Who Is Alberto Carvalho? How LAUSD’s New Superintendent Became The ‘LeBron’ Of Miami Schools
When he found out that Alberto Carvalho was the top choice to become the Los Angeles Unified School District’s next superintendent, the dean of USC’s education school was over-the-moon excited.
“It’s almost as good as when LeBron came to the Lakers!” laughed Pedro Noguera, who runs USC’s Rossier School of Education.
It’s a tempting analogy. Both Carvalho and LeBron James won their first major prizes in Miami, home to the nation’s fourth-largest school system (and, I suppose, also the Heat). And their arrivals here feel similar for another reason: it has been years since L.A. has seen anyone with quite the same level of star power.
Insiders in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools said Carvalho is a larger-than-life figure there. He won over South Florida with his story of bootstrapping grit: an immigrant from Portugal who worked his way up from busboy to science teacher to superintendent. He mesmerized the education world when he rejected a job offer in New York three years ago — on live TV. Just this week, he accepted an award from King Felipe VI of Spain.
Even in times when we didn’t agree — when I wanted to grab him and throw him off of a building — we were able to make it work.
Today, Carvalho arguably boasts the biggest public profile of any incoming LAUSD leader since a former governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, took the job in 2000.
But during Carvalho's tenure, a once-mediocre Miami-Dade district with serious financial difficulties has become one of the strongest big-city school systems in the U.S. Even his critics in Miami-Dade acknowledge there’s more to their outgoing superintendent than his persona.
“He leads with fear — that is his M.O. — and he’s effective,” said Yannell Selman, a former organizer who founded a parent advocacy group in Miami in 2016. “What he wants to make happen, he’s going to make it happen.” (Selman and Carvalho didn't always agree, though they were able to work together on a few issues.)
Others were more complimentary of Carvalho. “He’s always been very collaborative,” said Miami teachers union president Karla Hernández-Mats. “Even in times when we didn’t agree — when I wanted to grab him and throw him off of a building — we were able to make it work.”
USC’s Noguera, a Carvalho fan from afar, was more to-the-point: “He’s the best urban superintendent in the country.”
LAUSD board members approved Carvalho’s contract ($440,000 per year) Tuesday morning in a unanimous vote. I called around in Miami to see what life was like for students and teachers in the school system he has led for more than 13 years.
Here’s what I learned:
Grad Rates & School Grades Have Improved. (Why?)
Some basic, bottom-line metrics improved during Carvalho’s tenure.
Between 2007 and last year, high school graduation rates in Miami-Dade County have jumped more than 30 percentage points — to above 93%, not including privately run charter schools.
More than 85% of Miami-Dade’s Black students graduated that year, “the greatest increase of all large urban districts” in Florida, according to a school district release.
The year Carvalho took the helm, 30 of Miami-Dade’s 327 non-charter schools received either a D or F from the Florida Department of Education, which rates schools on an A-F scale.
More than a decade later, in 2018-19, just one district-run school received a D.
Standardized test scores — especially the results on math and English tests — determine those letter grades. Critics suggest those improvements reflect an increased emphasis on preparing students to take those specific tests, rather than actual gains in knowledge.
“We get the smoke and mirrors because of school grades, but some of our schools that have a B, they have 20% reading proficiency. Mr. Carvalho hasn’t, in my opinion, addressed reading proficiency,” said Justin Pinn, who came to Miami in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member. He’s remained in the city, working now as a consultant, youth advocate and adjunct professor.
“We were really just focused on test prep,” said Selman, “and we really needed to move beyond that.”
But even as Carvalho is quick to tout improvements in Miami schools’ A-F grades, he may not be a true believer in Florida’s grading system.
A school receiving a D or F “really does something to the morale and the spirit of a community,” said Hernández-Mats, who’s been president of United Teachers of Dade for six years.
“I think he gets that,” she added. “I think he doesn’t necessarily like the way that the accountability system is here in the state of Florida, but at the same time, he’s the superintendent who has to move on the state policies that are passed.”
Shaking Up Staff, Reversing Low Test Scores
At the beginning of Carvalho’s tenure, nine Miami-Dade schools were at risk of state takeover because of low test scores. Nearly a dozen more low-income campuses were in trouble.
A key part of Carvalho’s turnaround strategy for these schools involved a reshuffling of the district’s front-line staff. He fired, promoted or demoted more than two-thirds of Miami-Dade principals, removing almost all of the leaders from the most at-risk schools.
In 2009, Miami-Dade administrators started giving principals the option to force their least-effective teachers to take assignments at other schools. Roughly one in five schools — most of them low-performing, most of them serving large populations of Black students — exercised the option by the beginning of Carvalho’s fourth year on the job.
Carvalho also packed the district’s hardest-to-staff schools with corps members from Teach For America: often recent college graduates who commit to spend two years teaching in low-income schools.
Research has found the use of TFA corps members helped usher in modest benefits for academic outcomes. There’s also evidence the TFA cluster strategy created a revolving door of teachers in Miami’s lowest-income areas — which were also predominantly Black.
Hernández-Mats said these corps members were generally “from other communities — not even Floridians — people coming in who didn’t know the culture, didn’t know the students.”
“You had these [TFA] teachers that were only there for the program to get their [student] loans paid off,” the union leader said, “so they did the bare minimum, three years, and they’re out.” (Representatives for TFA in Miami were not available for an interview.)
But in some measurable ways, the reshuffling has paid off.
In a recent report by the Council for Great City Schools, Miami principals reported they now take a more “deliberate” approach toward identifying struggling students, and figuring out ways to help.
Test scores and school grades have improved. The Council for Great City Schools analysis examined the results of four different national tests of math and English skills: on three of those four tests, Miami-Dade outperformed two dozen peer districts and made significant strides since 2009. (The same analysis found LAUSD was significantly underperforming.)
He Believed In Technology Before The Pandemic Made It A Necessity
In 2012, Miami-Dade voters approved a $1.2 billion bond issue — mostly to address buildings that were molding and decaying in South Florida’s humid salt air.
But Carvalho proposed to set aside $120 million of that money to upgrade the district’s technology, including funding to purchase a device for every student.
“Is it not time,” Carvalho told an audience a few months after that bond passed, “for us to have this expectation that in the nation of innovation … that all of our children, regardless of ZIP code of birth, are empowered with and have access to digital content and devices? I mean is it not the basic necessity that every single child across America have access to the internet?”
Carvalho was also keeping an eye on LAUSD, and his administrators decided to throw the brakes on Miami-Dade’s “one-to-one” technology initiative in part because of how poorly Los Angeles’ distribution of iPads proceeded. (Not only was the technology and software in L.A. well below expectations, reporting by former KPCC reporter Annie Gilbertson had raised questions about LAUSD administrators had handled the contracts.)
Miami-Dade’s program was soon moving ahead again, with district officials promising 100,000 laptops for students and 10,000 new interactive white boards for classrooms by 2016: “That was a game-changer,” said Hernández-Mats.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to new tech challenges — and potentially thornier concerns.
In summer 2020, Miami-Dade school officials were uncertain whether the pandemic would allow for the return to in-person classes. They were scrambling for software that would allow students to learn either in a classroom or virtual setting, and ultimately inked a $15 million, no-bid contract with K12 Inc., an online school provider.
The rollout — as Carvalho himself noted in a lengthy apology — was a disaster, “marred by a series of technical issues related to the district’s network, internet connectivity, as well as disappointing functionality of the K12 platform.”
The district ultimately canceled the contract. K12 then made a $1.5 million donation to the school board’s foundation; the money was meant to fund an elaborate apology — a gift card for each teacher, valued at $100 apiece. The school district’s inspector general flagged the gift, saying it “create[d] the appearance of impropriety.”
He’s An Effective (And Forceful) Spokesperson
At age 8, Luisa Santos arrived in the U.S. from Colombia without immigration papers. She credits Miami-Dade schools with helping her learn to speak English by age 9. She learned she was undocumented when she was in high school.
Which is one reason why Santos will always remember Carvalho for his advocacy on behalf of Miami’s immigrant students.
In 2012, he joined student protests against the deportation of a high school valedictorian. In 2017, he told an undocumented student fearful of federal immigration arrests at schools that Miami-Dade officials wouldn’t let that happen on district campuses: “Over my dead body,” he promised.
“That is absolutely the correct stance — our schools are a safe place for learning — but certainly one that some would say took tremendous courage,” said Santos, now 31, a U.S. citizen, and a newly elected member of the Miami-Dade school board.
He doesn’t take criticism well. The criticism is us asking for his help.
Carvalho’s critics and champions both acknowledge his skill as a spokesperson for Miami’s schools, saying he’ll be remembered for his forceful — and sometimes colorful — public stands. He’s gone toe-to-toe with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over COVID-19 mask mandates. He’s called out gun manufacturers at March for Our Lives rallies. He’s taken less visible, but meaningful stands against school closures in historically Black parts of Miami.
“He’s someone who is very loved by the community,” said Hernández-Mats. “He really understands how to get a message out, how to talk to people.”
Carvalho’s skill is in crafting a sharp message about Miami-Dade’s strategy and priorities — but his critics warn that he often isn’t open to hearing narratives that run counter to the one he’s crafted.
Pinn, the advocate and former TFA corps member, was hoping that Carvalho’s charisma might help Miami-Dade transcend the racial tensions that have defined the district’s politics. But instead of achieving systemic changes, Pinn pointed out recent state test data that suggest Miami’s Black students remain at greatest academic risk.
“He doesn’t take criticism well …,” said Pinn, who is Black. “The criticism is us asking for his help.”