A Sad Celebration

In a few days, a  charter school organization will receive the $250,000 Prize for excellence from the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation.  Three finalists– IDEA Public Schools, Success Academy Charter Schools and YES Prep Public Schools–were announced weeks ago. The winner will be made public at the annual meeting of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in Nashville on June 27.  The four previous winners of the prize are KIPP, Noble Network, Uncommon Schools and Yes Prep.  

But there’s another, more important piece of the story.  Without much publicity and for the second year in a row, the Broad Foundation is not awarding the $1,000,000 Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education, which has been given to a public school district. It turns out that the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners have been flat for years. These districts have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working, or not working well enough for the Foundation’s judges.

Ben Weider of the blog 538 deconstructed the issue in a well-reasoned piece, “The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners.” Not long after, the Foundation decided to ‘pause’ the $1 million award, citing ‘sluggish’ changes in urban schools.  No prize was awarded in 2015, nor will one be this year, the Foundation’s Director of Communications told me.  As Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times has reported, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad has shifted his focus to charter schools.

But that’s not really new news, as the Foundation’s own pie chart reveals. Since 1999, the Foundation has made $589,500,000 in education-related grants, and 24% of the money, $144,000,000, has gone directly to public charter schools.  No doubt some of the ‘leadership’ and ‘governance’ dollars have gone to public charter schools, which at best make up 5% of all schools.  Over that same time period, 3% of the money, $16,000,000, went to winners of the Urban Education Broad Prize (for college scholarships).

In other words, the Foundation’s pro-charter tilt has been evident for a long time.  Now it’s getting steeper and more pronounced.

Mr. Broad hoped that urban districts could improve “if given the right models or if political roadblocks” (such as those he believes are presented by teachers unions) “could be overcome,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The suspension of the prize for urban education could signal a “highly public step” toward the view that traditional districts “are incapable of reform,” Henig said.  Mr. Broad seems to have already taken that step in his home city of Los Angeles, where he is backing an effort to greatly expand the charter sector.

Apparently it’s pretty simple for the folks administering the Broad Prize in Urban Education: Successful School Reform boils down to higher test scores.  I see no public sign that anyone at the Foundation is questioning whether living and dying by test scores is sensible pedagogy that benefits students.  And no public evidence that they’ve considered what might happen if poor urban students were exposed to a rich curriculum and veteran teachers.  If poor kids got what is the birthright of students in wealthy districts!

Just the dismal conclusion that traditional districts are incapable of reform, and doubling down on charter management organizations, despite the truly offensive record of some of them, including current nominees, of excluding special needs children and driving away students who seem likely to do poorly on standardized tests.

How sad…..

9 thoughts on “A Sad Celebration

  1. Wringing your hands is not much more constructive than wringing Broad’s neck. The truth is that we’ve known for years how to document student learning: ask them to show off their best stuff. The ePortfolio system which Kellogg funded through Learning Matters is still an excellent example of just that: with regular updates from grades 8 through 12, kids show that they not only learn more, but learn how to learn more and how to demonstrate it more clearly.
    Testing is a product of an industrial system that relied on clocks and screwed in seats to nail the most superficial of metrics into statistically reliable “hard data.” Yet, for decades, we have known there are many, many better ways to demonstrate excellence. It is no surprising that Broad Foundation has yet to discover what so many teachers, students, schools and scholars so well understand: they are mechanics for an outdated mechanical system. If they think great test takers are the key to the future, they’re just going to lock themselves into the past.


  2. Yes, it should be about demonstrating learning, how and when and where it takes place with emphasis on great teaching as well. Good teachers leaving broken systems, students being deprived of exciting and productive learning opportunities that we know exist in many places and bureaucracies and some unions protecting mediocrity simply doesn’t work. When nothing changes, nothing changes and everything else has changed. If those places and people don’t step up and change they will not only be left behind, they will be left out. Sad, as you say, John. Almost tragic!


    • A CAVEAT: I have a personal sensitivity to the commonly repeated statement these days that “good teachers are leaving the profession.” This harmfully bypasses the reality that many, many dedicated career teachers have been, and are currently still being, systematically forced out of their classrooms against their will.


  3. And the school shuffle continues with the outrageous belief that if you change the ownership of the school, you change the school. Take the handcuffs off the traditional public schools, allow as well as demand innovation while providing valued assessment and change will then begin. And reform will change from rhetoric to reality. Remember, traditional public schools serve all kids. ALL KIDS!


  4. The Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation is awarding a $250,000 prize to the charter school that’s getting the best test scores?

    The same people who are promoting “market-based reform” aren’t smart enough to consider that the more they financially reward charter schools for getting high test scores, the more they incentivize charter schools to get rid of their lowest performing students?

    Either they are really not very bright, or the Broad Foundation is INTENTIONALLY doing everything it can to encourage charter schools to get rid of their lowest scoring students. The fact that the lowest scoring students are likely to be at-risk kids living in poverty just makes this all the more shocking.


  5. “The winner of the 2016 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools is IDEA Public Schools, which will receive $250,000 to support college-readiness programs for its students. The winner was announced at the National Charter School Conference in Nashville, Tennessee on June 27.” From the Foundation’s website


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