School & District Management

Broad Prize: Elite Club or Catalyst for Change?

By Christina A. Samuels — October 18, 2011 8 min read
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When the Broad Prize for Urban Education was created in 2002, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad said he hoped the awards, in addition to rewarding high-performing school districts, would foster healthy competition; boost the prestige of urban education, long viewed as dysfunctional; and showcase best practices.

Over the 10 years the prize has been given out, it has become a coveted honor. But whether the reforms the award program champions have spread widely to other urban districts is harder to discern.

This year, all the finalists had been there before. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district, honored in September as the 10th winner, had been nominated twice. The Florida districts of Miami-Dade County and Broward County have made it to the final round four and three times, respectively. The Ysleta district in El Paso, Texas, was on its second try.

Apart from the program’s inaugural year, only one district has won the prize the first time it was nominated: Brownsville, Texas, in 2008. In 10 years of competition, just 21 districts have won or been finalists.

Winners and Finalists

Most of the school districts that have won the Broad Prize for their work in improving academic achievement were nominated more than once.


The fact that the competition appears to produce a limited pool of contenders has come up in discussions among members of the review board that winnows the eligible districts down to four finalists, said Christopher T. Cross, who has served on that panel since the award’s inception.

“We would love to see very vigorous competition and for all the districts to be in it,” said Mr. Cross, an education consultant who was an assistant secretary for research and improvement in the U.S. Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Not only the same districts, but two states, Florida and Texas, stand out for having a high number of finalists and winners.

“The fact that the same names have come up again and again is an indication of how tough it is to qualify to that elite circle,” Mr. Cross said.

For most of the decade the prize has existed, about 100 school systems nationwide were deemed eligible. The award administrators recently tightened the screening requirements, so eligibility, in 2011 and in future years, is limited to 75 districts.

“We would like every district to say out loud, ‘We want to be the top-performing and
-improving district in the country,’ ” said Dan Katzir, a senior adviser to the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation and the former managing director of the Broad Prize, as it’s now formally known. “The Broad Prize has become aspirational for some people,” Mr. Katzir added. “You don’t see that in all 75 [eligible districts], but I think Eli’s original vision has manifested itself.”

Searching for Sustainability

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute and a previous review panelist, said the prize criteria favor high-performing school systems that are able to maintain their performance for the long term—all ingredients that lead to districts repeating turns in the spotlight.

“It’s the same reason that the Yankees seem to be in the playoffs every year, or the Patriots or Steelers are in the playoffs every year. When organizations are good at something, you expect them to be good at it consistently,” Mr. Hess said.

And the conversation around the Broad Prize and its focus on outcome-driven results and closing achievement gaps between minority and nonminority students has clearly taken hold in an upper echelon of urban school districts, said Mr. Hess, who also writes an opinion blog for

“I feel pretty confident saying Broad has penetrated the conversation in, say, 15 or 20 districts,” he said. “I don’t know, or I’m just not sure, how far beyond that it’s gone.”

The Broad Prize provides $550,000 in college scholarships for high school seniors to the winning district, while the other finalists receive $150,000 each.

Rigorous Process

The award is unusual in that districts cannot nominate themselves. Instead, they are pulled from a pool of school districts nationwide that meet certain criteria for overall enrollment, minority enrollment, and percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, among other factors.

A research firm then compiles a dossier on each of the eligible districts for the review panel. Among the considerations: student performance on state tests; the reduction of achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups and between lower-income and more-affluent students; graduation rates; Advanced Placement participation rates and scores; and performance relative to that of other districts in the state with similar demographics.

“This is exceptionally well organized,” said Jane Hannaway, the director of the education policy center at the Urban Institute, in Washington, and a member of the prize review panel. She is among several members who have served since the award’s inaugural year.

“A real effort is made to get as much hard data as possible on the table,” she said.

Mr. Cross said the panelists look for performance that appears sustainable.

“Part of the reality of this is that it takes a long time for districts to get it right,” he said. “Aldine [in Texas] or Long Beach [in California] and Boston have gotten it right, and they’ve managed to maintain the factors that have gotten them there in the long term.”

Aldine, in the Houston metropolitan area, was nominated three times before it won in 2009. Long Beach, which won the Broad Prize in 2003, has been a finalist three more times in subsequent years. Winners can be finalists again after three years have passed.

Achievement can also be tenuous. Shelley H. Billig, a vice present of the Denver-based RMC Research Corp. that visits each finalist district, notes that New York and Norfolk, Va., are districts that have won the award but haven’t maintained the same level of achievement. “Sometimes you lose your momentum,” she said.

Validating Reforms

After the review panel narrows the pool of eligible districts to four, a smaller selection jury chooses the winner, using the quantitative data that are available as well as qualitative information gathered during an intensive visit from an educational research firm. The firm’s team spends four days in each district, talking to more than 200 employees.

The process is rigorous and time-consuming: Former Boston Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said he joked with Mr. Katzir that maybe his district could skip it after Boston was nominated for the fifth time.

“But Dan said, ‘Look, you’ve got to do it,’ ” said Mr. Payzant, now a professor of educational leadership at Harvard University and a mentor to school leaders trained through the Broad Superintendents Academy, another of the foundation’s high-profile education initiatives. (“Broad Academy’s Growing Reach Draws Scrutiny,” June 8, 2011.)

The Boston school system ended up winning on that fifth try, in 2006.

“For me, the best thing about the Broad Prize was validation that it is possible to improve student achievement and narrow gaps in urban school districts,” Mr. Payzant said, “and that the practices that are used to get those kinds of results are worth knowing about so that others can learn from them.

“It really underscores the importance of thinking systemically,” he said, “thinking deep in a few areas, rather than superficially in many.”

Other districts have gotten in touch with the Broad Foundation in order to be connected with a winning or finalist district, said Mr. Katzir, the Broad Foundation adviser. The award process “does uncover gems across the country that many people may not have heard of,” he said.

Spreading the Word

Mr. Katzir also pointed to Dallas as an example of a district that enthusiastically embraced some of the reforms used by Broad prize winners.

Under the leadership of then-Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, the Dallas Independent School District created a “Road to Broad” initiative that aligned staff resources with improving its curriculum and pushing for higher academic standards for its students.

“Publicly declaring that we are on the Road to Broad carries a risk,” Mr. Hinojosa wrote in a commentary for the Dallas Morning News. However, the work came to a disappointing end: Dallas was not named a finalist in 2010, after a 5-year-long campaign.

“We’re moving towards it,” Dallas school board member Adam Medrano told the Morning News in 2010. “It’s just taking us a little bit of time to get there.”

Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., holds up her organization’s Council of Urban Boards of Education Annual Award as a better method of disseminating best practices than the Broad Prize.

There is some overlap between the CUBE award and the Broad Prize: Brownsville, Texas, Boston, and Norfolk, Va. have won both prizes. But some districts, such as Hillsborough County, Fla. and Baltimore, have won the CUBE award but have not been Broad finalists.

“You don’t spread best practice by having a fancy luncheon,” said Ms. Bryant, who has served on the Broad Prize review panel since the award was established. “[The NSBA has] a very intentional strategy of getting those practices out. This is not a criticism of the Broad Prize—they focus on press and not a strategy of disseminating best practices.”

She said the NSBA, for example, produces newsletters, conducts training seminars, and holds conferences to bring its members together with high-performing districts. “That’s our job,” she said. “That’s not Eli Broad’s job.”

The Broad organization says it is working on a white paper reporting on continuous-improvement models from winning districts that are particularly strong. And at least one book, by a former district reviewer, looks at five winning districts and their reform strategies.

RMC Research Corp., the Denver firm that visits each district for the prize’s qualitative study, says that for the first time, it plans to do a study of two districts—Guilford, N.C., and Austin, Texas—that are not yet finalists, to put them through the same rigorous review so they can see their strengths and weaknesses.

“They’ve got leaders who say, ‘We want to win,’ ” Ms. Billig said.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Broad Prize: Do the Successes Spread?


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