School & District Management

Challenging the Status Quo

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 20, 2006 9 min read

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Eli Broad, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist who set up the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles seven years ago, believes that great managers can run anything. The glut of talent in government, the military, and the private sector ought to be tapped, he believes, to help fix what he views as the nation’s most urgent problem—failing urban schools.

And in just five years, an innovative program established by his foundation has produced more than a dozen superintendents steeped in that philosophy who are managing school districts across the nation.

Mr. Broad, who made his fortune in real estate development and financial services, has invested roughly $7 million through the foundation to recruit and train “great managers.” The philanthropy has spent millions more to help graduates of the program succeed once they find jobs—flying Broad staff members and experienced schools chiefs in to advise and consult, paying for outside audits and studies, and providing special training for school board members.

Smarts, creativity, and experience leading large enterprises are the key requirements for selection as a Broad superintendents fellow. The rest, the Broad philosophy maintains, can be taught. To that mind-set, being an outsider who hasn’t come up in the traditions of public school systems is a huge advantage.

Since its creation in 2002, 97 fellows have completed the program, known as the Broad Superintendents Academy. The foundation spends roughly $45,000 to train each of the business executives, military officers, nonprofit-sector leaders, government officials, and, in some cases, sitting superintendents who have gone through the academy.

The fellows have landed some of public education’s biggest jobs. The Prince George’s County, Md., and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school boards selected Broad Academy fellows as superintendents this spring.

“What’s most striking about the Broad program is that they zero in and obsess over leadership skills when they choose their fellows,” said Nancy Noeske, a veteran headhunter who has been invited by the foundation to meet the fellows and conduct mock interviews.

That the academy’s fellows are sought after is a testament to the quality of its recruits, but also underscores the shallowness of the pool of superintendent talent. While most schools chiefs still reach their positions by climbing the public education career ladder, the Broad Academy stands alone as a recruiter and trainer of would-be superintendents from inside and outside education.

Tim Quinn, a former superintendent who has run the academy since it began, put it this way: “The nontraditionals tend to come from worlds where things get done and where challenging the status quo is expected. There are no excuses.”

Inside a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia, Broad fellows listened attentively as Lawrence W. Fryer Jr. told them about his great-great-grandfather, a cattle driver from South Texas. “He may have been the first black trail boss,” said Mr. Fryer, whose “leadership story” kicked off a four-day training session for this year’s group of fellows.

In his own life, Mr. Fryer explained, he was the lone black student in many of his junior high classes. He was one among a small number of high-ranking African-American officers in the Marine Corps. The retired lieutenant colonel, 49, is one of seven “nontraditionals” in the academy’s class of 2006.

“A lot of people helped me along the way,” he said. “I want to give some of that back.”

Later, when Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana spoke to her fellow superintendent-hopefuls, she recalled a humiliating 1st grade experience in a Los Angeles school, where a teacher placed her in the slowest group of readers. “They called us ‘the buzzards,’ and all we did was recite the alphabet over and over and over again,” said Ms. Meléndez de Santa Ana, 47, a daughter of Mexican immigrants.

“That’s why reading and literacy are so important to me,” she said.

Ms. Meléndez de Santa Ana, a former teacher and principal, is among the 18-person group’s 11 career educators. Four others are senior military officers, including Steven R. Polk, 59, who retired as inspector general of the Air Force. Three are private-sector types.

The Broad Foundation paid for the fellows to travel to Philadelphia for a long weekend to debate, discuss, and dissect what it takes to turn around urban school districts. It was the third of seven sessions planned for this year and the one that drilled the fellows on management strategies: how to deal with an inexperienced school board, negotiate with labor unions, and, most importantly, raise student achievement. One day was devoted to school choice and charters, with presentations from advocates: Steven Adamowski, a former Cincinnati superintendent, and Howard Fuller, a former superintendent in Milwaukee and a professor at Marquette University.

Other sessions took on such subjects as race and the achievement gap and included visits to districts like Long Beach, Calif., to see classrooms and talk with superintendents who have been successful. This month’s session in Chicago will focus on prepping the fellows for job interviews and introducing them to the top headhunters.

Dan Katzir, the Broad Foundation’s managing director and an instructor in the academy, told the fellows that Southwest Airlines and the computer giant Dell Inc. are examples of how new players entered an established market, came up with innovative strategies, and achieved success. The message: Urban superintendents can, and should, do the same.

Arlene Ackerman, the former San Francisco superintendent who will soon take over Mr. Quinn’s role as the academy’s chief faculty member, led the fellows through a case study on Philadelphia. They spent several hours picking apart the tenure of David W. Hornbeck, who ran the Philadelphia district from 1994 to 2000, debating how his strategies for running the big-city district should be judged now.

The academy is one arm of the foundation’s many-tentacled reach into urban education. The philanthropy also bestows the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education each year; runs a management program for business, public-policy, and law school graduates whom the foundation places in school districts to take on jobs such as budget planning; and provides a training course for new school board members.

With its graduates out in the real world, the Broad Superintendents Academy will be graded on how well they perform.

At least 14 former and current fellows are running large, heavily minority districts, including Pittsburgh, Pa.; Oakland, Calif.; and Charleston, S.C. Three head districts with high percentages of poor and minority children, but smaller enrollments, while five are superintendents in nonurban districts. At least 16 other fellows are serving as high-level administrators in large districts, including Boston and Philadelphia.

For its first four years, the foundation measured the academy’s success largely by counting how many of its graduates were hired as superintendents or other high-level leaders in large districts. Now, with a handful of Broad graduates who have spent at least two years as superintendents in a single district, the foundation offers a new measure of its impact: student achievement.

The foundation examined test scores in English and mathematics across all grade levels in seven districts where Broad graduates are the chief executives; it concluded that six of them had overseen improving scores in both areas.

Despite such promise, not all Broad trainees have had an easy time once hired.

Thandiwe Peebles, a 2002 Broad graduate, resigned abruptly as Minneapolis’ superintendent earlier this year, reportedly before she was to be fired.

In the Christina, Del., district—where the Broad Foundation has spent millions of dollars to back reform efforts and train school board members—controversy over the district’s financial health has been roiling for weeks. The 19,000-student district’s new superintendent, Lillian Lowery, who graduated from the Broad Academy in 2004, is struggling to manage a deficit that state auditors say was caused by her predecessor, Joseph Wise, also a Broad Academy graduate.

While Delaware officials have promised a bailout, Mr. Wise, who is now the superintendent in Duval County, Fla., has vigorously defended his budget-management techniques and accused state officials of manufacturing the shortfall. Broad officials have been working behind the scenes to calm the turbulence.

Distrust of the Broad Foundation’s goals remains in some circles. Any effort to use private-sector strategies to manage schools raises worries about the “corporatization” of public education. Other critics take issue with the “great leader” approach, arguing that systemic problems must be addressed.

Robert S. Peterkin, the director of the urban-superintendents program at Harvard University, objects to the idea that non-educators can and should run school systems. “As soon as they go in,” he said, “they are immediately looking for a chief academic officer. I just don’t think you can give away the instructional program and say you’ll take care of everything else.”

But Mr. Peterkin said the Broad Academy does share one goal of his: “I think they do have the potential to broaden the pool of candidates for the superintendency among women and people of color.”

Some critics say Broad Academy graduates, regardless of their readiness, have an unfair advantage when they compete for jobs as superintendents. Because the Broad Foundation has targeted the nation’s 100 largest districts as eligible for grants to support initiatives such as training new principals and performance-based pay for teachers and administrators, school boards will naturally favor Broad-trained candidates, they say.

Districts that hire Broad-trained superintendents are almost guaranteed to see a substantial investment from the foundation, which is open about wanting to ensure its fellows’ success.

Much of that comes in the form of the academy’s “alumni services,” such as Broad’s assignment of an executive coach—always a current or former urban superintendent—who is available by phone, e-mail, and often in person to provide counsel to fellows.

Gary Ray, whose Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based search firm, Ray and Associates Inc., has placed several Broad graduates as superintendents, does not believe that connections to the foundation necessarily give candidates an edge, but he understands that perception.

“I would say that larger districts are certainly aware of the funding potential from Broad, and it may be on the minds of school board members when they are considering candidates,” Mr. Ray said. “But I have never heard a school district or school board say that, ‘If we choose this person, then we will be able to get our hands on Broad money.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Challenging The Status Quo

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