Miami-Dade Schools

Dade delays tech rollout as other districts struggle

Tens of thousands of high school freshman and seventh graders were slated to get brand new, high tech hardware this fall as the Miami-Dade school district prepared to launch a massive rollout of digital devices.

But after months of planning, sales pitches and dry runs, the first phase of the $63 million project has been pushed back.

The reason?

Early last month, at the same time Miami-Dade had hoped to begin distributing the first 35,000 devices across 147 schools, reports surfaced that similar endeavors in other corners of the country were unraveling: students easily bypassed iPad security settings; tablets were deployed only to be retrieved by the thousands; and one district scrapped its efforts altogether after spending $16 million.

That caused Miami-Dade to slow down, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told school board members Wednesday.

“Those events put us in a position to say ‘we best pause and learn from their mistakes,’ ” Carvalho said during a committee meeting.

Carvalho insisted that other digital upgrades remain on track, such as efforts to ensure all schools are wireless by March. But he said administrators want to look deeply at what went wrong elsewhere, in part because some companies and devices the district is now considering have played a role in those problems.

Examples of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to widespread distribution of laptops and tablets in K-12 schools are emerging as educational investment in new technology across the country has spiked to an expected $10 billion this year, according to the Center for Digital Education. The surge in spending comes as federal and state governments push schools toward online testing and digital curricula, and as districts look to become more tech savvy.

Miami-Dade is spending $100 million through its recent bond initiative on infrastructure upgrades, and over the summer took out a loan to pay for as many as much as 150,000 devices for students who can’t afford one. A recent survey by the district suggests as many as three quarters of its 350,000-student body needs a device.

The district has already seen success with a smaller distribution of 6,000 laptops this year for its federally funded iMath program. But larger efforts have seen a “high rate of failure,” said Leslie Wilson, CEO of the Michigan-based One-to-One Institute, which advocates successful digital convergence policies. She blamed planning — or lack thereof.

“We see precious little of that,” she said.

In October alone, the Houston-area Fort Bend school district scrapped a $16 million iPad program after an audit found a plan to use the tablets to transform science education had failed due to unrealistic goals, along with poor planning and problematic curriculum development. A North Carolina schools superintendent also announced that he’d suspended the use of 15,000 Amplify tablets and had them recalled as screens broke and chargers melted. Amplify, which had touted the $30 million deal with the district as one of the single largest tablet deployments ever, agreed last month to replace the equipment.

Perhaps the most prominent example of digital blunders has been in the Los Angeles Unified School District. This year, shortly after the district began a $1 billion effort to provide its 600,000 students with iPads, Superintendent John Deasy revised his plan amid complaints about the price of the devices, the budget for the bond-funded project and concerns that students had easily defeated security settings.

“If L.A. had seen a smoother implementation we probably would have made a decision” by now, Carvalho said in an interview.

Wilson applauded Carvalho’s decision to step back and examine others’ pitfalls.

“When Miami-Dade’s superintendent says ‘I’m pushing the pause button,’ I say bravo. There’s no reason not to get this right,” Wilson said.

District officials wouldn’t name the companies that have made the final cut but Amplify isn’t one of them.

On Wednesday, some board members said they hope Carvalho will move forward soon, though the district’s deadline to have the first of its first of three phases done by December was self-imposed. All devices are expected to be delivered by August 2015.

“I hope we will not be delayed in terms of getting devices into kids’ hands as soon as possible,” said Carlos Curbelo.

Carvalho said he is “weeks” from a decision, at which point the district can begin negotiating and then distribute devices to students taking 7th grade civics and freshman World History. Meanwhile, the district continues to acquire content separately, and already has the social studies materials to load onto devices when they’re given to students. The district is also ensuring that teaches and students are trained on the devices they receive.

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