Why Miami-Dade schools won prestigious Broad Prize for urban districts

Miami-Dade County Public Schools has been steadily chipping away at the achievement gap. After being a finalist four other times, the district won the Broad Prize for Urban Education on Tuesday.

Diane Bondareff/The Broad Foundation/AP
In this photo provided by The Broad Foundation, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, right, celebrates with United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz, left, Eli Broad, second left, and Miami-Dade Board of Education Chair Perla Tabares Hantman after Miami-Dade wins the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education, Tuesday, in New York.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, schools are slowly but steadily chipping away at the achievement gap, especially for Hispanic and black students.

The district, which on Tuesday was awarded the Broad Prize for Urban Education, has increased black and Hispanic graduation rates at a faster rate than other urban districts in the United States; has increased the percentages of Hispanic and black students reaching the highest achievement levels; and has increased the percentages and scores of students participating in college-readiness exams more than other districts.

It’s the fifth time that Miami-Dade has been a finalist for the prestigious Broad Prize, which honors urban districts for their success in reducing achievement gaps for low-income and minority students, as well as for high overall performance and improvement in student achievement.

That sustained recognition, says Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, shows that the district’s success “is not a flash in the pan.”

“What I’m proudest of,” Mr. Carvalho adds, “is that we were able to achieve this remarkable feat ... with one of the most diverse communities of America, marred by incredible poverty, and we were able to do it in the midst of the worst recession in America since the 1930s.”

In fact, Carvalho says that he believes the district was able to leverage the tough economic conditions to get some things accomplished that might have been tougher in more-prosperous years. Among other things, he managed to reduce administrative spending by 58 percent, and he was able to refocus spending and support on classrooms and programs that had student learning at the center.

“We put the kids front and center of everything we do,” Carvalho says.

Among the specific gains that Broad cited in recognizing Miami-Dade:

• The district’s Hispanic students outperformed peers in other districts in reading and math at all school levels. They also outperformed in elementary and middle-school science.

• The graduation rates for black and Hispanic students both increased by 14 percent between 2006 and 2009.

• In 2011, the number of Miami-Dade Hispanic students performing at the highest achievement levels on state tests ranked in the top 30 percent, compared with Hispanic students in other Florida districts.

Achievement gaps for low-income and minority students have been a persistent and intractable problem in US education – a main reason that the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has made success in addressing that gap a focus of their annual prize, which is the largest education award in the country given to school districts.

As this year’s winner, Miami-Dade will get $550,000 of the $1 million prize, to be used in college scholarships for high school seniors. The other three finalist districts will each get $150,000 in scholarship money.

This year, those districts were Corona-Norco Unified School District in California, Houston Independent School District, and the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida. All these also made significant progress in raising student achievement and closing the achievement gap.

“We have a lot of challenges out there, but we have a lot of hope,” says philanthropist Eli Broad, citing as particular reasons for optimism developments like the new Common Core standards, adopted by almost all states; and “blended learning” opportunities, in which teachers combine face-to-face teaching with computer-mediated methods.

This year, Mr. Broad notes, his foundation inaugurated a new prize for charter-school management organizations, and he was excited that the first winner – YES Prep Public Schools in Houston – has “totally closed the [achievement] gap.”

In announcing the winner, Education Secretary Arne Duncan highlighted what he sees as the too-often unequal opportunities for students in America. He reflected on a recent visit to Topeka, Kan. – where Brown v. Board of Education originated – and asked, today, “how many systems have schools that are truly equal and are not separate?”

“If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, we have to close what I call the opportunity gap,” Secretary Duncan said. “The Broad Prize shines a spotlight on success. We have to celebrate success, but most importantly we have to replicate it.”

Indeed, a major purpose of the prize is to encourage other urban districts to replicate the techniques that winning districts have found to be successful. Carvalho, the Miami-Dade superintendent, says he sees no reason why other districts can’t do some of the things Miami-Dade has.

The 350,000-student district is heavily minority and low-income: About 90 percent of its students are either Hispanic or black, 74 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 21 percent are English-language learners.

“Cracking the code in Miami today is launching scalable, replicable solutions for America’s children,” says Carvalho. 

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