The Road Ahead for Puerto Rico

Archived Information

The Road Ahead for Puerto Rico

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Puerto Rico Education Summit

October 17, 2011

Today, I've been fortunate to get an education in Puerto Rico's P-12 system. And from the frank discussions at the Summit, to the students and great teachers whom I talked with at the Ines Maria Mendoza Elementary School in Bayamon, one conclusion leaps out. Puerto Rico today is at an educational crossroads.

Puerto Rico, you can follow one of two paths. The first path is to cling to tradition, resist change, and stay in your comfort zone. You can support only incremental change to the status quo.

The second path is the path I believe that Puerto Rico needs to follow for the sake of its children, its educators, and the economy of the island.

It is the path of transformational change. It is the path of embracing innovation, academic rigor, accountability, and effective strategies for accelerating learning for all students.

Now, I would be the first to say that transformational change is the tougher path to follow. It takes you out of your comfort zone.

It forces tough-minded collaboration between union and management about turning around failing schools and honestly assessing teacher effectiveness and investing in meaningful teacher preparation and professional development.

And it would require Puerto Rico to invest in modernizing its schools, so students can develop 21st century skills.

Now, why do I say that Puerto Rico is at an educational crossroads? It is no secret to anyone here that Puerto Rico has struggled to implement reform. For years, its education system has been plagued by a revolving door of leaders and political patronage. This has been true for far too long—regardless of who has been in power. And this is unacceptable and must change. The Education Department must be depoliticized.

For years, Puerto Rico has lacked meaningful data on its schools. It was unable to hold schools accountable, or show compliance with federal laws that protect equal educational opportunity.

Far too often, the interests of adults have superseded the needs of Puerto Rico's children. Elections won't fix these problems. We—everyone in this room—must commit to action.

The good news, the encouraging news today is that important change is underway in Puerto Rico. In June, our Department was able to close out longstanding compliance agreements in Puerto Rico, which stretched back almost seven years.

The Governor has championed the elevation of education throughout the island. He has been a committed, hands-on leader—and he has strengthened PRDE's leadership.

The Governor is well aware of the urgency of reforming Puerto Rico's education system. The world has changed in fundamental ways. In a knowledge-based, global economy, education is the new game-changer that drives economic growth.

Today, Puerto Rico's young adults are competing for jobs not with the students down the street but with their peers from Punjab and Poland.

The Governor is right when he says that all of Puerto Rico's children need a world-class education that prepares them to succeed in the 21st century. They need education to become global citizens—not just in math, and reading, and writing. They need more proficiency in a second language and more mastery of technology.

So I am optimistic that Puerto Rico has sown the seeds for real change and improvement. But I know that the educational status quo has persisted in Puerto Rico for years for a host of reasons—and change won't come easily or overnight.

Education stirs strong passions. It's been my life's work. But the noise and protests against a summit that seeks to improve the education of Puerto Rico's children is telling—it betrays not just differences of opinion but a troubling lack of trust between the stakeholders.

That must change. As long as educators and school leaders stay stuck in those tired battles, dysfunction between adults will continue to hurt children. It's just like with a family—when parents fight, the children lose.

I have yet to find a teacher, parent, or school leader in Puerto Rico who believes the status quo here is working, or is good enough to stay put, just as it is. And I would challenge everyone to put aside ego and politics, and come to the table to figure out what's best for children. Any day where dysfunction between adults keeps children out of the classroom, when they could be learning, is a precious lost opportunity.

It's remarkable what labor and management can do when they put their talking points aside, get beyond their comfort zones, and engage in tough-minded collaboration to advance learning.

Earlier this year, we had our first-ever conference on Labor Management Collaboration. Leaders from 150 school districts—union leaders, school board presidents, and superintendents—all convened in Denver and pledged to do this important work. We did this in deliberate partnership, with Dennis Van Roekel and Randi Weingarten, the heads of the NEA and AFT.

Just to be clear, no one celebrates all union-management collaboration. I am not supportive of labor and management collaboration that props up a status quo that fails to serve the interests of children—or doesn't create the sense of urgency that education reform demands.

But the shared take-away message at the labor-management summit was that student success must first and foremost be the heart of the labor-management relationship.

Other labor and management goals are important, too. But they are all secondary to the goal of improving education and student learning.

I'm glad you got to hear today from Linda Lane, the Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, and Nina Esposito, the President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. They have a terrific story to tell about how leaders in Pittsburgh who were traditional opponents became allies and put kids first. I visited Pittsburgh recently and was inspired by what these two fantastic leaders are prepared to do together to improve children's lives.

In too many places, people are fighting all the wrong battles. The real battle is with social failure and poverty. The real battle is with unemployment. And the real battle is with adult lack of commitment to ensuring that all children have the chance to fulfill their true academic and social potential.

Puerto Rico absolutely needs the entire island to rally behind this effort to elevate education.

Parents, politicians, corporate executives, and community leaders all have a role, a right, and a moral obligation to promote the transformation of the island's education system.

Education is everyone's responsibility. No one gets a pass. So every voice must be heard, including those of students themselves.

The first overarching challenge to Puerto Rico's educational transformation is to put aside partisan purity and ideological devotion to build more collaborative partnerships.

A second, urgent challenge is build a system that, for the first time, actually takes account of the impact of teachers, principals, and schools on student learning, and honestly seeks to make far-ranging improvements in persistently low-performing schools.

Turning around chronically low-achieving schools is some of the most important, toughest, and controversial work in education today. Puerto Rico has a large number of persistently low-achieving schools—63. That is way too many. Those children, those families, those communities, have been underserved for far too long.

I'm encouraged that Puerto Rico was able to get an approved application for the $153 million federal grant to turnaround these schools. That is a lot of new money we want to invest—not to maintain the status quo, but to transform educational opportunity for the most disadvantaged students. But this will take not just hard work but political determination and increased capacity in the Puerto Rican department of education.

I recognize that some educators believe that factors outside the classroom—like poverty and family breakdown—negate the positive impact that teachers, principals, schools, and school districts have on students.

They say that if a child comes from a broken home, it is unfair to expect that student to compete with classmates from more supportive environments or to hold teachers, principals, schools, or districts accountable for the performance of low-income students.

I respect their opinion and appreciate their position.

Does poverty matter in the classroom? Of course it does. But teachers matter, too. I have seen the extraordinary impact of great educators and great schools on the lives of children.

And I know that poverty is not destiny. We have all seen lives change because of opportunity, support, and guidance from great teachers and mentors.

I see it everywhere I travel, including right here in Puerto Rico. More than 75 percent of the students at the Fidel Lopez Colon School are poor, but students at the school far out-perform students at schools with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The same is true at the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campus, where nearly 90 percent of the students are poor.

We see the same pattern of students and schools overcoming the odds in Mayor Santini's innovative School of San Juan and the School of Sports.

More than 70 percent of the students at the two new schools are from low-income families or public housing projects. But students at the School of San Juan's fully bilingual academic program are outpacing their peers.

As we heard earlier today, that school recently became the only school in Puerto Rico—and one of only 62 schools worldwide—to be selected for the Microsoft Innovative Schools Pathfinder Program.

At the School of Sports— a magnet school that combines a sport track curriculum with a rigorous academic curriculum—100 percent of the seniors in its first graduating classes are currently studying in colleges and universities in Puerto Rico and the U.S.

It's true that teachers should not be accountable for the skills of students when they walk in the door in September. But teachers should bear some responsibility for the progress that students make over the course of the school year.

By measuring student growth and gain, instead of proficiency, and by training our principals and evaluators to recognize these out-of-school factors and take them into account, we can have a richer, more meaningful, more supportive, and fairer system of accountability.

To turn around persistently low-achieving schools, we need that data to help identify great teachers and teacher leaders, and put them where they are needed most. Students at a persistently low-performing school only get one chance—one chance—at a world-class education.

All of this means Puerto Rico will have to get serious about measuring teacher and principal effectiveness, and student and school growth and gain.

Teachers and principals know this profession. They know what fair evaluation could look like. We all know that it shouldn't be based only on bubble tests.

We also all know that it should include multiple measures—like principal observation, peer review, parent and student feedback, student work, teacher attendance and other factors.

Let me be crystal clear.

Neither President Obama nor I believe test scores should be the sole component of evaluation. We always have and always will support multiple measures. But we must elevate the profession and strengthen the profession—and to do that, we can't just perpetuate the status quo.

Now, I know my message today has been a tough one. But I would add that Puerto Rico's educational challenges are not just of their own making. Frankly, Washington, DC has been a big part of the problem.

I am not going to kid you. When I was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, I did not welcome those phone calls from the nice man or woman in Washington, DC.

So, I've challenged our entire department to be more than just the compliance police. I want our department to be an engine of innovation instead.

Puerto Rico is one example where we are spending a lot of resources to help the local Department of Education We've worked closely with Puerto Rico, offering comprehensive technical assistance. It's our job to help you succeed.

Washington has also been part of the problem when it comes to continuing to enforce a broken No Child Left Behind law that unfairly labels schools as failing. We need a law that supports teachers, students, and parents at the local level, not one that is so punitive and prescriptive.

No Child Left Behind was loose on goals and tight on means. From a management standpoint, I think that is fundamentally backwards. We want to flip that around, to turn that on its head. We want to set a high bar for success, but give states and local stakeholders the freedom to get there.

We know that No Child Left Behind led to a dummying down of standards and a narrowing of the curriculum. States lowered the bar and then lied to parents. They told them that their kids were proficient, they told them that their children were college- and career-ready, when they were far from it. I can't tell you how angry that makes me.

We must do the opposite: Reward places that are raising standards and telling the truth to parents and students about student performance.

I've always said that the best ideas don't come from me or anyone else in Washington, DC. They come from great local principals and teachers, who are working at the ground level with students, parents, and communities.

I had hoped we could get Congress to come together in a bipartisan way to fix No Child Left Behind. But the truth is that we couldn't afford to wait any longer—and neither could America's children and educators.

That is why President Obama recently announced our Regulatory Flexibility Plan. States that are being honest with students and parents and setting true standards for college- and career-readiness will have a chance to get a waiver.

There's one other piece of good news coming out of Washington. President Obama's job bill includes two important education components that could be of enormous benefit to Puerto Rico.

The President's jobs bill would keep teachers in the classroom, instead of on unemployment lines. And it would put construction workers back to work modernizing and repairing public schools and community colleges. If we need to pass it in pieces, then let's get it done.

Under the American Jobs Act, Puerto Rico would receive $900 million that would put as many as 11,700 construction workers back on the job, modernizing public schools.

No one questions that Puerto Rico's schools are desperately in need of modernization and repair. The typical school in Puerto Rico has no auditorium or gymnasium. About 60 percent of the schools have slow Internet service or no broadband access.

Nearly 40 percent of secondary schools on the island have no access ramps for students with disabilities. And about one in five school suffers from health and safety issues, like pest infestation and water filtration problems.

Puerto Rico's children deserve better. They deserve world-class schools that prepare them with 21st century skills.

Children also deserve not to have scores of committed teachers laid off. Under the American Jobs Act, Puerto Rico would receive $363 million to prevent layoffs and support the hiring or re-hiring of as many 7,200 educators.

As we close this summit, I hope we remember that Puerto Rico is known as the "Shining Star of the Caribbean." On my previous trip here, I saw the beautiful beaches, tasted the food, and recognized the remarkable passion of the people here.

We need that star to shine even more brightly. And I think for everyone in this room that means ensuring every student on the island receives a world class public education. It means graduating from high school. It means some kind of higher education, whether it's college or vocational training.

And it means leaders in the education community putting aside their differences to work together to make sure that every student gets a great teacher and a great education.

Closing achievement gaps, by closing opportunity gaps, is the civil rights challenge of our generation. But real change takes time. It takes political will. And it will require every single one of you to have a laser-like focus on advancing student learning.

It requires taking the hard path toward transformational change, not the familiar, comfortable path.

I am optimistic, that with your commitment, with your collaboration, and your courage, Puerto Rico can be that shining star in Education.