Education in Puerto RicoPuerto Rico, officially referred to as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is an unincorporated territory of the United States of America, situated in the northeastern Caribbean Sea, just east of the Dominican Republic and west of both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. An archipelago, Puerto Rico includes the main island (known as Puerto Rico) and a number of smaller islands, the largest of which are Vieques, Culebra, and Mona. In terms of total geographic area, the main island of Puerto Rico is the largest island of the Lesser Antilles chain of islands and the smallest of the Greater Antilles. The territory ranks third in population among the latter group of four islands, which include Cuba, Hispaniola (home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Jamaica.
In 1917, the United States granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans, and in 1948 the U.S. granted Puerto Ricans the right to elect their own governor. It was at this time that Puerto Rico took control of the territory’s educational system, including its system of higher education.
In 1952, under request by the United States, a local territorial constitution was adopted and ratified by the electorate. Under the provisions of the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, Puerto Ricans are still subject to the jurisdiction of the United States Congress, and although the island continues to be a U.S. territory, most of the major institutions, including education and schools, are monitored and overseen by the Puerto Rican territorial government.
As a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico has flourished in a number of ways, and its economy and quality of living consistently outrank that of its other island neighbors. Much of this success can be attributed to the excellent system of higher education on the island—a system that is modeled closely after that of the United States, one of the world’s leaders in that particular category.
The Education System of Puerto Rico: Facts
Education in Puerto Rico is overseen and administered by the country’s Department of Education and the Puerto Rican Education Council. The Department of Education supervises all primary and secondary public education while the Council oversees all academic standards, and issues licenses to private educational institutions wishing to operate or establish themselves in Puerto Rico.
Schooling in Puerto Rico is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 17, which comprises the elementary, intermediate and high school grades. Children/students in Puerto Rico may attend either public or private schools. As of the close of 2013, there were 1,460 public schools and 764 private schools on the island, and over 50 institutions of higher education.
The overall literacy rate of the Puerto Rican population was 94.1% in 2002; when divided by gender, this is distributed as 93.9% for males and 94.4% for females. According to the 2010 Census, 60.0% of the population attained a high school degree or higher level of education, and 18.3% has a bachelor's degree or higher.
Both the public and private pre-higher education system remains closely modeled after that of the United States. The system of higher education also follows the American model, with undergraduate associate degrees offered after two years of study; and bachelor's degrees of various sorts, typically awarded upon a student's successful completion of four years of prescribed study. Graduate research degrees are also available in the country, including Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees, and (more rarely) the PhD or doctorate degree. The Doctorate in Education (D.Ed.) is also awarded by the appropriate university’s school of education. The professional post-graduate schools (law, medicine, etc.) have their own degrees comparable to the American J.D., M.D., and M.B.A.
Adult schools can also be found on the island. Programs at these institutions range from basic classes in reading, writing, and the English language to undergraduate and post-graduate university programs. More specialized private postsecondary schools, which vary in terms of quality, also exist in the country, offering education in a wide diversity of professional fields or trades, including secretarial, technology, television repair, tourism, and business.
Except for specialized classes in the English language, the language of instruction in all primary through secondary schools is Spanish; at the university level, both English and Spanish are used (depending on the subject matter and instructor). Public pre-university textbooks are in Spanish (except for English classes); at the university, they may be in either Spanish or English.
Access to information technology (IT) and other resources in Puerto Rico is fairly limited in most primary and secondary school districts. Technology is more widely available at the country’s higher education institutions. A substantial number of non-public educational facilities at the secondary and college-age level that specialize in practical IT training are located in the larger towns and cities; these are well-subscribed because they lead to positions in enterprises and the government that depend on computer literacy.
Given the highly centralized nature of public education at the pre-university level in Puerto Rico, curriculum development has traditionally taken place under the close supervision of the Commonwealth Department of Education (United States). The University of Puerto Rico's College of Education has also exercised much influence in this area. The longstanding Commonwealth political emphasis on economic planning has also played an important role in determining what subjects deserve increased funding, with technology and now globalization viewed as the key to progress.
Finally, public education has been undergoing a series of grave crises. From 1940 until 1968 Puerto Rico was a one party state led by a single all powerful leader. Such a political structure tends to render genuine debate quite difficult. Consequently, in the absence of effective open discussion on the goals of public education, the early Commonwealth failed to develop in the nation an underlying consensus concerning the purposes of mass public education. Consequently, when governing power changed hands from the P.P.D. to the New Progressive Party in 1968, the sort of long range planning possible within the one-party political context no longer was possible. The new party in power did what it could to undo what its defeated rivals had put in place.
The Education System of Puerto Rico: Structure
As mentioned briefly above, in Puerto Rico, education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 17, spanning the primary, lower secondary and upper secondary levels of educations. The education system as a whole essentially has six levels: nursery school or preschool (for children ages 3-5); kindergarten (for children 5 years of age)primary or elementary education (grades 1-6 for children between the ages of 6-12); lower secondary school, known in Puerto Rico as intermediate or junior high school (grades 7-9 for students ages 12-14); upper secondary or high school (grades 10-12 for students ages 15-17); and tertiary or higher education.
Below we will describe each of these levels of education in a bit more detail, including the typical curriculum associated with each.
Nursery School Education
Nursery school education in Puerto Rico, also known as preschool or Montessori education, generally serves children between the ages of three and five (often as young as two years of age). As in the United States, these programs are rarely offered publicly, but rather operated by private, for-profit institutions and non-profit organizations, including religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, the preferred faith for the majority of the population.
Young children in Puerto Rico are not required to attend preschool, and because of the costs associated with such programs only a small minority of children actually attends these programs on a regular basis. Most of the parents that do take advantage of nursery or preschool educational programs fall into the category of middle-class or wealthy (by Puerto Rico standards)—people who enroll their children as a way to give them a head start on their required or compulsory education.
Nursery school programs can be very beneficial and enjoyable for small children, as the curriculum is much more socially-based than it is academic. The main goal of these institutions is to help prepare students for kindergarten and later primary school, teaching them how to behave in a classroom setting and how to interact with their peers. Basic counting skills, pre-reading and writing exercises, art, music and playtime make up the curriculum of Puerto Rico’s preschool education programs—programs that are generally held 3-5 days a week for a total of 3-4 hours of day.
Kindergarten is a year-long level of education that serves as a bridge between toddlerhood and primary school, providing educational services for children who are, for the most part, 5 years of age. Although not a compulsory level of education, most Puerto Rican children do attend kindergarten, which is offered free of cost at Puerto Rico’s elementary or primary schools. Much like preschool or nursery school education, kindergarten is a level of education that helps prepare students for their first year of primary school. Classes are typically held 5 days a week for four hours a day. To accommodate the large volume of children attending kindergarten, the program is typically offered twice per day at the nation’s primary school campuses, with children attending either the 8:00AM to 12: OOPM session, or the 1:00PM to 5:00PM session.
Much like preschool, the curriculum in kindergarten is much more socially-based than it is academic; however, children are introduced to a number of basic concepts across a wide range of subject areas. In addition to group play, art and music activities, kindergarten children are typically taught all of the following subjects and concepts:
- The meanings of holidays, traditions and customs
- Understanding and appreciating other cultures
- Relationship of the individual to the group
- Work and jobs
- Safety rules and symbols
- Awareness of others and the importance of sharing
- Listening to literature, music, poetry
- Nursery rhymes, fairy tales and fables
- Oral communication skills
- Following and giving directions
- Organizing ideas
- Pre-writing skills
- The alphabet
- Observation of everyday, familiar things
- Common animals and plants
- Classification of living things
- Farm animals and care of pets
- The sun: our principal source of energy
- Weather, seasons and temperature
- Light, colors, and senses
- Earth, moon, stars, and planets
- Simple measurements
- Beginning experimentation
- Simple counting to 20
- Concepts of more, less than, same
- Number-numeral relationship
- Meaning of addition and subtraction
- Introduction to number line
- Calendar and clock
- Denominations of money
- Basic problem-solving strategies
- Personal hygiene
- Good eating habits
- Good grooming
- Care of teeth
- Major body parts
- Physical fitness
- Safety to and from school
Compulsory Schooling: Primary, Intermediate and High SchoolPrimary School
The primary school level in Puerto Rico, also known as elementary school, represents the first year of a student’s compulsory education. Children typically begin their primary education at or around age 6. In total, the primary level of education spans six years, from Grade 1 to Grade 6. At the conclusion of grade 6—usually at age 12—students are promoted to intermediate school to begin the first half of their secondary education. Primary school is offered by both public and private institutions, with the large majority of children attending public schools, where education is offered at no cost to the parents.
The curriculum at the onset of primary school seeks to build upon what children have learned in kindergarten. As students progress through each grade level, the curriculum becomes more and more advanced, although the general subjects remain the same. Below are the subjects in which students receive education:
- Language arts (usually Spanish, except for private schools that cater to English-speaking students).
- Mathematics (concepts which get progressively more advanced with each grade level).
- Science (life science and earth science)
- Social Studies (history, geography, government, etc.)
- Physical Education
Intermediate school in Puerto Rico, also known as lower secondary school or junior high school, spans three years in duration (grades 7-9), for students ages 12-15. Once students successfully complete grade 9, they are once again promoted, this time to begin the second half of their secondary education, known in Puerto Rico as “high school.” Like primary schooling, intermediate education is offered by both public and private institutions, with the large majority of children attending public schools, where there is no cost to the students’ parents.
The curriculum in intermediate school seeks to build upon what children have learned in primary school, with concepts becoming more advanced and instruction more specialized. As students progress through each of the three grade levels, the subject matter becomes more and more difficult. The main purpose of this level of education is to prepare students for high school, the conclusion of which will earn them their diploma. The subjects offered in intermediate school include:
- Language Arts. Spanish language arts instruction, at the intermediate level, involves much more writing and introduces students to different styles of literature.
- Foreign Language (English). Although some foreign language instruction is offered at the elementary school level, intermediate school typically marks the beginning of a student’s in-depth study of the English language and English language acquisition.
- Mathematics. Pre-algebra courses typically dominate in intermediate school, although older and more advanced students can take courses in algebra and even geometry at this level.
- History (World History and Puerto Rican History). Social studies coursework becomes much more specialized during the intermediate years of education, with courses in history, geography, government and even the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology.
- Sciences. Courses in the sciences during intermediate school may include health science, life science, earth science and biology.
- Art. Arts courses range from painting and drawing to drama and other performing arts, such as band.
- Physical Education and Health.
During intermediate school, students have their first experience in changing classrooms at the end of each period, as each subject is taught by a different instructor with advanced knowledge in their particular field of study. The typical school day during junior high school begins at roughly 7:30AM and concludes somewhere between 1:30PM and 2:30PM. As with elementary school, the typical school year for intermediate students in Puerto Rico runs from early September to early June, with 1-2 week breaks provided during the winter and the spring months.
High school in Puerto Rico, also known as Upper Secondary School, spans an additional three years (grades 10-12), serving students between the ages of 15 and 18. Although students in Puerto Rico are only required to remain in school until their 17 birthday, most students, particularly those in the country’s urban regions, elect to remain in school until the conclusion of 12 grade, of which successful completion will earn them their high school diploma and a better chance of landing a career. A high school diploma is also required for any student who wishes to pursue further education at one of Puerto Rico’s colleges or universities.
The curriculum in Puerto Rico’s high schools again school seeks to build upon what children have learned in previous levels, with concepts and terminology becoming increasingly advanced and instruction even more specialized. As students progress through 10, 11 and 12 grade, the subject matter becomes more and more difficult, as the primary purpose of this level of education is to prepare them for higher education and/or a career in one of the country’s many industries. Some of the subjects offered in high school include:
- World Literature
- American Literature
- Puerto Rican Literature
- Writer’s Workshop
- Foreign Languages—mostly English, although other languages may be offered as well.
- Algebra I and II
- World History
- Puerto Rican History
- Behavioral Sciences—Psychology, Sociology
- Physical Education and Sport
High school students in Puerto Rico can also take advantage of a wide range of extra-curricular activities, such as team sports, band, student government and/or one of many different activity clubs. Participation in such activities, coupled with a decent to superior grade point average, can lead to university scholarships and/or a better chance of being accepted at one of the island’s colleges and universities.
As they do in intermediate school, high school students change classrooms at the conclusion of each period, with each subject being taught by an instructor with advanced knowledge in their particular field of study. The typical school day during high school begins at roughly 7AM and concludes somewhere between 1:30PM and 2:00PM. The school year runs from early September to early June, with a 2-week break provided around the Christmas holidays and another 1-week break sometime during April.
Higher Education in Puerto RicoHigher or tertiary education in Puerto Rico is provided by colleges and universities, both public and private. All students who possess, at minimum, a high school diploma are free to apply to the college or university of their choice. Some institutions may require students to pass an entrance examination prior to admittance, while others may require a passing score on an examination for certain subject areas.
There are essentially four degree levels in Puerto Rico, although not every institution offers all of them. They are:
- Associate’s Degree. Associate’s Degrees in Puerto Rico, which are offered at the island’s community colleges, typically involve two years of study. There are two types of Associate degrees: those offered in general education; and those geared towards a certain trade or profession. Students pursuing a general education associate’s degree can transfer most of the credits they earn—usually 120 credits or more—to a university of their choosing, thus entering the latter institution as a junior or upper classman. Students can also pursue associate degrees in a certain trade or professional program. Some examples of these programs include: automotive mechanics, travel and tourism, secretarial studies, medical assisting and paralegal studies.
- Bachelor Degree. The bachelor’s degree is offered as a four to five year program at almost all of Puerto Rico’s colleges and universities, excepting the community colleges. Students can pursue a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science Degree in a wide range of academic and professional fields, ranging from Fine Arts to Engineering to World Religions.
- Master’s Degree. Master’s Degrees in Puerto Rico are offered at a select number of institutions. These programs typically span an additional two to three years following the bachelor or undergraduate degree. Students can pursue either a Master’s of Science or Master’s of Art degree in a wide range of fields, one of the more popular being the Master’s of Business Administration (MBA).
- Doctorate. The Doctorate or PhD is not widely available in Puerto Rico, but a few of the institutions do offer this lofty degree to the country’s most exceptional students. Doctoral programs can span anywhere from three to five years depending on the student, institution and the program of study. Among the many doctoral degrees offered, the Doctor of Education is the most popular.
Some of the larger universities also offer specialized education and training to students pursuing an advanced degree in fields such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy and the law.
A relatively large percentage of high school graduates in Puerto Rico seek some type of higher education. However, according to statistics over half of the students entering college level institutions in Puerto Rico fail to graduate: based on the numbers from 2013, only 41% of 4-year students in public universities and 33% in private institutions actually receive a diploma.
The largest public university in Puerto Rico is the multi-campus University of Puerto Rico. The largest private university system on the island is the Sistema Universitario Ana G. Mendez, which operates the Universidad del Turabo, Metropolitan University and Universidad del Este. Other institutions include the multi-campus Interamerican University and the Pontificial Catholic University.