D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson came to Cuba hoping to learn from the education system in an impoverished nation that claims 100 percent literacy and graduation rates. But when they visited a school on the outskirts of this city, they encountered something quite different from any D.C. public school.

More than 100 students, in neat white-and-yellow uniforms, lined the front stairs. Girls and boys launched into a 30-minute song-and-dance tribute to the life of Jesús Suárez Gayol, the revolutionary fighter and namesake of the school. They lined the hallways, clapped in rhythmic unison and took turns quoting Fidel Castro. And for a finale, ninth-grade students with such titles as “Leader of labor and responsibility” directed their peers to lock hands and sing “We Are the World.”

Returning to a state-owned tour bus, Henderson struggled for words. “That’s not the way we work,” she finally said.

Then she struck a diplomatic tone, calling the visit a good reminder that schools need to teach “the whole child” by including music and that students can be given more responsibility and encouraged to take leadership roles.

Bowser (D) also remained on-message. She said the communist nation, where teachers earn the equivalent of about $25 a month, has shown that Cuba gets “more for its money” when it comes to education.

Students at the Solidarity with Panama school meet with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson in Havana. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Ahead of President Obama’s historic visit next month, the scene at the Havana high school displayed in technicolor the delicate line U.S. officials are walking — with blinders on, critics say — as they try to foster a relationship with a trading partner that would be like no other.

A glimpse of Cuba’s socialist curriculum reveals that generations of Cubans have been taught a worldview profoundly different from that of market economies. It also helps explain why efforts to open the island’s economy could remain frustratingly slow to Americans.

“You just get to a point in talking to them where there is ambiguity” about how to make a deal, said Dasarath Kiridena, president of a health-care technology company, who traveled with the delegation from the Washington region. “They have been taught this socialist education, and it’s going to take a while for that to evolve and for there to be a meeting of the minds.”

Bowser cast the trip as an exchange of best practices between capital cities. If all went well, she said, the relationship could someday give Washington-area businesses an advantage in Cuba.

But as she and Henderson spoke positively about their school visit, several members of the 42-person delegation buzzed with such words as “brainwashed” and “indoctrination.” Late into the night, under a rubber tree at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, many of the Washington-area visitors sat with rum and cigars in hand and debated the meaning of what they had seen at the school.

The discussion centered on whether highly structured education comes at the expense of independent thinking and whether a curriculum without access to many books or the Internet has benefited students or the government.

The United Nations has singled out Cuba as preeminent among developing Latin American nations for its near-universal literacy. Every child must attend school until ninth grade, when about half are directed to vocational schools and the others toward college, which is free for students with the best grades. After high school or college, there are government jobs waiting for everyone. Most residents in cities never make more than $40 a month — in rural areas, less than $20 — plus food rations and free health care. Every Cuban must complete three years of compulsory service to the government in their assigned jobs after their schooling; most keep those jobs for the rest of their lives.

Students at the Solidarity with Panama school for children with special needs in Havana. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Although the country’s education system has largely remained opaque to Americans, Cuban leaders tout it as one of their biggest exports. Countries throughout Central America and Africa visit yearly for government-run lessons on how to replicate the system.

Martin Carnoy, an education professor at Stanford University and author of “Cuba’s Academic Advantage,” said the Marxist-based system would not translate politically in the United States.

“Schools do not count on the parents to be responsible for their kids’ education. It is the state that is responsible,” Carnoy said. “. . . And it has a highly functioning bureaucracy to make sure kids learn what they are supposed to.”

In some schools, students with special needs are each assigned a personal teacher. Educators are trained to teach the same lessons every year to every student. School principals do not direct policy but maintain logs of personal information about all teachers and students, from where they live to whether a student’s parents are alcoholics, Carnoy said.

Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that although clear national goals are common among the world’s best-performing school systems, it’s hard to compare Cuba with other countries and harder still to know what D.C. officials could replicate because of Cuba’s “peculiar political and social system.”

Graciella Cruz-Taura, a Cuban-history scholar and sometime critic of the Cuban regime, said she was stunned by the D.C. mayor’s willingness to hold Cuban schools up as a model. “It’s a disservice to Americans,” she said. “I can certainly think of other education systems that are doing better in the free world.”

Bowser chose education as a theme for her trip and invited Henderson, a close friend, to come along.

Under Henderson, test scores and graduation rates in D.C. schools have improved. But citywide, 35 percent of students still fail to graduate, and the numbers are far worse among poor students of color.

Riding a tour bus back into the heart of Havana on Tuesday, Henderson was quiet until a reporter asked what lessons, if any, she had learned. “Clearly, there are signs of what a nationalized education system looks like,” she said with a chuckle. “What kids learn, when, where, how and ensuring uniformity — but that’s not how we work.”

Henderson said she appreciated the equal resources such a system can provide to students and the sense of belonging the students displayed.

“There’s a sense of pride and a sense of history that they clearly prioritize,” she said. “It is important to give people a sense of belonging and self-confidence, and I think that’s one of the things we’re missing in our education system.”

Neicy Perez, 27, the government-provided tour guide, had just finished her three years of government service as payback for a free graduate program in English at the University of Havana. She planned to remain a guide instead of working as a teacher — she could make more in tips from foreigners, she said. Experts said that trend has decimated the ranks of Cuba’s best teachers in recent years.

Perez never strayed off-message about the benefits of the country’s schools during her six hours of discussion while traveling with her American charges.

“You complete your study and then you are assigned to a job. But remember: It is not about the money,” she said. “It’s important to have a professional labor force in the country. Remember: You have to meet the government’s needs.”