel allows comparisons. Unquestionably, Cuban schools are instruments for the dissemination of the government’s propaganda and are sorely lacking in resources that most of our schools take for granted. Education in the United States is designed to help students think for themselves and to become full participants in a free and democratic society and a free market economy. The doctrines are vastly different.

Nonetheless, the degree of success the Cubans produce with what little they have is impressive. They demonstrate that achievement is still possible without the pedagogical and high-tech trimmings we consider essential. The lesson for us is that, while we need to continue to improve education in every way, we should not stray from the main ingredients for academic achievement--the teacher and the child.