Education can be defined as a process of cultural transmission in which knowledge is passed on from one generation to another. In primitive societies, this transmission is achieved through daily social interaction, rather than in a formal academic setting. As societies become increasingly complex, so does the informal educational process, and eventually the institutions we now know as schools and universities were systematically created. Although Puerto Rico began to exercise autonomous control over its formal education system in 1948, the development of this system has always been burdened with the effects of four centuries of colonialism; first under Spain, and, since 1898, under the United States. Today, alternative educational methods are under discussion, and schools, universities, seminaries, colleges, technical institutes, methods, and spaces that are all geared toward alternative approaches to education are emerging.

First Steps Under Spanish Rule

Under the Spanish regime, education was largely dependent on the auspices of the Catholic Church. Thus, in 1512 Archbishop Alonso Manso, founded one of the first schools. The second school was founded by Brother Antón de Montesino at the Convent of the Dominican friars in 1529, and later at the Convent of Saint Francis in 1642. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, several schools were established in various places around Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, the scholarship, meaning the level of studies completed by the general population, was very low. Marshal Alejandro O’Reilly, an official of the Spanish government, upon leaving the Island in 1765, reported: “There are no more than two children’s schools; outside of the town of Puerto Rico (referring to the peninsula now known as Old San Juan) and the town of San Germán, very few people can read.” Though the veracity of this statement has been questioned in subsequent centuries, it is nonetheless a reflection of the state of low scholarship on the island at that time.

In 1770, under the administration of Miguel de Muesas, efforts were made to establish the first free public primary school, but this was not the general rule and the population that attended school at that time was very limited. There were also individual efforts, such as those spearheaded by schoolteacher Rafael Cordero and his sister Celestina, to create private schools for low-income girls and boys.

Until the end of the 18th century, the curriculum and the teaching styles in Puerto Rico were similar to those that prevailed in Spain and in the rest of Latin America in which religious education consumed a large portion of the classes. The rest of the class time was devoted to lessons on reading, writing, and some notions of mathematics; humanities were treated superficially, and science courses were practically non-existent. Lessons were based on rote memory, and critical thinking was not encouraged. The educational revolution, the development of public schools, and the growing liberal tendencies that arose in the Western world during the Enlightenment, as well as the development of nation-states in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were late to reach Puerto Rico.

In 1832 the Conciliar Seminary opened in San Juan, offering for the first time science courses alongside the traditional subjects of Latin grammar, theology, moral philosophy, and civil and canonical law. The students of the seminary could continue their higher-level studies either in Spain or in Latin America. In 1873, during the brief first Spanish republic, the Instituto Civil de Segunda Enseñanza (Civil Institute for Secondary Instruction) was founded in San Juan, under the direction of José Julián Acosta. When the Republic fell in 1874, the institute was closed, as it was considered too liberal, although it reopened in 1882. From 1890 on the institute received public funding. In 1880 the Mothers of the Sacred Heart opened a school that provided primary and secondary education to the daughters of the affluent families on the Island.

In the 19th century, Puerto Ricans developed a strong interest in education, and they began to petition that a university be founded, as shown in the Instrucciones of Ramón Power, the first Puerto Rican representative in the Spanish Cortes, in 1810. By the second half of the 19th century, the need to establish a university level institution intensified, but all efforts made in that direction were unsuccessful. Despite the availability of financial support, the Spanish government denied the petitions for political reasons, to keep Spain from losing the island as had happened as a consequence of the liberation of the rest of the Americas. In 1887, a compromise was reached: Puerto Rican students could enroll at the University of Havana, Cuba, but take classes in San Juan (at the Puerto Rican Athenaeum) with teachers from Cuba. Then the students would travel to Cuba to take their examinations. But the cost of bringing the professors to San Juan was higher than the resources that were available, and at the end of two years this arrangement was terminated. The 19th century ended with the dream of a university still unfulfilled.

Concern about education also existed among the colonial authorities. This eventually led to various enabling decrees. The decree of 1880, which was enforced until the end of Spanish reign, organized the primary education system—public and private—under the governor’s supervision. Compulsory attendance was decreed for children between the ages of six and nine. Nevertheless, these regulations were a matter more of appearances than reality, as the scarcity of schools, especially in the rural areas, made it almost impossible for children to attend classes. Later, in 1891, two colleges for training primary school teachers were established in San Juan; one for men and one for women.

The situation of the school system in 1898 was summarized in a study conducted by the Council on Higher Education in 1958: “At the end of Spanish rule, there were 380 elementary schools for boys in Puerto Rico, 138 for girls, 26 high schools, and one school for adults. There were a total of 545 schools, with a total school population of 44,861. Between 79 percent and 85percent of the Island’s total population was illiterate.” At that time there were 810,394 inhabitants, 268,639 of whom were children, but only 16.7 percent of the latter were in school.

In 1898, Puerto Rico was transferred from Spanish to American hands. In 1899, the military government closed down the teacher training schools and the Civil Institute for Secondary Instruction. A series of decrees made by the military government attempted to organize public education in Puerto Rico following the style of the public education system in the United States.

The first enabling act under the new regime, the Foraker Act of 1900, created the Department of Public Education and the position ofCommissioner of Education. The new regime used public education to implement a program of Americanization.

In 1901, with the appointment of Dr. Martin Brumbaugh as Commissioner of Education, the foundations of the educational system we have today were laid. The organization of this system, as well as the curriculum, objectives, and resources, have undergone several modifications, but many fundamental aspects of the system Brumbaugh and his successors set in motion have remained firmly in place until the present.

The Puerto Rican educational system was designed under the following principles:
1. Public schools became completely independent from ecclesiastical tutelage, following the principles set forth in the United States Constitution requiring the separation of church and state.
2. Both primary and secondary schools opened their doors to all socioeconomic classes and eliminated gender-based discrimination.
3. The educational system was organized following the guidelines used in the United States.
4. The administrative system was designed with almost absolute centralization. During the first years under US rule, the Commissioner of Education not only headed the public schools, but he also presided the University of Puerto Rico and the Board of Trustees.
5. Schools were seen as instruments that could be used to create a sense of cultural identity within the Puerto Rican population, emphasizing ties with the American nation. The teaching of the English not only acquired a certain importance within the curriculum; the goal was to make this language the vehicle for all instruction.

This last decision triggered a huge polemic in Puerto Rico. In 1912, the Puerto Rico Teachers Association pronounced its support for teaching all subjects in Spanish. The polemic continued until 1939, when under the incumbency of Mariano Villaronga (1946-1947 and 1949-1957), Spanish was adopted as the official language of instruction.

The first commissioners appointed by the President of the United States were Americans. Beginning in 1921, Puerto Rican commissioners were appointed, including Juan B. Huyke (1921-1929); José Padín (1930-1936); and José M. Gallardo (1937-1945).

In the initial stages, the main objective of the system was to make education accessible to the majority of the population. This effort was limited by the meager economic resources allocated for education. Thus, even as the percentage of student enrollment increased, the number of lower income children who could attend school continued to be very restricted.

Table 1: Total Enrollment Statistics under American System
(Source: Osuna, 1949)

CommissionerSchool YearSchool Age 
Documented School Attendance% AttendingSchool

The University of Puerto Rico was founded in 1903, when the teachers college that had been founded in 1900 in the town of Fajardo was relocated in Río Piedras. In 1903, legislation was enacted to convert the school into a university.

Shortly thereafter, other colleges were created, such as the College of Agriculture, which was founded in 1905 and moved to Mayagüez in 1911, an institution that was to become the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Five more decades were to elapse before the regional colleges and the School of Medicine were created, under a public law enacted in 1966.

The first private institution to offer post-secondary education during this period was founded in 1912. The Arts and Crafts School, which had been founded in Lajas six years earlier, was moved to San Germán and became the Polytechnic Institute of Puerto Rico. In 1921, this institute began to offer college-level courses and today it is known as Inter American University. The development of private universities came about much later, after World War II.

Dr. Angel Quintero Alfaro in his role as teacher

Dr. Angel Quintero Alfaro in his role as teacher

When Puerto Rico’s first native- born elected governor, Luis Muñoz-Marín, was elected in 1948, the island gained greater control over the development of the public school system and college education. In the 1950s, the Department of Public Education, under the direction of Mariano Villaronga, focused its efforts primarily on enabling all elementary school-aged children to attend school. In this decade a plan for expanding school facilities was implemented, and 54 percent of the school-aged population was enrolled in school (93 percent were children between the ages of 6 and 12; 85 percent between the ages of 13 and 15; and 50 percent between the ages of 16 and 18). In 1954, all six-year-old children were enrolled in the first grade. This rapid increase of students, without a corresponding increase of teachers, led to the need to focus on the quality of education in light of the transformations taking place in the country. Thus, the 1960s was declared The Decade of Education.

During this ten-year period, under the leadership of Dr. Angel G. Quintero-Alfaro, undersecretary of the Department of Education from 1961 to 1964 and secretary from 1965 to 1968, an innovative program of model schools was developed. The objective was to create model schools that could offer a higher quality education to a large population. In 1968, due to a change of administration, the process of innovation and experimentation was halted, and the strategy shifted back to the consolidation of the traditional model of instruction.

In the 1970s and 1980s, reforms were primarily focused on the administrative structure and the decision-making processes. As a two-party system was consolidated in the political sphere, the department’s administrative payroll increased, hindering efforts to improve the public school system. Decisions on these matters have traditionally been the sole responsibility of the secretary, who generally is accountable to the party currently in power.

In the seventies and the latter half of the eighties there were some efforts to carry out a total revision of the curriculum in spite of the tendency to prioritize the administrative structure. Once again, the succession of secretaries resulted in changes in educational policy.

In 1990, Public Law 68, the Educational Reform Act, was passed, with a view to implementing the educational philosophy and recommendations to the effect that decisions that had previously been made at the central level of the system would subsequently be made at the school level. With this new law, the name in Spanish of the Department was changed from “Departamento de Instrucción” to “Departamento de Educación.” In addition, the General Council of Education was constituted for the purpose of evaluating, licensing, and accrediting public and private schools.

In 1993, and again in 1999, Law 68 was amended in order to establish community schools as a strategy for decentralizing the system. Nevertheless, today the system continues to be highly centralized and riddled with serious problems of efficiency and equality.

Present Day Challenges at the Pre-College Level 

In the 2003-2004 school year in Puerto Rico, there were 1,521 licensed public schools and 562 licensed private schools, which were attended by approximately 650,326 and 145,114 students, respectively. Within the public system, there were 272,719 students at the elementary level; 137,773 at the middle school level; and 114,598 at the high school level. Table 2 shows more details about the students in the various levels of the public system. (To update this information, please consult the Department of Education webpage, at, and the General Council of Education webpage, at www.cge.gobierno/sobre.htm).

Table 2: Enrollment in Public Education System by Grade Level

LevelNumber of StudentsPercent of Total
Elementary (grades 1 to 6)272,71941.94%
Intermediate (grades 7 to 9)137,77321.19%
Secondary (grades 10 to l2)114,59817.62%
Post-Secondary Technical4,1290.63%
Special Education (outside regular program)*15,1302.33%

* A total of 77,995 students (ages 3 to 22) attend the Special Education program, but the majority of them participate in the regular program. Only 15.13 percent are separated from the other students.

During the same academic year, the breakdown of students in the various levels of the private school system was 80,514 at the elementary school level; 29,096 at the middle school level; and 22,809 at the high school level. Table 3 in shows information in greater detail about the students in the different levels for the private school system.

Table 3: Enrollment in Private Education by Grade Levels

LevelNumber of StudentsPercent of Total
Elementary (grades 1 to6)80,51455.5%
Intermediate (grades 7 to 9)29,09620%
Secondary (grades 10 to l2)22,80916%

Current Focus

The current administration of the Department of Education outlines the following five strategic goals in its 2005-2008 Strategic Plan:
• Enhance the quality of the academic, personal, and social dimensions for students
• Develop highly qualified human resources
• Create optimal learning conditions
• Strengthen the administrative and fiscal procedures
• Foster the effective participation of parents, the entire community, and the private business sector in education.

Despite efforts to improve the levels of academic achievement and the quality of teaching, some of the problems the educational system has grappled with for decades still constitute serious issues today:
• The lack of relevance of the curriculum
• High attrition rates
• Vocational education that has lagged behind and is out of touch with current reality
• The lack of administrative competence, which adversely affects school operations

Normal School, first campus of the University of Puerto Rico (Fajardo)

Normal School, first campus of the University of Puerto Rico (Fajardo)

In 1942, a new University Act was passed, granting more autonomy to the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), restructuring it, and creating new departments on the Rio Piedras campus. Furthermore, new programs that focused on serving the public sector were created, such as the social work and public administration programs, and a Center for Social Research was built, all of which followed the development policy guided by the government of the recently elected Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party). In the sixties, the system began to expand, in both the public and private sectors. With the passing of the University of Puerto Rico Act of 1966, the Medical Sciences College was created within the UPR. This campus housed the schools of medicine, dentistry, pharmacology, and other departments related to education and careers in the health field. The law recognized the colleges of Cayey and Humacao as autonomous colleges. It also created the Administration of Regional Colleges, represented by colleges in six different towns: Aguadilla, Arecibo, Bayamón, Carolina, Ponce, and Utuado. The colleges were created with the goal of offering short degrees to provide training for technicians and professionals needed in modern industrial society. Over time, however, the majority of these colleges have been transformed into colleges offering four-year degrees, similar to those offered at Mayagüez and Río Piedras. Currently, all of these individual units have been designated as campuses, with equal participation in the system’s decision-making process.

This transformation has sparked a prolonged controversy, which is on-going, between those in favor of maintaining the regional colleges as different alternatives focused on relatively short technical degrees, and those who perceive these colleges as institutions that are similar to traditional college-level institutions. This polemic is a reflection of the debate on the fundamental question of the objectives and goals of the University of Puerto Rico.

Organization and Administration of the UPR

The law that governs the University of Puerto Rico was passed in January of 1966 and amended in 1993. The law established that the University of Puerto Rico would consist of a complex of entities (autonomous campuses and colleges) under the direction of a chancellor or a director, respectively. The highest authority is exercised by the president, who is responsible for the coordination of the general direction of the university. The president shares these tasks with the university board, a deliberative organism in which delegates from the various units participate, including teachers, students, along with chancellors and representatives of the president. The various departments have analogous organisms, administrative boards, and academic senates. Their functions are similar to those of the university board, and they aim to enable all members of the university community to participate in institutional governance.

In 1993, with the amendment of the 1966 Law, the Board of Trustees was created as the highest authority for the University of Puerto Rico as a whole. The Council of Higher Education was charged with the tasks of licensing and accrediting both public and private colleges and universities. The amendments also eliminated the Administration of Regional Colleges and provided autonomy for the various colleges. Thus, the University of Puerto Rico is currently composed of the following Campuses: Río Piedras, Mayagüez, Medical Sciences, Cayey, Humacao, Aguadilla, Arecibo, Bayamón, Carolina, Ponce, and Utuado.

From 2000 to 2005, the University of Puerto Rico did not make any significant changes in terms of academic offerings. However, there has been a noticeable relative reduction in the associate degree programs. Since 2002, no new associate degree programs have been approved at the UPR. At the undergraduate level there have been continuous developments in the academic professional fields of greatest demand, which according to the projections for 2010 will be occupations such as business administration, biology, and other basic sciences related to health, education, engineering, and psychology.

During the past ten years at the UPR, the greatest number of new programs approved was at the graduate level (53.3 percent). An increasing focus on research, particularly on the three main campuses, reflects movement toward involvement in the development of the new knowledge-based economy, in which research and development play vital roles. The current efforts to lay foundations for the development of an economy based on knowledge and innovation presents critical challenges for higher education, particularly at the UPR, the state university.

College of the Sacred Heart, Las Madres del Sagrado Corazón

College of the Sacred Heart, Las Madres del Sagrado Corazón

In the mid-sixties, subsidies for tuition costs and Pell Grant stipends enabled private universities to expand and surpass the University of Puerto Rico in student enrollment. In 2004, enrollment in the private institutions was close to two thirds of the total university enrollment. In the 2003-2004 academic year in Puerto Rico, there were 206,791 students enrolled in higher education institutions: 74,056 in the public sector and 132,735 in the private sector.

The number of private colleges and universities has remained almost the same over the last five years, but they have extended to other geographic areas, with the establishment of branch campuses of the principal institutions. The institutional platform has grown beyond the metropolitan area and medium-sized cities, towards towns in the interior of the island. With this geographical expansion, the number of programs has increased, the majority of which replicate courses offered at the main institutions.

A new method for the creation of institutional platforms is based on collaboration of private colleges and universities to offer joint programs in which each institution offers one component of the program; for example, one institution would offer the general education courses, while the collaborating institution would offer the more specialized or technical courses. Another approach that is gaining momentum is the development of face-to-face programs by private universities in the United States in collaboration with private institutions in Puerto Rico. These programs are offered at the professional post-graduate level in such fields as pharmacology and business administration. Currently there are three U.S. institutions with extension programs in Puerto Rico.

Challenges for Post-Secondary Education 

Puerto Rico ranks among the highest in the world in terms of the levels of schooling of the population, yet it has one of the highest unemployment rates. This would indicate that there is a need to reflect on the changes that must be made in the higher education system in order to foster the creation of jobs. The need for such change in the higher education institutions in Puerto Rico is neither new nor unique. Studies conducted by the American Council on Education and UNESCO, as well as Spain’s 2000 University Report, all mention the need for college-level institutions to refocus significant portions of their efforts to addressing the new realities of today’s world. Despite certain differences, there are situations and issues faced by most colleges and universities:

• An increased number of students and teachers, while simultaneously there is a decrease in public funds in real terms for higher education
• The rigidity of academic structures and fields
• The need for procedures for institutional evaluation
• The difficult relationships with the world of production and societal demands

One of the strategies for dealing with these challenges is to foster collaboration among the institutions, the government, and private businesses. The present system faces challenges of excessive fragmentation, dispersion of resources, and ineffective competition. “The (governments) role in promoting joint or concerted initiatives is the most appropriate manner for coordinating the various higher education institutions, and for achieving the complementarity of their respective resources” (Irizarry, 2002). Many of the areas that present alternatives for future economic development require an interdisciplinary focus.

Usually each institution has different strengths, thus the collaboration of all is necessary for the development of interdisciplinary areas with the highest potential. Universities must also collaborate with the government in research projects and in finding alternative solutions for the island’s problems, as well as with private enterprise in the development of competitive production processes and resources.

Other Educational Scenarios

Education is usually associated with schools and universities. However, there are numerous institutions that can be significant educational resources, such as museums, libraries, and the media. Many of these institutions have developed very interesting educational programs. One of the challenges for Puerto Rican universities and schools is how to strengthen alliances with such institutions.

University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, College of Education

University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, College of Education

This historic overwiew reflects the ways in which Puerto Rico’s educational system, at the pre-college and college levels, has evolved over the years, changing emphases because of internal forces such as changes in educational philosophy, and external forces such as the changing social, financial, and cultural needs of the island. For example, in 1770, faced with the low level of schooling within the general population, efforts were initiated to establish the first free public primary school. From then on, the emphasis of the public system was to make education accessible to the population at large.

It was not until 1954 that the goal of achieving universal first grade enrollment was reached. In the 1960s, having achieved the goal of making school accessible for every school-aged child, the efforts of the educational system were focused on improving the quality of education. Given the constant changes in the island’s socio-economic and cultural circumstances, this goal still has not lost its relevance. If Puerto Rico is to embrace the new knowledge-based economy, it is imperative that curricula and teaching methods be revised to provide students with opportunities to learn in a meaningful way, through a process of continuous learning, and to become proficient in information technology.

In the process of meaningful learning and developing critical thinking, it is inevitable that questions, concerns, and interests will surface that extend beyond the boundaries of the traditional disciplines. In fact, most concerns and interests of students encompass several disciplines, which means that it will be necessary to revise the categories that comprise our curricula, as well as the way these curricula are presented. For example, traditional disciplines should be part of the academic curriculum, but they should not be the students’ first encounter with knowledge. Recognizing this, the state of Maine reorganized its curricular framework in 1990; instead of organizing the elementary school curriculum into the traditional disciplines of language arts, mathematics, social studies, and so forth, the state created the following categories:

• Promotion of the healthy development of society, the environment, and the relationships between societies
• Communication
• Reasoning and problem solving
• The history of humanity and its creations

We must rethink the categories into which our curricula are organized, so that meaningful learning is fostered. It is also imperative that we revise our teaching strategies, recognizing the diversity of students, in order to invent different approaches that fit each student’s capabilities and talents, with the goal of empowering all students to acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to integrate effectively into society. This requires us to strengthen areas that are not currently receiving the attention they deserve, such as socio-emotional development.

At the university level, it is also necessary to update courses of study, their content and didactic focus, in alignment with the new economy and the current circumstances our society faces. This requires training for continuous learning so that students know how to acquire the skills necessary for occupational changes, which are becoming increasingly common in the workplace. Also important is to encourage innovation and collaborative work, and to increase familiarity with technological tools. The development of these capacities demands the creation of curricula that are flexible and diverse, with components of general education that are integrated with areas of specialization. This approach also requires addressing the needs of a student body that is increasingly more diverse. The low rates of undergraduate degree completion raise important questions regarding the ability of college-level institutions to meet students’ needs.

All aspects of educational institutions, at both the pre-college and college levels, need to be subjected to a process of continuous revision, in the light of changes in the social, economic, technological, and cultural circumstances of Puerto Rico and the world to achieve a better integration with our present reality.


Author: Dra. Ana Helvia Quintero 
Published: January 08, 2009.

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