Education: Is Cuba Doing it Right?

Colin Kaepernick was in the news again last week when, in advance of a match against the Dolphins, the 49ers quarterback was interviewed by a Miami Herald reporter who pressed him for answers about a t-shirt he was seen wearing, which featured an image of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In response to the questioning, which was clearly intended to put him on the defensive for celebrating Castro, Kaepernick pointed out that “[Cuba has] the highest literacy rate because they invest more in their education system than they do in their prison system,” unlike the United States, he added. (Full article here.)

Many people agree that the education system in the United States is in need of improvement — and our incoming president has announced plans to make major changes to the system.

Before the changes get underway, we thought it would be a good idea to analyze the truth in recent headlines, not on the basis of patriotism or sentiment, but on the basis of actual data — especially since our incoming president seems ready to move our system further to the right, in opposition to Kaepernick’s suggestion that Cuba, with a government far to our left, is managing their education system better than we are.

Instead of finding clear cut data and easy answers, what I discovered is that an apples-to-apples comparison is essentially impossible, and the data I was able to find only pointed me in the direction of a definite maybe.

“The U.S. is Number One”

Let’s start with President-elect Trump, whose opinions about the U.S. education system will soon have far-reaching consequences. On the campaign trail, Trump made many statements about education, including: “We’re number one in terms of cost per pupil by a factor of, worldwide, by a factor of many. Number two is so far behind, forget it.” And, “So we’re number one in the world in terms of spending. We’re number 28 in the world in terms of, where do we stand? We have Third World countries that are ahead of us, countries that you wouldn’t believe…” (Campaign speech, Tulsa Oklahoma, January 2016.)

Was there truth in Trump’s statements? A recent report by CBS claimed that the United States does, in fact, top the global list in spending per capita, at $15,171 per student. The next closest country was Switzerland, at $14,922 (so much for Trump’s claim that #2 is “so far behind”).

But what a cursory glance at this top line number fails to reveal, is that America’s average spending belies a great deal of inequality from one student to the next. Most countries fund education from their federal budget alone, meaning their country’s “average spending” is more or less an accurate reflection of what is being invested in any randomly selected student — whereas in the US, much of school spending is paid for out of state and local budgets, both of which vary wildly from one location to the next. No one would argue, for example, that a student in the Bronx is being invested in at the same level as a student in Westchester County, even if their classrooms are a mere 20 miles apart.

It’s also worth mentioning that creating a global comparison of education spending valued in real dollars fails to account for the relative value of a dollar in local economies. When it comes to measuring the cost of everything from building school infrastructure to paying teacher salaries, it’s simply going to take fewer dollars to provide a classroom for a student in, say, Slovenia or Vietnam, than it would to provide an equivalent classroom in Switzerland or the United States.

A far more accurate comparison would be to look at education spending expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Seen through this lens, the United States is not first in education spending across the globe, far from it — in fact, at 5.5% of our GDP, the United States is ranked 58th globally. Compare that to Cuba’s 13.6% of GDP, which places them 4th in the world for student spending. (World Bank via Wikipedia.)

About Trump’s claim that the United States is 28th in terms of … well, he didn’t specify in terms of what. But if he was referring to literacy, this claim was also off base. In fact, according to IndexMundi, the United States ranks not 28th but 45th globally for literacy rates, whereas Cuba’s literacy rate is ranked 10th among world nations. (Incidentally, the CIA World Fact Book corroborates IndexMundi’s claims about Cuban literacy rates, although statistics for US literacy rates are conspicuously absent from their report.)

It seems the only thing Trump was completely correct about is that the United States is far behind “countries that you wouldn’t believe” — including the aforementioned Slovenia and Vietnam.

Prison > Education?

And what about Colin Kaepernick’s statement? When he said that “Cuba invests more in their education system than they do on their prison system,” and added “unlike America” — can we assume he was claiming the US spends more on our prison system than we do on education? If so, was he correct?

Fortunately, it’s not true — at least not in terms of total spending. With our annual GDP around $18 trillion, and annual prison spending at around $80 billion, the United States spends less than half a percent of our GDP on prisons.

However, if we look at spending per prisoner versus spending per student, we see there’s some truth to Kaepernick’s statement. Recent reporting by CNN Money reveals that, at least in the 40 states they surveyed, spending per prisoner far outpaces spending per student, with some states spending double or even triple the amount –and eleven states spend more of their budget per year on prisons and jails than they spend on their public colleges.

Where does that net us out in terms of educational outcomes? According to The Atlantic’s snapshot of math, science and reading performance across 60 nations, students in the United States perform somewhere in the middle — ranking 36th place.

What about the rampant inequality in student investment I mentioned earlier? According to US News and World Report, “A socioeconomically disadvantaged American student is six times more likely to be a low performer than his or her socioeconomically advantaged peer.”

For perspective, 41% of socioeconomically disadvantaged students in the United States were low performers in mathematics in 2012, whereas only 14% of disadvantaged South Korean students were low performers on the same math test.

Unfortunately, Cuba has never participated in the two main international tests from which these rankings were derived, again making it challenging to compare education systems on the basis of objective data. But anecdotal evidence reported from social workers in Miami resettling Cuban students whose families have immigrated to the States suggest that students arrive “far ahead” of their U.S. peers in both reading and math.

Doing More With Less

And unlike the American system, students in Cuba are evenly invested in across their society. Primary and secondary education is compulsory, free, and equivalent for all students until age 15, after which point students will either branch off into a technical or vocational track, or else continue their education onwards to a college prep track, both of which are also tuition free.

Entrance into Cuban university programs is — at least far more so than in the United States — a meritocracy, lacking the culture of “college prep” courses and resumes loaded with extra-curricular experiences which are cost prohibitive to many. Cuba has even earned a laudable reputation for offering free university training to economically disadvantaged students around the globe, particularly in the field of medicine. Since 1999, the country has educated over 20,000 international medical students. In fact, hundreds of US doctors have received their training in Cuba, and have returned to the States to practice medicine in underserved communities in accordance with the spirit and mission of Cuba’s international program.

All objective measurement aside, there’s admittedly more to an education system than test scores or numbers of diplomas produced.

Primary school teachers in the United States receive at least a four year college degree plus specialized Masters-level work in education; training for primary school teachers in Cuba is considered a vocational track program, most teachers do not have even a four year degree. Does this difference in teacher training affect the quality of education? For example, the Cuban system may succeed in teaching students reading, writing, and arithmetic, but are they also teaching “soft skills” such as creativity, imagination and critical problem solving?

I want to say “the proof is in the pudding” here, and point to educational outcomes in the United States versus Cuba — if the US continues to be a global leader in the arts, technology and innovation, then all test scores aside, clearly we must be doing something right.

But once again, I come back to the impossibility of making a fair comparison. A decades-long economic blockade, for example, makes it hard for anyone to ask, “Where’s Cuba’s Silicon Valley?” with a straight face — and strict government censorship mitigates any critique of Cuba’s artistic innovation.

Former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan once said, “Cuba demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities — health, education and literacy.”

The Answer…

Although a direct comparison between the two systems may have proven to be impossible, while conducting this research I couldn’t help wonder, what would happen if the best elements of our two systems were combined? What if we took America’s economic resources and our spirit of creativity, and combined it with Cuba’s commitment to providing equal access for all students, and to investing a major portion of their wealth into their education system?

With both these strengths in play, the sky would be the limit.

Cuba may claim their lack of resources is beyond their control; the United States, on the other hand, must admit that our lack of commitment is merely a matter of political will.

Whether or not Cuba can claim to have a better system, what’s clear at least is that they have better priorities.