Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Unesco report ranks Cuban students first in international math and reading tests

This year, a report published by UNESCO released the data from a study on educational achievement in Latin America conducted the previous year. The study was coordinated by the Unesco's Regional Office for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO-OREALC). It consisted of a comparative evaluation of achievement in mathematics and language in 13 Latin American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela.

This comparative study on Latin American educational achievement was particularly important because it was the first one in which the indicators and procedures were agreed upon by the representatives of all the participant countries. The tests were conducted with students in grade 3 and grade 4. Overall, Cuban students showed the highest level of achievement, well above the students from other Latin American countries.

The Cuban performance in the Unesco study cannot be underestimated. Cuban students scored 350 points (around 90 per cent correct answers), 100 points above of the regional average. Argentina, Chile and Brazil followed with scores close to 250 points. The lowest results were in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela (UNESCO-OREALC, 1998, 2000, World Bank 1999). The report mentions that the "test achievement of the lower half of students in Cuba is significantly better than the test achievement of the upper half of students in the countries that fall immediately behind Cuba. (p. 21). It also notes that, with the exception of Cuba, there were no significant differences in the results of the participating countries:

"The first finding reveals that the results show differences among countries, both in levels and distribution of test achievement. The Cuban scores stand out significantly among countries in the region...(p. 12)

For some observers, the spectacular achievement of the Cuban educational system in this study was a surprise. At the time of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had one of the lowest levels of literacy and basic education in the region, and since then its economic development has been seriously curtailed by an aggressive trade blockade imposed by the United States of America. Cuba is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and certainly lacks the resources of countries like Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela or Brazil. How could a poor and isolated small nation situated in the middle of the Caribbean could have a higher educational achievement than those giants?

For more attentive observers of Latin American educational realities, this was not entirely surprising, because international commentators have long known that Cuba pays a special attention to education at all levels. As Juan Casassus, a member of the team of the Latin American Laboratory for Evaluation and Quality of Education at UNESCO Santiago which conducted the study noted, Cuba's performance is no accident:

"Education has been a top priority in Cuba for forty years. It's a true learning society: all Cuban parents have at least completed secondary education; they work hand-in-hand with the school and formal pre-schools are excellent."

Attentive observers also know that there is a strong relation between the social welfare and health of the population, on the one hand, and educational achievement, on the other. In this respect, Cuba stands out among most Latin American countries for its achievements in social welfare and health. For instance, whereas in Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole the infant mortality rate is 30 per 1,000 live births, the figure for Cuba is close to 6 per 1,000 live births. Likewise, while the mortality rate for children under five in the region is 38 per 1,000, in Cuba it is from 13 to eight per 1,000. Moreover, life expectancy is the highest in the region.

In spite of enduring a long economic crisis, Cuba has been able to keep education as a priority, with public spending on education amounting to 6.7% of GNP, twice the proportion of many Latin American countries. Likewise, net primary enrollments are the highest in the region, and the teacher-student ratio (12 students per teacher) is half of the Latin American average. It could be claimed, however, that these statistics do not necessarily reflect the real measure of success of an educational system, which is the quality of learning. In this regard, the Cuban case suggests a strong correlation between investment in education and student achievement. For instance, the youth illiteracy rate in Cuba is close to zero, a figure unmatched by any other Latin American country, where the average is 7%. According to the latest figures that appear in the World Development Indicators published by the World Bank in April 2001, Cuba continues to surpass virtually all other Latin American countries in health and education statistics. Again, it is important to remind ourselves that these accomplishments in social welfare were attained in the context of a relatively poor economy and a long-term, continuous blockade on trade, which makes the achievements more impressive.

In her short and insightful article reflecting on Cuba's performance in the Unesco study, Barbara Hunt (2003: 250) conclude with this summary statement: "Although there are many problems, the Cubans are indeed doing many things right in education. Not one, but a constellation of factors contributes to the quality of Cuban schools. These include nutrition, pre-school child care, educational programs for parents, excellent teacher training that continues during a teacher's career, a strong role for the principal, solid systems for supervision and supportive evaluation of teachers, and a child-centered approach combined with high expectations for the performance of supervisors, principals, teachers and children.

Indeed, the Cuban educational success suggests that some of the key factors for educational achievement are a strong commitment for the educational sector on the part of the government that is expressed in continuous investments in the health and welfare of the population, the development and maintenance of a strong public education system, and the provision of equality of opportunity to a high quality education for all students. Another important factor, of course is the quality of teachers' training and the support for teachers' professional development. In Cuba, teachers at all levels are expected to complete 5 years of university, and there is an extensive system of additional courses and work towards graduate programs. Additionally, teachers are encouraged to engage in research projects that relate closely to their classroom problems and experiences, and they learn continuously from a supportive supervision system. In most schools the principal and teachers operate like a collective: the staff all live near the school, all know each other and work together, both on problems encountered in their teaching and on problems children are having. Because the teachers live in the communities around the schools, they know the parents of their students, and the parents know them. Moreover, Cuban schools are closely integrated with the community and its health services. Most day care centers have both a doctor and nurse on the staff.

All these factors explain that the Cuban educational success is not a miracle or an accident, but the result of many years of concerted efforts and commitments, not only in education, but also in a variety of equitable development related areas. In relation to other Latin American countries and to many other countries in the world, the Cuban educational achievements are indeed impressive. Considering the particular hardships that the Cuban society has withstand for decades, these achievements deserve the recognition and respect of the international educational communities.


Gasperini, Lavinia (1999). The Cuban Educational System: Lessons and Dilemmas. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, LAC, Human Development Dept.

Hunt, Barbara (2003, November). A Look at Cuban Schools: What Is Cuba Doing Right? Phi Delta Kappan 85 (3), 246-250.

UNESCO (1998). Primer Estudio Internacional Comparativo sobre Lenguaje, Matemática y Factores Asociados en Tercero y Cuarto Grado. Santiago: Laboratorio Latinoamericano de Evaluación de la Calidad de la Educación.

World Bank (1999). Entering the 21st Century. World Development Report 1999/2000. Washington DC: World Bank.

Wolff, L. (1999). Primary Education in Cuba. Education Unit, Sustainable Development Department, IDB.

Prepared by DS, 2004

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