How an Epic Series of Tech Errors Hobbled Miamis Schools

 wired.com  09/16/2020 11:00:00   Sandra Upson

On the morning of August 31, the first day of school, the 345,000 students in Miami-Dade Countys public schools fired up their computers expecting to see the faces of their teachers and classmates. Instead a scruffy little dog in banana-print pajamas appeared on their screens, alongside an error message. Oh bananas! read one message from the districts online learning platform. Too many people are online right now.

A rudimentary cyberattack had crippled the servers of the nations fourth-largest school district, preventing its 392 schools from starting the year online. But even once the district had quelled the distributed denial-of-service attack and a local teen had been arrested for the crime, Banana Dog didnt go away. If anything, the security breach merely obscured for a few days the crippling weaknesses in the districts plan to move every aspect of its schoolingincluding a revamped curriculumonto a platform that had only ever supported half as many students (and never all at once).

The platform was built by virtual charter school company K12, backed by one-time junk bond king Michael Milken and US secretary of education Betsy DeVos. Doug Levin, an education tech consultant, calls the decision to use K12 atypical. Another ed tech analyst, Phil Hill, calls it weird.

The rapid pivot to, and even faster pivot away from, K12 amounts to a case study in how not to deploy a massive new software project. It also illustrates how, in a few intense weeks of summer decisionmaking, a charter-school curriculum written by a for-profit company was chosen and installed, with little scrutiny, across one of the largest districts in the country.

When the 201920 school year ended in June, Miami-Dade administrators had been counting on reopening their school buildings in August. But the coronavirus was not on their side. In a matter of weeks Miami went from relatively spared to a pandemic hot spot, with positive test rates spiking well above 20 percent. We are at the center of Americas epicenter for Covid-19, district superintendent Alberto Carvalho told CNN in mid-July as he debated how to reopen schools. Later that month, he informed the school board of his plan to begin the year online only and to move all schooling to K12s platform. The board went along with it, says Marta Perez, a board member. Here you are coming in and telling us youre going to solve our problems; everyone was enthusiastic, she says of Carvalhos plan. Moreover, he didnt need the boards approval, she says. We never had the opportunity to really discuss it, she says. A spokesperson for the district referred questions to a public statement by Carvalho.

Parents, students, and teachers had all complained to the board about the challenges theyd faced in the spring, when school buildings had slammed shut and teachers had scrambled to reinvent their classes online using a panoply of apps. Students leaned heavily on their parents to navigate the software jungle of their school day; for families with multiple children, the complexity became unmanageable. Parents were absolutely overwhelmed, says Sandra West, the president of the Miami-Dade parent-teacher association and a high school teacher who was involved in the early discussions. So when Carvalho presented a solution, she also reacted positively. We were very confident that the plan was going to work out well.

K12s software promised to replace all the other apps that schools had been using. It was billed to teachers as the Rolls-Royce of software, says Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade. The district and the company rushed to implement it. At the end of August, all of Miami-Dades educators sat through six days of K12 trainingand thats when they started to panic.

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