Evan Katz

*This post is a modified version of my INTL 3300 research paper, Education in the United States in Cuba: Different Systems, Similar Outcomes, from April 2016.

Globalization has shaped international politics for the better part of the past century, contributing to global economic growth through comparative advantage, the proliferation of new ideas and technologies to far corners of the world, and the development of previously underdeveloped states in the Global South. While some states, like the United States, have participated in and reaped the benefits of globalization, others, like Cuba, have largely elected to sit out in protest of the system. States’ decisions on how much to participate in globalization have far-reaching effects on how their societies operate; the United States’ trade, fiscal, monetary, military, and environmental policies have been heavily shaped by globalization whereas those of Cuba operate independently of the rest of the world.

Despite vastly different policies, stances on globalization, and developmental statuses, both the United States and Cuba boast similarly effective education systems. Cuba has rectified its poor economic performance and lack of access to globalized ideas and technologies by investing heavily in education. Its position as a developing state and its refusal to participate in globalization have freed up resources that would normally be expended on ensuring military strength or specializing in a comparatively advantageous sector (Gasperini 2000, p. 1). As a result, Cuba is one of the most highly educated states in the developing world.

Employing a Most Different System Design, I’ll attempt to explain how different education systems in the United States and Cuba have produced similar results. First, I’ll examine the education systems in the United States and Cuba individually, including analyzing the historical evolution of each system, the types of education each state offers, and various statistics that gauge each country’s educational attainment, such as literacy rates and percentages of the adult population with high school and college education. Next, I’ll contrast how both systems operate and compare their performances, both against each other and relative to the rest of the world. Finally, I’ll explain why certain factors associated with globalization have shaped education policy in both the United States and Cuba.

Education in the United States

As a developed and highly industrialized state, the United States possesses a very strong education system. Although the executive branch of the federal government has a Department of Education that oversees educational operations across the country, the United States Constitution generally leaves jurisdiction over education to the several states (Boychuk, 2010, para. 6-7). For a large portion of the country’s history, education centered on public schools, parochial schools run by parishes, and small, nonsectarian private schools. Many parochial schools received public funding from local taxpayers, but beginning in 1876, a majority of states adopted amendments to their state constitutions prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars to fund religiously affiliated schools (Lupu, 2008, para. 1-2). Though no federal law exists compelling students to attend school, all fifty states have passed compulsory education laws.

The United States has a 99 percent literacy rate among members of the population aged fifteen or older. As of 2014, roughly 88 percent of all people over 25 years of age have a high school diploma, and nearly a third of the country has at least a bachelor’s degree (United States Census, 2016). However, these numbers consider the entire population and do not take into account demographic factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, or income. For example, with race, as many as 92 percent of white Americans have at least a high school diploma compared to 84 percent of African Americans, according to Cook (2015). Only 19 percent of African Americans have a bachelor’s degree or more compared to 33 percent of white Americans.

The United States offers numerous forms of education, with public education, government-funded but independently operated charter schools, and private institutions—including homeschooling—among the options available for students. Over ninety percent of students enrolled in primary or secondary education in the United States attend public schools; during the 2015-16 academic year, approximately fifty million students will attend a public elementary, middle or high school, with another 4.8 million enrolled in private institutions (NCES, 2015).

Relative to 34 states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States performs at an average level, scoring at the OECD average for reading and science, but below average in mathematics. Although fewer students in the United States fail to reach Level 2 of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in mathematics than those in other countries, fewer students can be considered “top performers” in the United States than OECD average (NCES, 2006).

Education in Cuba, 1959-present

Despite its status as a developing country, Cuba maintains an outstanding education system, ranking first among all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Cuban government offers universal public education, which is compulsory for all students between the ages of six and sixteen. Broad access to education has contributed to an essentially perfect literacy rate, strong performance in science and medicine, and equal educational opportunity for all citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, income, or geography (Gasperini, 2000, p. 1).

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 exerted a sizable force on the direction of the Cuban education system. Fidel Castro, the island nation’s revolutionary former leader, witnessed the inequality of educational opportunity under the Batista regime; the rich elites in Havana enjoyed disproportionately more access to education than poorer people in rural regions of the country. In the wake of the Cuban Revolution, Castro committed to eliminating illiteracy as quickly as possible, deploying over 100,000 alfabetizadores—literacy teachers—to teach children across the country how to read and write proficiently. He also nationalized all private schools without compensation, converting Cuban education into an entirely state-run system. By 1970, Cuba provided free education to nearly all students across the country (Independent, 2010, para. 12, 15-16, 25-26).

According to the World Bank (2016), Cuba spends a larger percentage of its central budget—approximately 13 percent—than any other state in the world. Massive investments in education allow the Cuban government to hire an exorbitant number of highly trained teachers, many of whom have studied for over five years, keeping student-teacher ratios extremely low relative to other developing states (Independent, 2010, para. 7). Cuba’s strong commitment to education has also prompted it to craft unique educational strategies to enhance its system, including community participation mechanisms, intricately structured competition, attention to underserved communities, and “emphasis on education for social cohesion” (Gasperini, 2000, pp. 1-2).

Measuring Cuban students’ educational proficiency has proven to be difficult because Cuba does not administer many of the tests that students in other states take to gauge their abilities (Carnoy, 2011, para. 3). However, basic statistics such as literacy and graduation rates point to the fact that Cuba’s education system is among the best in the world. As mentioned earlier, Cuba has a literacy rate of nearly 100 percent. Cuba’s secondary school graduation rate of 99.1 percent is among the best in the world, topping most OECD countries including the United States (Weathersbee, 2007, para. 6). Cuba also outcompetes many developed countries in the sciences, especially in areas like chemistry and medicine, and many foreign students study abroad at the University of Havana, the island’s original university, for its superior medical program (Gasperini, 2000, p. 1).

Comparing the systems of the United States and Cuba

Among the most notable differences between the United States and Cuba is the disparity in how much each country invests in education as a percentage of their central budgets. Cuba’s 13 percent is miles ahead of that of the United States, which spends just above 5 percent of its federal budget on education (World Bank, 2016). However, because education generally falls under the jurisdiction of the fifty states, most expenditures in the United States occur at the state and local levels, with states spending between 20 and 40 percent of their budgets on education (Russell, 2015). Cuba’s relatively small population and the centralized nature of the Cuban government afford it a much greater ability to coordinate implementation efforts and education strategies relative to the decentralized United States, which could more accurately explain the unusually high performance of Cuba’s public schools in spite of poor economic conditions and a lack of resources.

Another major difference in the education systems of Cuba and the United States lies in the types of schooling each country offers. Cuba’s system, rooted in Marxist-Leninist philosophy, relies entirely on state-funded and state-controlled education as a means of ensuring equality of educational opportunity, while the United States offers a much greater degree of school choice with private and charter schools. Cuba’s prioritization of equality over choice has minimized the disparity between the most and least educated students, contributing to the broader success of its education system.

Globalization as an explanation

Globalization will continue to affect states that participate in the liberal economic order, shaping the formulation and implementation of their trade, fiscal, monetary, and military policies. State sovereignty has slowly eroded away as the world has become more interconnected and interdependent; tiny shifts in the international system create drastic ripple effects that alter how states operate. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States. With the United States, fiscal and monetary policy depends heavily on factors relating to the global economy, significantly affecting revenues and expenses. Additionally, to facilitate the liberal economic order, the United States must spend approximately 16 percent of its annual federal budget on defense (CBO, 2016).

Cuba sits in a peculiar position. Like its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors, Cuba is a developing state with a relatively small economy. Unlike its neighbors, however, Cuba stands in opposition to globalization. Refusal to accede to the liberal economic order has excluded Cuba from much of the economic growth states in the Global South have experienced in the past few decades and has kept the country closed off from the flow of ideas, goods, services, and technologies that encourage development. However, electing to “sit out” of globalization has given Cuba unparalleled authority to control its own destiny. Cuba enjoys greater autonomy over setting its primary economic goals and how it allocates its central budget; it can choose to focus its resources on promoting equality rather than ascribing to the growth-centric model of globalization that has made developing states dependent on the developed world, and it has the flexibility to allocate a substantial portion of its central budget to education because it has minimal obligations to other states, both military and economic.


Despite very different political, ideological, and economic backgrounds, both the United States and Cuba possess strong education systems. The American system benefits from a strong economic foundation supported by the liberal economic order. Relative freedom to choose what kind of education one prefers gives students greater opportunities to excel in school, but widens the disparity between those that can afford better education and those that cannot. The Cuban system operates at a disadvantage due to Cuba’s economic hardships and lack of resources, but its commitment to equality of educational opportunity ensures that every student has the tools to succeed and that none falls behind.

The Cuban model offers an intriguing counterexample to the claim that globalization inherently benefits all states that choose to participate. The growth-centric model touted by the liberal economic order might expand states’ access to resources through specialization, but not all citizens of those states can benefit from growth. Cuba’s commitment to fighting inequality first fundamentally rethinks the priorities states should have when focusing on improving their education systems.


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