Over the last three years, the education system in Puerto Rico has faced a series of disruptions, resulting in public school students missing over 160 school days on average between 2017 and 2020.
Studies have also shown significant learning loss due to the remote learning environment of the 2020-2021 school year, with students across the country performing between 5% and 10% lower on standardized tests in mathematics compared to previous years.
However, given that the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) reports that 52% of students were disengaged from February to May 2021, it is likely that the impact of distance learning on students on the Island could be much worse. In the face of these immense challenges, change must come from both the system and local levels. In addition to formal leaders, teachers and families should play an active role in shaping the future of education in Puerto Rico.
The Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, of which I have been a member since last year, is committed to working with PRDE to drive changes that address urgent student needs and promote a higher-quality, more equitable educational experience. This remit includes supporting PRDE in effectively managing its about $2 billion General Fund budget, as well as investing in high-impact, financially responsible initiatives outlined in the 2021 Certified Fiscal Plan for Puerto Rico. These initiatives are grounded in proven strategies for creating a better educational environment and closing the gaps created by years of disruption.
To best support PRDE and the future of its students, the Certified Fiscal Plan includes a commitment to supporting academic recovery efforts and local change. As such, the Oversight Board has provided $7 million to PRDE to launch a first-of-its-kind innovation competition for schools to develop their own ways to improve education on the Island and elevate strategies that work for their students.
The program launched in August 2021, receiving over 130 project proposals from schools across all seven regions. Seventy schools have been selected to implement their innovation projects – which range from robotics coding courses to business-skills development – with the goal of broadly communicating the lessons learned to expand successful initiatives. The image of students creating new projects, exploring new concepts, and working with peers to improve their academic trajectories is exciting. This grant raises the bar for academic excellence, allows teachers and students to redefine learning, and begins to change these schools’ learning culture.
The school innovation competition is just one example of how the Oversight Board is ensuring funds are invested in local change while reinforcing the importance of fiscal responsibility. This program is meant to empower schools as agents of change, and we hope these projects are just the beginning of local education communities advocating, designing, and implementing academic recovery efforts and embodying the change they want to see for their students. Parents, families, and communities should feel emboldened to share their diverse perspective on improvements to the education system and be active players in students’ development – not just when students are learning at home, but always.
The challenges ahead are daunting, but the students and families of Puerto Rico continue to demonstrate resilience. The Oversight Board is committed to supporting PRDE in engaging the community, empowering local leaders, and aligning financial resources to strategic priorities, so that the education system on the island can give the children of Puerto Rico the high-quality education and future opportunities that they deserve.
Dr. Betty Rosa is a member of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico. Dr. Rosa is the New York State Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York.