School & District Management

Amid Sluggish Progress, Broad Suspends Prize for Urban Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — February 13, 2015 4 min read
Teacher Dorina Sackman, front right, cheers with others in Florida’s Orange County district during last September’s announcement of the Broad Prize. Orange County shared the award with Georgia’s Gwinnett County district.

When officials with the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation asked its review board to select candidates for the 2014 Prize for Urban Education, they told members for the first time in the prize’s history that they could decide no school district merited the award.

The jurors eventually chose two finalists—the districts in Gwinnett County, Ga., and Orange County, Fla., both of which later split the $1 million award—but they made clear their disappointment with the slow pace of progress in urban schools.

This month, the foundation made public what it had been foreshadowing for some time when it announced that it was suspending the annual prize because of “sluggish” academic progress in urban schools.

Foundation officials also said they would review how best to award a future prize, given major shifts in the urban schooling landscape, including the transformation of systems in New Orleans, where a majority of students now attend charter schools; and the growth of “portfolio” model districts where parents choose between regular public and charter schools, efforts that the foundation has championed. (The Broad Foundation provides support for Education Week’s coverage of personalized learning and system leadership.)

Statement on Regular Districts?

Bruce Reed, the foundation’s president, said the “difficult” decision came after a careful review. When only two of 75 eligible districts qualified for the prize last year, an examination of the prize’s impact was warranted, Mr. Reed said. Since its inception in 2002, $16 million in scholarships have been awarded to more than 1,200 low-income students in winning districts to attend college.

“The point of the prize is to identify, reward, and incentivize progress, not underscore failure,” Mr. Reed said. “And there is exciting progress being made in many communities. We need a lot more of it ... .”

The foundation will continue to award its $250,000 annual prize highlighting excellence in public charter schools.

Many observers see the move to nix the prize as a signal that Broad believes traditional school districts aren’t able to dramatically boost academic outcomes for low-income and minority students. Mr. Reed said the “only statement we are making is that progress on student achievement is not fast enough.”

The prize has been criticized for selecting finalists from a small pool of eligible districts and choosing winners with less-than-stellar academic records.

“The initial goal of the prize—to catalyze dramatic improvement in urban schooling—is still possible,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at the Washington-based Bellwether Education Partners, who has been among the prize’s most persistent critics. “But many of us now believe that it’s not possible to achieve that goal by working through urban districts.”

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, also in Washington, who has served on the prize’s review panel, said the award brought attention to districts making headway, including Gwinnett County, a two-time winner, and the Aldine school district in Harris County, Texas, which won in 2009.

Diagnostic Reports

Wanda Bamberg, the superintendent of the 69,000-student Aldine district, said she was disappointed with the foundation’s decision, but understood the reasoning.

In addition to the college scholarships that came with the Broad Prize, the districts—both winners and finalists—gained immensely from the diagnostic visits from the foundation.

The Broad diagnostics team looked at districts’ strengths and weaknesses, assisted in setting expectations for student performance, and helped devise ways to meet those expectations, Ms. Bamberg said. (The foundation said it will continue to award grants to conduct those visits.)

In addition, Ms. Bamberg said, because those reports were made public, “you always learned something from the other finalists.”

Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of the 192,000-student Orange County district in Orlando, Fla., agreed.

“I also like to remind folks that there is no requirement that [Eli and Edythe Broad] give anything to public education, and so I am incredibly grateful for the investment they have made over the past several years to bring the spotlight on urban education and some of our best practices, but more importantly, for the dollars they have given to help young people go to college,” Ms. Jenkins said.

Ms. Jenkins, who is a graduate of Broad’s special training program for urban superintendents, agrees with the foundation’s assessment that major efforts are still needed to boost urban districts’ performance.

“I think most urban superintendents will tell you that we are not happy with the pace of improvements, but we have to stay at the job for the sake of our children,” she said.

The Broad Foundation’s foray into K-12 issues has long been controversial. The foundation draws fire for advancing what critics see as a “corporate” approach to school improvement. Many teachers are also wary because of founder Eli Broad’s support of municipal and school board candidates who have run against candidates aligned with teachers’ unions. And the foundation helped fund StudentsFirst, the advocacy group that spearheaded the Vergara v. California case challenging current teacher-tenure policies.

After the announcement of the prize’s suspension, Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, told The Los Angeles Times: “The further he and his foundation stay away from public education, the better. Eli Broad’s track record on public education has been shameful.”

Mr. Reed, from the foundation, said any new urban-education prize will take into account the impact it will have on urban education. No timetable has been given for a decision on the prize’s renewal, or whether the suspension will become permanent.

A version of this article appeared in the February 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Broad Foundation Puts Urban Schools Prize On Hold Indefinitely

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