The leader of America’s fourth largest school district – and one of its most diverse – last week urged Arizona public education and community leaders to invest in providing equitable education opportunities like pre-school, mentoring and high quality magnet programs.
If gaps in opportunity and achievement, particularly among poor and minority students, are not addressed quickly, said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, students may not graduate high school, which often leads to a life of poverty.
“Why? Because we know opportunity gaps, lack of equity and access to high-quality programs often vary from zip code to zip code and are associated with poverty, broken homes, English Language limitation, and disability and always lead to achievement gaps,” Carvalho said in a keynote address at The Equity Event on April 9 in Phoenix.
The Arizona School Boards Association hosted the two-day event in partnership with the Helios Education Foundation and WestEd. More than 250 public education, business, non-profit, civic and government leaders attended.
To break that cycle of poverty from one generation to the next, schools must provide access to opportunities and learning pathways that help students read at grade level by third grade, meet seventh-grade standards, and keep them on track for high school graduation, said Carvalho, who was named 2014 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.
As superintendent, he increased graduation rates, pushed for and has seen greater student achievement, led the turnaround of nine schools under the threat of shut down and shored up the image of the 345,000-student district.
“Graduation rates in Miami-Dade, even though we are far poorer and more diverse than the State of Florida, have for the second year in a row outperformed the state,” Carvalho said. “We have a higher graduation rate than the state and surrounding wealthier districts.”
In 2012, Miami-Dade County Public Schools won the Broad Prize in Urban Education largely for the academic gains of its Hispanic and black students.
In the past few years, the number of Miami-Dade students taking Advanced Placement classes has increased 30 percent, and triple the number of students now pass the AP exam with a 3 or higher, earning college credit.
“All throughout we’ve celebrated equity,” Carvalho said. “Equity has been the theory of action that has propelled our performance.”
Ensuring student success is not only about raising the ceiling, it’s also about bringing up the floor, which is why Miami-Dade used Title I funds to create a universal pre-K guarantee for district children, Carvalho said.
“You know what the most effective way is of boosting graduation rates? Early childhood education,” Carvalho said. “Don’t begin at pre-K. Actually, begin at birth. Early investment is better than the expense of remediation”
Carvalho credits Miami-Dade’s success to effective leaders and teachers, a safety net for students that includes wraparound services, expanded opportunities for digital learning, strong partnerships with community organizations and fostering choice within the district through magnet programs.
“To be successful, you need to lead from the front, not manage from the middle,” Carvalho said. “Bold vision, a clear balance of skill and will, with students’ improvement as the focus can in fact make a world of difference.”
He should know. Carvalho grew up poor in Portugal as one of six children of a custodian and a seamstress. He was the only one to graduate high school. When Carvalho came to America as a teenager, he scrubbed pots and pans, worked as a construction laborer, enrolled in community college and later earned his bachelor’s degree.
“If I’m able to stand on this stage and respectfully address you, there’s no reason why we cannot prop up America’s children upon our collective shoulders as they see and realize the better future that we expect for them,” Carvalho said.
Instead of looking for ways to improve student achievement from Finland, Shanghai, Singapore or elsewhere, American educators must take what they know to build better pathways for learning, Carvalho said.
“We once thought that this was the great land of innovation. I submit to you, it is the great land of innovation,” Carvalho said. “Inasmuch as we should learn from best practices elsewhere, we should never, ever become a second-rate, imitation of anybody else.”
Q: What can Arizona learn from what you did in Miami?
A: One approach is catalyzing a grass-roots movement that is able to shift the conversation from an expenditure to an investment, articulating it not only from an educational benefit to children and communities, but also to a financial benefit to the state.
Investment in early childhood education creates incredible savings in terms of remediation costs later on, particularly in middle school and high school. If you are able to articulate that, I think you may have a political solution for those who otherwise would oppose the expansion of these programs.
Elected officials, particularly state officials who have to balance the budget, always feel that folks at the local level want more and more without ever letting go of anything.
Re-prioritize your budget to what you value and decommission what does not work. Often, it’s hard to do, because there are a lot of sacred cows attached to elements that don’t work.
One way we implemented these dramatic changes in Miami was from accruing very early on – in the first 100 days – real tangible evidence of success. We boosted financial reserves in the middle of the recession. We stabilized credit ratings.
Academically speaking, we avoided the shutdown of those schools for performance within one year, moved performance dramatically and increased graduation rates. We were able to use those early successes as political leverage to get concessions and get increased investments.
Q: Why are strong leaders so important?
A: I’m not a superintendent who pounds my chest and invites TV cameras to watch me fire people, but I’ll tell you this: If you do not have the right skill and will to do your job, if you do not fight for kids, if you do not disrupt the system for what’s right, then you have no place in my organization.
There’s a reason as to why airplanes don’t take off slowly. If a captain when you board the plane says, “Folks, we’re going to try something new today, we want to soar for the skies but we’re going to take off very slowly.”
Folks, no. There is no such thing.
For those who promise you sustainable, effective reform that will take 10 years, the question should be how many kid are you going to lose during that experimental phase?
You need to be bold, persuasive, and dramatic in your implementation. Make it in the biggest possible way so everybody sees it and make no apologies for it.
Q: What led Miami-Dade County Public Schools to invite all community early childhood education centers’ staff to district professional development?
A: I invite those providers of educational solutions who might be in the private sector to the table, particularly the early learning coalition, because I want to influence quality educational programming in their centers so that students’ transition from their schools to the public school system is smoother. I’m also able to capture deficits and learning gaps before kids come to our school.
Doing that in an inclusive way is very much part of the solution. I’m opposed to being confrontational to the private sector. We should be leveraging talent and investment toward improving teachers’ performance and students’ achievement.
Q: Why are community partnerships so important in providing students with health screening and other services they need?
A: If you know what the opportunity gaps are, and you are resource limited, then you need to invest in partnerships. We brought in the community and created safety nets for those who are not as ready.
We don’t have all the tools in our toolbox. Other people have the tools that we need. All throughout we’ve leveraged community and government partnerships.
If we just decide to create a bigger tool box, then the solutions emerge as more cost-effective, more politically palatable, with no doubt a greater possibility of improving results. That’s a very simplistic theory of action, but it’s one that actually works.
Not every single child is going to come in with a health record that has been verified or screened for emotional and mental health. We decided to open clinics in our schools to benefit the kids and our own workforce.
We partner with University of Miami, with Centers for Autism, community organizations, the faith-based community and civic community to provide a wraparound system to prop children up to increase readiness. We brought in Teach for America, City Year, Freedom Fighters of Our Generation, these are the AmeriCorps volunteers. We have a one-to-one mentoring opportunity for every single child in poverty in Miami.
Everything we need to know about improving schools is actually known. This is an execution and an implementation challenge, not a knowledge conundrum that we face.
Q: What did Miami-Dade County do to ensure effective teachers are in each classroom?
A: It matters not if you have a bachelors, masters, Ph.D. or a doctorate. I’m more concerned about your actual effectiveness of meeting the child where the child is and propelling the child to proficiency than I am about your credentials.
We used Race to the Top monies not to buy trinkets and systems, but to investment in targeted professional development on differentiated instruction so that in a classroom of 25 kids, a teacher can employ at least five different strategies – direct instruction, computer-assisted instruction, group thematic instruction, remediation and acceleration.
By renegotiating the contract, we allowed young teachers to propel themselves to a six-figure salary on base compensation and accelerated performance incentives while adjusting for poverty, diversity, disability and English Language limitation.
Some leaders and administrators said, “Wait a second, you’re proposing to pay that teacher more than you pay an assistant principal?”
Yes! What’s wrong with that? In the private sector, sometimes the salesman makes more than the boss. It’s OK. The boss has life-long security to the extent that they have high performers around them. That is a fair and reasonable incentive for performance.
Q: How did Miami-Dade bring digital learning to every school?
A: Digital equity is important, because the child or the adult who in our hyper-connected society is digitally disconnected is initially at an educational disadvantage and over time at an economic deficit.
Think about the children in our schools who have no access to digital content outside of school time. Compare this to kids who can access online acceleration and remediation software before and after school.
Back in 2009-2010, just two schools out of Miami-Dade’s 400 schools had access to wi-fi, but we wanted them all connected. We used the e-rate program, where for every $1 you put in, the federal government matches it $10 to achieve internet connectivity and electronic improvements.
We knew that to create wi-fi across the entire district it would take about $70 million, but all we needed was to come up with $7 million.
We leveraged our accomplishments. By then, we had saved nine schools facing shutdown, improved graduation rates, brought up equity and access across the district and had college level courses in every school.
We asked the community to help us raise $7 million in four months. We raised it in three months. We submitted our funding request to the federal government, and we got a $70 million investment at the height of the economic recession. Within one year, we went from two schools with wi-fi connectivity to 400.
We didn’t stop there. At a time when the economy was still depressed, in a community that is anti-taxes, we passed a $1.2 billion bond in a community with 73 percent of children living at or below the poverty level, where 95 percent of children are minority and 50 percent of children come to school not speaking English.
We did it the right way, with applications in digital content, with improvements in bandwidth from 1 gigabyte to 4 to 10 gigabytes, connectivity investing in wi-fi universal access, and then devices.
Q: How has school choice affected Miami-Dade schools?
A: For those of you that believe somehow you can shy away from choice, that the competition of publicly funded opportunities for students is going to go away, it’s not. In Miami-Dade, there are 120 charter schools.
We had the foresight of anticipating choice. We saw the tsunami coming and rather than try to outrun it or dive under it, the only way to beat them is to ride the top. We expanded dramatically for the sake of equity, deploying high-quality, highly effective programs to all zip codes in the community.
We’ve become masters at it, opening more than 30 magnet programs per year. The landscape today looks like this 375 magnet programs, 100 full magnet schools, 55,000 students in magnet programs. At this point, it’s a combination of career academies, magnet programs, charter schools and my own district-managed charter schools.
We have over 64 percent of Miami-Dade students in nontraditional programs. We manage most of them. This is not a matter of acquiescing to the competition. This is about beating the competition through high-quality, highly effective programs that dignify the aspirations and needs of kids.
Know 99 Television video of Alberto Carvalho
(The interview was edited for length and clarity.)