Education in Cuba: Quality and Equity in a Teacher-Based System


Cuba has a national education system that is internationally recognised for its quality and equity, with high performance in tests and universal access (Carnoy, 2014). Education is seen as a right, as set out in the Constitution, and educators are well trained and supported by schools, principals, the government and the local community, following national policies and guidelines. In the Cuban case, education is embedded in a socialist system, with a series of policies for both education – such as a heavy investment in education since the 1960s – and other social areas, such as guaranteed employment for all, universal quality health care and other policies focused on children. The long lasting and universal social policies and the overall education of the population contributes to a positive cumulative effect in children’s schooling.

This case study first presents the challenge of providing universal quality education with equity, followed by Cuba’s approach that includes robust investment and a focus on teachers through training and participatory accountability. Despite the limitations of the case, related to the country’s regime, Cuba’s approach to universal quality public education offers valuable insights. The case is thus concluded with some lessons and limitations of the Cuban experience.


In the past decades, low- and middle-income countries have been expanding their education systems to guarantee the right to education for all. However, many have faced the challenge of incorporating quality and fostering equity in the provision of education. When financing and governance are not adequate, there is a risk of declining quality with the growing enrolment, or having a difference in quality between those students attending elite schools and those attending disadvantaged schools (OECD, 2012). However, combining quality of teaching and equity is fundamental for the protection of rights and the promotion of sustainable development.

The current Cuban education system has its origins in the Revolution of 1959, which established education as a tool for nation building with cohesion and equality (González and Velázquez, 2009). The new regime considered that universal free education was a right and a tool for national development.

Today, the Cuban education system has impressive results. For instance, the international study on primary education carried out in 2008 by the Latin American Laboratory for Quality Assessment of Education and sponsored by UNESCO, showed that Cuba obtained the best results among the 12 countries in the region (Valdés et al., 2008). Cuba has universal school enrolment and attendance; nearly universal adult literacy; proportional female representation at all levels, including higher education; a strong scientific training base, particularly in chemistry and medicine; consistent pedagogical quality across widely dispersed classrooms; equality of basic educational opportunity, even in impoverished areas, both rural and urban (Gasperini, 2000, p. 7).


Cuba’s education system has advanced based on many elements, which have been the object of studies and debates. Some aspects have been often highlighted as central ones, such as robust financing and intersectoral policies. Furthermore, teachers are at the centre of the system, with intense pre- and in-service training.


Aiming towards social equality, education has been set as a priority. Cuba has had sustained high levels of investment in education in a comprehensive and carefully structured system that is embedded in other social policies that promote social equity. Regarding financing, it has increased education financing from 7.14% of GDP in 1991 to 12.84% in 2010 (UNESCO, n.d.), which far exceeds the global education financing benchmarks of allocating 4% to 6% of GDP.

Universal access to education was part of the country’s social project of equality. Thus, it promoted a largescale effort to equalise access and quality across schools in urban and rural areas since the start of Cuba’s educational reform in the 1960s. A National Literacy Campaign was launched in 1961, when, at the time, there was a total population of 5.5 million people among which illiteracy affected 23.6% of those over 15 years of age, and in rural areas it reached 40%. During the same year, Cuba was declared free of illiteracy (Rodriguez, 2011). This advancement opened the way for plans of cultural and educational development that followed (González and Velázquez, 2009). By the 1980s, universal 10th grade education had been achieved. Curriculum reforms also aimed to equalise standards of student performance, and teachers have been specifically trained to teach children in rural areas and those from the working class in urban contexts. As a consequence, Cuban students experience considerable equity regarding social class in their educational conditions (Carnoy, 2016).

However, this effort towards equality is not done in and through education alone. This is attained firstly through adopting an intersectoral approach to social issues, including education as one area amongst other social sectors and policies. Education is part of a wider effort to reduce social inequality, at the same time as benefiting from a more equal society. With universal health care, secured employment and housing, there is less inequality and extreme poverty. This has ensured access, quality and the reduction of illiteracy. One of the results is that very few children work in Cuba (the Cuban legislation prohibits child labour and establishes 17 years old as the minimum age of employment). Therefore, there is a historical cumulative effect with parents and teachers being more educated, resulting in better education for all. Cuba exemplifies how education is not isolated from other social areas and policies, and is unlikely to drive social development on its own (Carnoy, 2016).


Based on the understanding that teachers are fundamental for education quality, they are at the centre of the education system. This is translated into a career that is socially respected, with intense pre- and in-service training, and school support for pedagogical work.

First, the teaching profession has a considerably high status due to cultural and policy reasons. Culturally, education is a fundamental and prestigious occupation in a revolutionary society. It is understood that education has a central role in creating unity in the nation and supporting social transformation. In terms of policy, Cuba has established fixed incomes so that there is little variation and inequality among professions, and the state provides citizens with basic commodities and services at very low prices. As a result, despite the very low wages, teaching became a desirable profession. Teachers earn wages of about 300 to 450 pesos per month, or 13 to 18 USD, which only somewhat lower than physicians. Higher wages are practically non-existent in the country (Carnoy and Marshall, 2005). 

Second, the goal of improving education for all, including and especially from rural areas and the working-class population, was to be achieved through the strategy of supplying all schools with well trained and motivated teachers. Thus, teachers receive intense and well-planned training, and they go through a two-year undergraduate course and receive close supervision for feedback and improvement. The curriculum for this training, which is centrally prescribed by the government, is characterised by a strong linkage between theory and practice. Regarding practice, it is focused on teaching the official school curricula using well-developed teaching techniques. Teachers are also prepared to be a social and pedagogical guide to students. Concerning theory, it is built upon education research and theory, with the aim of encouraging student engagement in active and collaborative learning, with a deep understanding of concepts. Finally, with a focus on equity and inclusion, teachers are trained to work in isolated rural areas under difficult conditions. To ensure the stability of the teacher workforce in rural schools, teachers who commit to staying in the area for two or more years receive incentives, such as promotions and assistance (Gasperini, 2000). This approach is in stark contrast to market alternatives of quick solutions for teacher shortage.

Third, teachers are intensely supervised during a long induction period, and receive support from school principals throughout their careers. The administrative teams in Cuban schools are required to act as instructional leaders, which translates into a school culture of directly supervising and assisting teachers in their early years to improve their teaching. This collaborative effort to ensure learning is embedded in a much wider commitment from the state, which assumes the primary responsibility of ensuring the opportunity to learn for every child.


Finally, accountability is based on an intense relationship between all stakeholders, involving students, parents, teachers and school principals. Primary teachers generally stay with their pupils for the first four years, and sometimes even six years, of primary school, developing a long-term relationship in which teachers get to know students well. As a result, there is a close follow up on students’ development and learning, which is not dependent on large-scale tests and the creation of external incentives (such as high-stakes testing).

Nonetheless, tests are used in the country. Cuban municipalities test sixth- and ninth-grade pupils to provide feedback to the ministry of education and to the schools on how well the system is working. Test results are made public for teachers, students, and families, but there are no rankings. They are used for organisational decision making, translating results into actions aimed at more effective education in all schools. The assumption seems to be that teachers, rather than tests, drive improvement (Carnoy, 2016).


The education system from Cuba points to some lessons. First, the Cuban case is a reminder and clear illustration of how education is not isolated from other social areas. Although studies have consistently shown a correlation between education outcomes and the income and social condition of the child’s household, Cuba exemplifies a country-wide effect on education of reducing social inequality (Carnoy, 2016). With low social inequality and universal welfare policies and services, education improves for all. Thus, “one lesson for all countries is that reducing poverty and income inequality almost certainly means improving student performance in school” (Carnoy, 2016).

This dynamic inverts the current neoliberal solution of trying to use education as a tool to promote development and reduce inequality. If, however, social inequality is not tackled with other policies, countries, regions, or school districts are likely to continue to have difficulty achieving high levels of student learning in school if the children live in a socio-political context outside school that does not provide the safety, health and moral support needed to function well in a classroom environment (Carnoy, 2016).

Second, the Cuban case points to an improvement in education through teachers, not competition or other market-based approaches. Several countries, such as Chile, have attempted to use market mechanisms (such as choice) to drive change, which have not produced more learning. However, the negative aspects of inequality and markets seem to undo the possible positive effects, harming, the most vulnerable in particular (Mizala and Torche, 2021). In contrast, Cuba has invested in reducing inequality in the country and in teacher training, which have led to educational improvements.

Cuban teacher training is in stark contrast to the market solutions that argue for fewer teacher certification requirements, with programmes such as Teach for America and Teach for All (Olmedo et al., 2013). Many market advocates consider that certification requirements, required courses and degrees, and other state controls over who can teach, create barriers to entry that impede individuals from entering the profession. This in turn reduces the talent pool, especially in “shortage subjects” such as maths and science. The Cuban case exemplifies how teachers are actually at the centre of education change, and must thus be trained and supported to enact improvements.

Third, teacher accountability is done with support in a participatory way. Although tests are used to monitor the education system and the results are made public, there are no rankings to prevent dynamics of competition and “shaming” schools and teachers who underperform. Teachers are empowered to be effective in their job by good training and constructive supervision. They are not only made to feel responsible for the children they teach, but they are given the skills to turn those feelings of responsibility into high levels of student learning. This is also an approach that is in contrast to internationally disseminated market-based approaches of highstakes testing. Such approaches hope to create incentives for outcomes by attaching financing consequences to test results, which have been creating a series of perverse effects, such as gaming, cheating, increasing inequality, professionalising teaching and increasing illnesses among teachers (Au, 2007; 2010; Ball, 2009, Holloway et al., 2019; Verger et al., 2019).

This does not mean that there are no limitations and caveats in the Cuban case. Repressive measures by the Government are widely reported, which limit civil and political rights, democratic freedoms are restricted, and education is often placed as a tool to maintain citizens’ loyalty to the regime (Civil Rights Defenders, 2016, Amnesty International, 2020). Furthermore, some of the aspects discussed here depend on wider cultural and political vision, such as Cuba’s efforts, over decades, to create a more equal society, which has created greater equality in schools and elevated the quality of education. Relatedly, teacher recruitment depends on the wider social context of salary regulation and social valuing of education.

Nonetheless, the Cuban case does not offer silver bullets or quick solutions, but rather points to how decades of concerted effort have built up quality education. It indicates alternative ways of offering quality education with equity for all, with consistent investment and focus on teachers.