Approaches Toward Change: the Miami-Dade County Public Schools System

By @FrederickReese |
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    Miami-Dade is the second-largest minority-majority school district in the United States, with 65 percent of its student body being Latino and 25 percent being Black. (Photo/G.I. Carrillo)

    Miami-Dade is the second-largest minority-majority school district in the United States, with 65 percent of its student body being Latino and 25 percent being Black. (Photo/G.I. Carrillo)

    As part of an in-depth and ongoing investigation on the nature of poverty in the United States, Mint Press News has committed to not only profiling the existing problems facing the severely poor, but presenting possible solutions and revealing methodologies that have been successfully used to alleviate these social concerns. In this continuation of the series, a hard-line real-world solution toward reforming public schools is presented.

    (Mint Press) – The Miami-Dade County Public Schools District (MDCPS) is the fourth largest school district in the United States and the largest in the southeastern quadrant. With a population of 380,006 as of 2010 and with 23,566 teachers across 415 schools, the district is responsible for as many students as there are residents in general for cities such as Buffalo, N.Y., Minneapolis, Minn. or New Orleans, La.

    Miami-Dade is the second-largest minority-majority school district in the United States, with 65 percent of its student body being Latino and 25 percent being Black.

    Fifty-four percent spoke Spanish at home. Five percent spoke Haitian Creole. Forty-five percent were enrolled in bilingual Spanish programs and 23 percent were enrolled in bilingual programs in French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese and Creole.

    Miami is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Miami-Dade is the seventh largest county in the nation by population, with a 2010 population of 2,253,362. Almost fifty-one percent of the county’s population is foreign-born, with 57.3 percent of the population being ethnically Latino. From 2000 to 2010, the population has grown 10.8 percent. Most new Miamians come from Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

    About 18 percent of the population are below the poverty line. Among children under 18, the poverty level is 22.9 percent. In the eighties and nineties, the district received high acclaims for its handling of its increasing population and the diverse needs of its population, corruption and poor money management nearly tore the district apart. In 2001, deputy superintendent Henry Fraind retired under pressure and in embarrassment when it was learned that he allowed a group of long-term administrators and influential outsiders to exploit the district’s resources, which are valued in the billions.

    A man on a mission

    In 2008, then-superintendent Rudy Crew’s contract was bought out. Accused of mismanaging the district budget, not bringing the district’s schools in line with No Child Left Behind, and being needlessly combative with the board of education, ousting the superintendent was seen as a necessary step toward saving the district. In Crew’s place, the board promoted Alberto Carvalho — a former science teacher with the district and a principal and assistant superintendent at the time — to the position of superintendent.

    During his currently-serving tenure, Carvalho sought to completely reinvent the teaching culture that the Miami-Dade Schools District was based on. Value was placed on teaching, highly-paid administrators were excused, underperforming teachers were released. Parents were informed of not just the performance of their children, but of the school itself. Teachers and principals were rewarded for not only improving the performance of their schools, but for volunteering to take on tougher assignments — such as teaching at troubled schools or offering endangered students specialized instruction.

    At one point, Carvalho refused to renew the contracts of 6,000 underperforming teachers, effectively breaking the tenure system. Such a move is unthinkable for a former teacher.

    The results are remarkable. Seven Miami-Dade schools are listed on the 2012’s U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best High School” rankings. Miami-Dade’s Design and Architecture Senior High School and Young Women’s Preparatory Academy rank as the first and second best public high schools in Florida, with eight other schools from Miami-Dade also being on the list of the Top 50 Public High Schools in Florida.

    The College Board recognized Miami-Dade as the best district in the United States for Hispanic students and the 7th-best for African-American students. The district won the Broad Prize for Urban Education for 2012 and is recognized as the highest performing urban school system in the country.

    Most importantly, 13 schools rated as “F” by the state has raised their performance standards to or beyond state requirements. Miami-Dade currently has no “F” rated schools.

    “The Miami miracle”

    While it can be argued that many of the improvements attributed to Carvalho actually started under Crews, Carvalho’s administration brought a certain level of stability to the district. It’s the use of digital learning, blending online and in-class teaching, and the use of student data to assess teachers’ performance that have been credited toward Miami-Dade’s winning of the Broad Prize, which is the single largest education award giving in this country. Eli Broad, founder of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which awards the prize, said, “What is encouraging about Miami-Dade is its sustainable improvement over time. Their gains are a testament to the hard-working teachers, administrators and parents who have embraced innovative new methods to modernize schools and ensure that students of all backgrounds get the support they need.”

    The reframing of student data as a tool for development — tying student achievement to retention and pay — was important toward teaching embracing a data-based approach to their jobs, according to Carvalho. “Our idea is that data and accountability can actually be a friend, not an enemy,” Carvalho says. “Its ability to inform a community of learners … is a powerful tool to the extent that it is used with dignity, with honesty, and not with second intentions.”

    A key behind Carvalho’s approach was that no one was fired because of teacher underperformance (although, many teaching contracts were not renewed). Expectations about students’ performance were announced both to the teachers and to the parents and real-time information from standardized tests, from internal audits and from class-work measurement, and were available to everyone at all times. Parents were encouraged to participate in budget and contract discussions and were encouraged to form academies and task-groups to help navigate the school system, from after-school programs and safety agendas to college applications and college-prep tutoring.

    “Parents need to be an integral participatory element in education reform; otherwise, the sustainability of reform may very well be compromised,” Carvalho said. “Because if parents and students­ — the true clients of public education — are not at the table … then the reform rests in the hands of the superintendent. And if the superintendent changes, there goes the reform.”

    Recession? No problem

    The reality of all this comes from the fact that this was done in the midst of a recession, with major budget cuts due to a shortfall of tax revenues and a re-prioritization of county’s resources. The district terminated and replaced 64 percent of its principals (the superintendent is the de facto principal by choice of two schools), reducing administrative spending by 58 percent — mostly in cuts to salaries to administrators, cutting travel and imposing a hiring freeze.

    “By embracing the harshness of the economic conditions we were able to not only do more with less, but in fact do better with less,” Carvalho said. “We went from extreme need to efficiencies, from efficiencies to innovation, from innovation to transformation.”

    “During the economic meltdown, few people were coming to Florida to spend tax dollars. Our economy fell apart. A victim of this was public education,” Carvalho said recently. “So, some people would say that this was a terrible time to initiate educational reform … I chose to differ. It is when you have no money that you should do differently, engage in new projects.”

    Carvalho continues with his philosophy on accountability, “While we did not release a single teacher for economic reasons, we did not renew the contracts of six thousands teachers for low performance. You have to work, you have to teach, and what you teach needs to be observable, measurable, and accountable.”

    Carvalho’s actions are consider controversial. In an article for the Hechinger Report, Marc Tucker argues that teaching efficiency is a matter of pay, training resources, career advancement opportunity, and trust. Tucker argues that if we treat teachers as professionals — from educational expectations and skill requirements we expect from teachers while they are applying for the job to expectations for continual education and a pay-scale equitable to other professional fields that requires the same level of education — we would have a better quality of teacher that can teach a curriculum that meets world standards.

    “If we treat our teachers as professionals and involve them in managing the enterprise, our unions will no longer feel constrained to act like early 20th-century industrial unions. Maybe when we finally treat our teachers as professionals, we will get the performance from them that we will then have a right to expect. If we put our shoulder to the wheel to fill our schools with great teachers, our children will once again top the world’s education league tables.”

    Miami-Dade is not alone in its teacher-removal efforts. The Washington, D.C., School District has fired about 3 percent of its teaching force for poor performance, based on the teaching performance instrument IMPACT — the one of the first system used nationally that connected job security to classroom performance. In September 2012, Chicago teachers walked off the job in an eight-day strike to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to make teachers more accountable with a teacher evaluation system.

    While the idea of non-accountability for teachers seems bizarre, questions regarding pay, access to resources and competency in management complicate educational reform talk. However, most agree that something must be done.

    In an interview with the Huffington Post, Carvalho muses about the flawed perception of public education in America “that somehow the most revered institution in America no longer works. Public education is existentially essential to America’s democracy. The flawed rationale that we must follow innovation elsewhere in the world to remain competitive rather than daring to reinvent ourselves into a better version of us is one of the most harmful perspectives we can adopt. We are the nation of innovation!”

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