Secretary Duncan’s Straight Talk Is Music to Puerto Ricans’ Ears

Secretary Duncan speaks in Puerto Rico

Secretary Duncan speaks at the Puerto Rico Education Summit. (Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover)

On the island of Puerto Rico, home to the third-largest school district in the United States, Secretary Duncan on Monday brought a tough, but optimistic message to the “Investing in Our Future” Education Summit.

Puerto Rico, Duncan said to the more than 300 attendees, must choose “the path of embracing innovation, academic rigor, accountability, and effective strategies for accelerating learning for all students.”

In the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of Education to Puerto Rico in 18 years, Secretary Duncan delivered opening and closing remarks at the 7-hour summit.

Duncan’s message was summarized Tuesday in the front-page headline of Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, which read; “U.S. Education Secretary Sings the Truth.”

Convened at the recommendation of the President’s Task Force Report on Puerto Rico’s Status, the summit brought together local elected officials, teacher unions, nonprofits, Puerto Rico Department of Education stakeholders, mainland education experts, as well as the business community.

Participants in the summit included Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño; resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi; San Juan mayor Jorge Santini; Vadim Nikitine, founder of the Flamboyan Foundation, and Nelson Colon, President of the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico.

Summit panels included System Wide Education Reform; Labor Management Collaboration as Key to Student Success; Beating the Odds in Traditionally Failing Environments; and a Business and Philanthropy in Education roundtable.

Student achievement has floundered in Puerto Rico, and 63 schools have been identified as persistently low-achieving.

Duncan acknowledged the challenges, but pressed summit attendees to meet those challenges, including poverty, with a spirit of collaboration and optimism.

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

The summit’s panel on labor-management collaboration was the subject of particular attention, and Dr. Linda Lane, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, and Nina Esposito-Visgitis, President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, shared with the audience how they forged a strong working relationship.

“It all began when they asked me to participate in a teacher evaluation discussion, and I realized they were listening to me,” Vigisitis said.  “That really is where things began.”

The Department of Education, along with the Task Force, will continue to follow-up on the recommendations and lessons learned from the Summit.

During his visit, Secretary Duncan also conducted a town hall with parents and teachers at a school in Bayamon, as well as a small meeting with high school seniors at a school in San Juan.

Talking Educación with Puerto Rican Teachers

Official Department of Education Photo by Leslie Williams

The challenges and opportunities in education were the topics of conversation last Friday, when teacher leaders and administrators from Puerto Rico visited ED to discuss the teaching profession and to meet with ED officials. The educators are in Washington as part of the Pilar Barbosa Education Internship, a month-long program that brings Puerto Rican teachers and administrators to Washington for professional development, workshops and lectures.

Official Department of Education Photo by Leslie Williams

Last week’s stop at ED provided the educators a unique opportunity to engage in a series of conversations with department staff, including José Rico, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics and Eric Waldo, deputy chief of staff to Secretary Duncan.

The group went through several rounds of brainstorming sessions to explore and share concerns with Puerto Rico’s education system and to create efforts on what they can do back home with ED programs such as School Improvement Grants (SIG) – which help to turnaround low-performing schools and improve student outcomes. Puerto Rico is about to receive its first SIG funds.

Like many states, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is faced with a number of economic challenges, which have had significant impacts on education funding. The teachers discussed budget shortfalls as well as the need to fix No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Several of the teachers expressed concern that under NCLB, too many Puerto Rico schools are being labeled failures because of the steep requirements to make adequate yearly progress (AYP). Juan Valentin, an English facilitator explained how being labeled as a failing school under AYP makes the students and staff feel “dumb and stupid, because we can’t pass these tests.”

The teachers also described to ED officials some of the great things about Puerto Rico’s education system, including their hope for the future of Puerto Rico schools and their enthusiasm to be a part of that future. “I am very proud of Puerto Rican teachers,” said one educator. “I think, many times, we are the Superman that we are waiting for.”

Read about the administration’s plan to improve Latino educational development, and learn more about ED’s plan to fix NCLB as well as the President’s task force on Puerto Rico.

Sam Barnett is an intern in the office of Communications and Outreach at the Department of Education