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[Editorial] Education Reform for All … A Rising Tide Floats All Boats

By on February 27, 2018

Editor’s note: The following editorial was published in the Feb. 22-28 print edition of Caribbean Business.

Many things were left threadbare—exposed, really—when tens of thousands of our people were forced to outmigrate beyond Puerto Rico’s shores to regain some sense of normalcy in the times after Maria—the island’s education system was not the exception. Yes, so many of Puerto Rico’s uprooted students, who were forced to enter into English-immersion systems in the United States, pointed to English proficiency as a skill lacking in some of our youths—one less tool to thrive on the global stage.

As lawmakers get set to pass into law House Bill 1441, to transform Puerto Rico’s education system, they must steer free of petty infighting, distracting from the truly important tenets of education reform so crucial for Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic development. The arguments for boosting bilingual education alone are far too powerful.

Back in 2014, the catalyst for change could be seen on the horizon with the Puerto Rico Education Department’s bilingual program, which was to have taught children a variety of subjects in English at 32 schools across the island. The program was to have been a precursor to the comprehensive Bilingual Generation program, which set a 10-year goal to ensure every single one of Puerto Rico’s high-school graduates is perfectly bilingual. The program seemingly failed to gain traction. Why?

Even before it got started, the naysayers were out in full force citing reasons for which English cannot be taught in schools across the island. Retrograde insular thinking prevailed. Instead, the detractors should have focused on several ways to help make students fully bilingual. After all, there is a mountain of evidence pointing to the importance of being fluent in English and Spanish as a prerequisite to competing in the global economy.

To help set the record straight for a special report in 2014, CARIBBEAN BUSINESS went through hundreds of documents and interviewed more than one-dozen education experts and executive talent scouts. “In a nutshell, these are the facts: English is one of the official languages of 56 countries, 27 entities, the United Nations, European Union, many commonwealth countries, as well as world organizations. It is now the first global working language in the fields of communications, science, information technology, business, seafaring, aviation, entertainment, radio and diplomacy.”

Unfortunately, in Puerto Rico, 81 percent of the population ages 5 and older speaks English less than “very well,” according to recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The pressing need to implement bilingual education is currently hindered by a lack of proficiency by some of Puerto Rico’s teachers. Yes, there are challenges ahead.

At the time of that 2014 report, only 62 percent of Puerto Rico’s teachers felt they were fully qualified to teach subjects in English and 38 percent expressed a desire to become more proficient in English. To that end, there were 295 teachers enrolled in the English-instruction certification program, preparing for the expansion of the bilingual program in 2013. Sadly, it failed to take flight.

It will take fully bilingual teachers to turn out fully bilingual students.

Rather than looking at bilingualism and the learning of fluent English as an ideological swipe at our Hispanic heritage, we should all be looking at the most effective ways to help bring Puerto Rico’s youth into the 21st century.

There are plenty of examples of school districts the world over that effectively graduate fully bilingual students. In the U.S., grammar schools place high value on language-immersion programs that are helping children become fully bilingual. In Allentown, Pa., grade-school kids are immersed in Spanish-language programs. That is how you prepare future citizens to compete in the global economy.

Those language programs are the result of global thinking by people who realize it takes vision beyond insular frontiers to succeed in this world.

Fast forward to 2018—as legislation prepares to enable reform, one need only refer to data compiled by the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute, which indicate that as of July 2017, 54.9 percent of the people employed on the island have a university degree, while 5.2 percent completed post-secondary non-university studies, 29.6 percent have a high-school diploma, 1.5 percent have an intermediate-level education and 1.7 percent have a grade-school education.

As the debate rages over a charter school program that is the cornerstone of this latest attempt at reform, we should try to focus on the students as the ultimate end. The naysayers point to a system that favors the haves over the have-nots, saying the system would create two parallel systems—one for those ready to enter model schools that propel them to better institutions of higher learning and another system that would put the rest of the students in a ghetto of remedial learning. As Education Secretary Julia Keleher navigates the confluence of political crosscurrents inside Puerto Rico’s public education system, she would do well to remember that the rising tide should float all boats.

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