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From issue: Education (Fall 2010)

Fresh Look Reviews

Fresh, unique perspectives on recent books from across the hemisphere originally published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

In this issue:

Cuba libre: Vivir y escribir en La Habana by Yoani Sánchez

Oscar Morales Guevara

The realities of the “revolution” in Cuba and the mysteries of life in Havana have long eluded understanding by those outside the island. But since 2007, Yoani Sánchez has sought to shed light on the present-day reality of Cuban life through her Generation Y blog.

Now the world-renowned blogger, named by CNN and Time magazine in 2009 as one of the most influential people in the world, has compiled selected blog posts in a book that should not be missed.

Cuba libre: Vivir y escribir en La Habana (Free Cuba: Living and Writing in Havana) is a testament to her bravery and unassailable writing capacity. With impeccable conceptual clarity, and prose worthy of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, the book transports the reader to Havana and allows her to share the frustrations, deceptions and anger of daily life in the Cuban capital.

Sánchez paints a crystal-clear picture of a regular day on the island—a place where every year the Castro family, first Fidel and now Raúl, promises to remove the absurd restrictions imposed on the islanders, but nothing changes.

One such announcement came on October 25, 2007, when Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, in response to then U.S. President George W. Bush, declared that the Internet would be available for 2 million Cubans through the Youth Clubs, a promise that never materialized. Sánchez, in her blog post in the book, “Some Incongruencies,” declares that in reality those Youth Clubs only offered intranet services on the island, not Internet access. She describes trying to use an Internet-enabled computer when at a book fair. Within a few minutes she was stopped by one of the staff at the booth and informed that Internet was only available for tourists and foreign passport holders.

Or take the example of milk, a basic liquid for many of us but an unreachable luxury—like pineapple, papaya, a piece of meat, or a slice of cheese—for most people on the island. “I think we will first send a man to the moon, or win the Olympics, or discover the cure to AIDS, before every person on the island can enjoy a coffee with milk in the mornings,” Sánchez writes in “Where is my glass of milk?”

In Cuba, according to Cuba libre, to be caught in public with a pineapple is a suspicious status symbol, punishable by discrimination and most likely an interrogation from the security officers. This simple declaration describes it all: “Sometimes, when the urge and the nostalgia hit me, I go to the rich people’s market to buy a pineapple. I am careful enough to take with me a cloth tote bag so I can hide the queen of the fruits from the people, given the obscene status symbol it represents.”

Cubans are forbidden to be rich, except those in high-level government positions. In 1994, Cuba went through a short period of freedom of enterprise, and when people began to succeed in their businesses, the government squashed their achievements. The “higher ups” as Sánchez describes government leaders, realized that “economic freedom would inevitably imply political autonomy.”

This book is not meant to be simply entertaining. It defies easy categories of a novel or even a diary or journal. Cuba libre combines a cry from the heart, with bewilderment, indignation and sadness. But its implicit yearning for change makes a strong connection with the reader.

The blog post titled “An empty seat” is one example. Written on Christmas Eve 2007, Sánchez explains how a relative, Adolfo Fernández Sainz, had spent five years in jail as a political prisoner for the great sin of speaking up. When Sánchez’s husband explains to her son that his uncle is imprisoned “because he is a very brave man,” the boy replies: “Then you are free because you are cowards.”

This is one of the many pearls hidden in an ocean of brilliant and emotional moments where reality is delivered starkly, with a strong dose of sarcasm and irony.

Navigating through the blogs, one is inevitably disgusted with the way the average citizen has to struggle for the most basic activities. Nobody can escape that struggle.

At school, children are taught through a television since teachers often quit due to low salaries and lack of incentives.

Motivated by that story, I decided to interview a Cuban friend who had left the island 10 years ago. She told me that when she was in elementary school in Havana, she used to crowd in front of the classroom TV along with dozens of her peers to receive the daily lessons.

Blackouts were so frequent that half of their education was simply missed. Sánchez learned that from her son Teo, and tells us that “a television replaces the teacher 60 percent of the time. Children get bored and they cannot ask the teacher to repeat when they don’t understand. They just write and copy what the screen dictates.”

As a reader turns the page, the slow collapse of the “revolution” becomes apparent.
Reading this moving and humbling account is likely to spark an impulse to travel to the island and meet the author to give her a laptop, to help her publish her material, and to offer solidarity. Or simply to let her know that an entire community of activists and readers across Latin America and the world deeply admire her.

Cuba libre represents the embodiment of courage, bravery and the fight for freedom—freedom that in Cuba will remain a distant dream as long as the world maintains its indifference and fails to mobilize to rescue this island just 90 miles from Miami.

That will be the moment when Cubans will finally know freedom.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch

Mark Osmond

A broad consensus on education policy has emerged over the past decade, with liberals and conservatives alike championing accountability and choice in America’s public schools. Diane Ravitch, an education scholar who pushed for market-based reforms during her tenure in the U.S. federal government (George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations), recently defected from this movement. Her latest book explains why.

With remarkable clarity and authority, Ravitch, now a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offers a reality check to those with blind faith in charter schools and high-stakes standardized testing. Even her critics will be forced to acknowledge the evenhanded way she approaches the facts. Few will finish The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education convinced that market principles represent the elixir that can transform troubled U.S. school districts. But does the author succeed in showing that these reforms should be largely abandoned? Perhaps not.

One of the impressions left with this reader is, in turning on many of the reforms she helped launch, Ravitch has created a false dichotomy. Market-friendly policy and solid curricula are not mutually exclusive. In fact, simply jettisoning the market ideas that Ravitch once championed may not only be facile, it could also be dangerous, as scholars enthusiastically embrace each new fad, refusing to recognize the merits or lessons of the last.

In her early scholarly work, Ravitch consistently held that there were “no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets” in education. Influenced by her colleagues, however, she abandoned this caution while serving as assistant secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration. She ultimately bought into the hype that the market’s magic could work wonders for schools. The idea seemed theoretically sound: “Free of direct government control, the schools would be innovative, hire only the best teachers, get rid of incompetent teachers, set their own pay scales, compete for students (customers), and be judged solely by their results (test scores and graduation rates).”

Any honest jury would agree that the results have been disappointing. The book dedicates substantial attention to the “data wars” in the public vs. charter school rivalry, concluding that they have produced no clear victor. Test scores are sometimes viewed as the equivalent of the corporate bottom line. But the book shows how high-stakes testing has resulted in what Ravitch has previously described as “Enron-style” accounting with questionable data and results. Tying funding to scores has encouraged states to dumb down their exams, creating illusory progress to ensure that federal dollars keep coming in. Punitive testing has led educators to focus on basic skills and test-taking strategies at the expense of liberal arts and the sciences.

State scores have steadily climbed since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001. But this progress proves to be a mirage after a look at the largely flat performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the federal assessment program. Texas, for example, claimed that 85.1 percent of its students were proficient readers in 2007, but NAEP results put the number at only 28.6 percent.

The book offers ground-level accounts of how recent reforms have played out in New York City and San Diego. Alan Bersin, San Diego schools superintendent, worked to “jolt the system” on the basis of three axioms: “1) Do it fast, 2) Do it deep, 3) Take no prisoners.” The massive firing and reshuffling of personnel that ensued recall the corporate raids of the 1980s. Teachers became frightened as pressure to perform mounted. Mega-rich foundations awarded the districts millions of dollars to help finance the reforms. Yet no clear gains in student achievement resulted.

Shortcomings and collateral damage associated with NCLB-inspired reforms led the author to abandon the movement she helped build. Her 180-degree turn is understandable, but perhaps premature. The book’s arguments against no-excuses education policy take aim at poor implementation, but the execution of ideas might be improved without ditching the principles behind them. Ms. Ravitch demonstrates that firebrand reformers are not always effective: test scores can be a dangerous shortcut for evaluation; overemphasizing basic skills diminishes time for history, literature and foreign languages; and education policy must go deeper than simple rewards and sanctions. But solutions to each of these problems might still be found in a market-oriented framework.

It is important to remember that demands for reform sprung from depressing disparities in student achievement. Barely half of African-American and Hispanic students finish high school with a diploma compared to more than three-quarters of their Caucasian peers. These failures cannot be pinned solely on inner-city schools. Other forces associated with socioeconomic status are hugely influential, but the public education system has been complacent to some extent. This is why her proposal to turn back to the status quo—albeit with upgrades that include more resources and better-trained teachers—is suspect.

The odds are against teachers of poor students. The families of such students are more likely to be passive, neglectful or helpless when it comes to their children’s education. Reformers do need to acknowledge this. But even acknowledging the importance of family factors, accountability and choice might still be effective. Waves of no-holds-barred reform are perhaps unproductive, but when cutbacks are necessary, the worst teachers should be pink-slipped, even if they have seniority. This is businesslike, but it is also commonsense.

The book argues that accountability distracts policymakers from what schools need most: “a well-conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum.” A strong curriculum, the author says, sets apart nations that outperform the U.S. on international assessments, such as Finland and Japan, as well as states with exceptional track records, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota.

Recent events show that market-driven reforms can accompany curriculum improvement on the education agenda. In late March, President Barack Obama announced the winners of the Race to the Top initiative, which awards federal funds to states that make reforms promoting choice and accountability. Two months later, the curriculum movement reached a milestone when a consortium of state organizations released the Common Core State Standards to help synchronize educational expectations across  the country.

On charter schools, Ravitch rightly notes that their quality ranges from “excellent to awful.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is the bête noire of his field in the author’s eyes, recently acknowledged that about 200 of the nation’s 5,000 worst performing schools are charters. This embarrassment, however, is not evidence of reform going too far, but not far enough. Shutting down subpar charter schools is supposed to be a core component of this system.

Many of the book’s objections to choice and accountability can be met with similar rejoinders. Informed by the problems she documents, policy implementation should be improved before governments prematurely abandon market ideas in education. To ensure that her criticism is addressed, education advocates of all stripes should put this book on their must-read list.

La Argentina que merecemos by Roberto Lavagna

Alberto Bernal

Roberto Lavagna, Argentina’s economy and production minister from 2002–2005, steered his country through one of the most tumultuous periods in Argentina’s recent economic history. Taking office in the depth of the economic recession, his restructuring of the financial system helped create the conditions for recovery while also making foes along the way. In La Argentina que merecemos (The Argentina We Deserve) he reflects on policies implemented during the recession, while also looking ahead to how Argentina can achieve long-term and inclusive growth.

A well-known critic of the free market—he offered defaulted bond-holders harsh terms as part of the 2005 debt restructuring—Lavagna starts his book with a phrase slightly different than a standard development book would use: “I believe that the same dream unites all Argentines: to make Argentina that country of opportunities that we [once] knew to have…” Usually policymakers from emerging economies start their books with something along the lines of: “I believe all citizens of [insert country name] share the same dream… To make this a place where every member of society has the capacity to fulfill his or her dreams...”

But Argentina is not like any other emerging economy. In the early twentieth century,  Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world, with  per capita income reaching 80 percent of U.S. levels, a figure that now stands at 30 percent. An almost complete lack of economic policy cohesion and a perennial incapacity “to stay the course” and constrain ideological swings have steadily reduced Argentina’s wealth and global standing.

Lavagna recognizes that policy volatility has generated this terrible social outcome. His solution to the long-standing constraints on Argentine development comprises three  very  straightforward policies: consolidate the economic base to ensure lasting economic growth; focus public and private policies on recovering Argentine social mobility through ensuring effective income redistribution and equality of opportunities; and transform the relationship of public institutions with civil society.

These all make sense, but they appear less cohesive when Lavagna describes them in greater detail. For example, he believes that consolidating the economic base can be achieved by implementing shock policies aimed at ensuring a competitive real exchange rate, while protecting and encouraging domestic and foreign investments and boosting total factor productivity. At the same time, Lavagna argues that the government needs to boost domestic demand by increasing salaries and pensions and that tax policy should focus mostly on taxing dividends and capital gains.

All of this is easier said than done. Virtually all economic development evidence shows that it is very difficult to lure foreign direct investment to a country that taxes capital gains and dividends heavily. This is especially true if a country lacks other investment attractions such as an extremely competitive infrastructure base, a very educated labor force or, at the other extreme, an extremely cheap labor force. Argentina does not score high on any of those fundamental benchmarks.

My critique is not ideological. It  simply reflects a fact of globalization: capital carries no patriotism. Capital will go to the countries that welcome capitalists, not to countries that place adverse conditions on the modus operandi of capitalists, which is to make a large profit in return for taking risk. The experience of Ireland and Chile demonstrates that low taxes for capital holders is a key component of any capital deepening process. The same criticism is applicable to the concept of boosting domestic demand by increasing salaries and pensions. Decreeing higher salaries (by an executive or legislative decision) is inconsistent with a country being able to achieve higher levels of total factor productivity.

The author also fails to elaborate on other Argentine inefficiencies, which in my view explain the under-performance of its economy since the turn of the last century. For example, the World Bank’s Doing Business 2010 report ranks Argentina as 138th among 183 countries in terms of ease of doing business. In Argentina, it takes 2.8 years to close a business, and the average recovery rate of invested capital stands at 29.8 percent. These challenges need to be addressed.

The book devotes considerable attention to the Nestor Kirchner Administration’s [2003–2007] destructive and ultimately regressive energy policies. Here, he is right on target. Lavagna criticizes the government for its management of electricity energy price controls after the currency devaluation. The lack of new investment in the energy industry is blamed on the decision to impose a price freeze on public utilities at 2001 dollar equivalent levels, which implied at that time, a reduction of more than 60 percent in the real value of the price ceiling.

The large social inefficiencies caused by the energy pricing system represent another challenge. For example, the price of natural gas for industries—delivered via pipelines—continues to benefit from a massive subsidy, while the poor who use gas in canisters for cooking and heating receive no subsidy. The net result: the poor subsidize business and the rich.

La Argentina que merecemos does not leave the development discussion solely to economics. It also focuses on other social, political and economic concerns, such as addressing the cost and quality of education, boosting investment in science and technology, accelerating infrastructure investment, and improving health care.

Lavagna believes that the 2001 crisis was a wake-up call for the country. He writes that Argentina must now use the current positive environment to take a qualified step toward development. But it must do so in a way that finds alternatives to the usual patterns of economic development, which for the most part continue to be based on the concept of trickle-down economics with a “social component”—namely the redistribution of income via targeted social policies.

The former economy minister, though, does leave out one key factor: the link between foreign capital investment and economic growth. Unless this is addressed, Argentina will miss another development opportunity. Still, this book is a good read. It will help readers understand why Argentina’s ruling class, unlike Chile’s, seems to be stuck in a perennial search for a nonconventional developmental “golden goose” versus “tried and true” economic principles.

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