Schools should focus on digital learning, not seat time, says Miami-Dade schools chief


The superintendent of one of the nation’s largest school systems said it’s time to abandon rigid 180-day school years and factory-era teaching methods in U.S. schools, and replace them with the power of digital learning systems.

“The next big challenge for educators is the absolute deconstruction of mandated seat time as a precursor to funding and the elimination of mandated school days and 180 days of school per year,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida. Carvalho is widely regarded for turning Miami-Dade, the country’s fourth largest school system, into one of the nation’s highest-performing urban school systems.

Carvalho also said he’s wants to see state officials abandon rules that prevent commingling of school funds for text books and technology. “To segregate those is insane. We have to start treating applications and content the same as text books,” he said, speaking at a conference of education technology leaders in Chicago on Monday, organized by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Carvalho made an impassioned case for the importance of harnessing technology in schools to properly prepare, and more effectively engage, students.

“I think you would agree with me that in today’s hyper connected society that being digitally disconnected [puts kids] at a terrible educational disadvantage… that if we do not address, becomes almost like a ball and chain to their educational development and their economic viability as adults,” he said.

“The one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching, with kids spending “seven hours and 20 minutes a day, 180 days a year with a teacher in the front and the students obediently listening no longer works,” he said. “It is the industrial model, the factory model — whistle to whistle. Break, stop, and go. It no longer works for today’s kids. If we want to keep losing them, educate them exactly that way.”

Carvalho argued that it’s up to public educators to create ‘‘a revolution” to push for digital instruction and that a lack of funding to support digital learning systems can’t be an excuse.

“If you wait for the resources…with no hardship whatsoever, you’ll wait forever. We actually decided to [embrace digital instruction] in Miami, in the middle of the worst economic recession in our nation’s history. But, that was the perfect time, because …it gives you an opportunity to actually dismantle what’s not working, blame it on the economy… reinvent something better, and live and survive through it.”

He described how Miami-Dade passed a $1.2 billion bond referendum in 89 days and tapped federal E-rate funds to begin financing a massive overhaul of the district’s IT infrastructure.

“We knew that the first big step in our digital convergence was to guarantee universal, ubiquitous Wi-Fi connectivity for all …but we had no money. So we went out there, and said, ‘Can we fundraise $7 million in the community?’ because if we do, the federal government will invest $70 million.” The district successfully raised the funds and a year later, secured $70 million in federal E-rate funds. It also earmarked $250 million of its $1.2 billion bond towards technology.

But the district also took a disciplined approach to spending those funds.

“We were not enticed by the shiny, sexy look of the iPad, as if it was the cure for everything. We took our time …and allowed ourselves to study the mistakes that others made before we would repeat them ourselves,” he said.

“So our digital convergence relies on the simplicity of the A, B, C, D and E approach,” he said. The approach starts with deciding first on applications for content, then building bandwidth, followed by enhancing connectivity, then picking devices and finally educating the educators.

“One of the biggest mistakes made by school systems attempting to reach ‘one-to-one’ is to buy the devices first. No,” he said. “We decided where our academic gaps were. We searched for personalized adaptive content, digital content. We saw where we were lacking in mathematics, particularly algebra, world history, U.S. history, civics, based on state academic data. We decided, let’s find the best in-class software, the best in-class applications. We bought it.

“Secondly, if you’re building a highway and you know that it’s going to be congested, why not invest in the infrastructure? We made a decision early on to build a super-highway, with many lanes, expanding bandwidth initially from two [Gigabits per second] to four, 10, now 20 gigabits.

“Third, you need to be connected. So we decided to use the E-rate investment in addition to bond revenues during one summer, wirelessly connecting 50 million square feet of space in Miami-Dade — 450 buildings and 21,000 access points.

“After you have universal, ubiquitous connectivity, then you can speak about devices. We felt a system our size can leverage our procurement ability to get the best prices for the best quality product that needed to be invested to meet the needs of our kids. We studied it for a long time. We learned from Los Angeles [and its school district’s ill-fated decision to buy a billion dollars worth of iPads without a coherent plan for using them.]

“Then from all of our learnings, we went fast and invested in two types of devices: a hybrid laptop computer that allows for touchscreen interaction and a Surface pad specific to some grade levels and some age of children, on a basis of what research told us,” he said.

“Then the last one, E: This is often ignored by leaders like me, which is educating the educator. You buy all these assets, make all these investments and you do not [educate] the teachers and the support staff that you have — and you probably will be significantly under-leveraging the assets that you invested in,” he said.

“We forced our private sector partners to come together and collaborate with us in developing links to learning… resulting in an asset that when the student logs on to their device, they’re directed automatically towards a journey of individualized learning that allows for acceleration and remediation simultaneously. It addresses proficiency gaps in reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies,” he said.

Beyond that, though, was another opportunity, Carvalho said. “We recognized that with the end of the school day, learning opportunity vanishes for so many of our kids so we needed to create an opportunity for kids to continue to learn beyond the last bell.”

Carvalho described how the district made additional investments, so that kids, especially in higher poverty districts, could take home a device and a wireless card to use them.

“Since we were sending the device home with them with personalized software, why wouldn’t we load parent academy course work to teach the parent as well. For the very first time, both parent and child alike gets their hands on the device and it changes their reality.

“Now, was the investment worth it? We’re still studying that, but I can tell you this. From 2013, when we began this journey, now to 2017, our graduation rates have continued to climb, even though we are one of the poorest, most diverse districts, in the country, where every day 79,000 kids who are English language learners are still learning English; where 50 percent of the kids were born outside of the country; and where 6,000 kids are homeless, living in shelters. Our graduation rates went from 56 percent in 2008 to this year 84 percent. Our graduation rates are in fact higher than the state of Florida,” he said.

“But I think we’re fixing something more important than just academic achievement through digital empowerment,” he said. “The equalizer of learning opportunity today is technology. I’m not interested in building schools, I’m interested in building new environments of education, where technology is not a tool, technology is an environment that is pulled from and embraced by both the teacher and the student alike. A universal guarantee,” he said.

Finally, he urged the audience, “Don’t wait for the good time to come to you, because it will never come. If not you, then who? If not now, then when would we do right by kids?”