If you are looking for convincing evidence that “test-based accountability” and test-score obsessions are counter-productive, the ‘Canary in the Mine’ is the Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education. Without much publicity, the Broad Foundation did not award the $1,000,000 Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education in 2015 or 2016 and has no plans to begin awarding it again in the future.
Here’s why: It turns out that the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners (public school districts) have been flat for years. These districts have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working well enough to impress 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. 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 percent 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 make up 5 percent of all schools. Over that same time period, 3 percent of the money, $16,000,000, went to winners of the Urban Education Broad Prize ( mostly for college scholarships).
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 has been backing a concerted and expensive 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. There is no public sign that anyone at the Foundation is questioning whether living and dying by test scores is a sensible pedagogy that benefits students. There is no public evidence that anyone at the Foundation has considered what might happen if poor urban students were exposed to a rich curriculum and veteran teachers, which is essentially the birthright of students in wealthy districts. Just the dismal conclusion that traditional districts are incapable of reform, followed by its decision to double down on charter management organizations, despite the truly offensive record of some of them of excluding special needs children and driving away students who seem likely to do poorly on standardized tests.
(This is excerpted from my forthcoming book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” which will be published by The New Press on August 1. It will be available in hardcover and as an e-book (the latter includes many videos from my long career).
(During my time at the PBS NewsHour, my non-profit production company, Learning Matters, received several grants from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to enable us to cover Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, and Paul Vallas in New Orleans. At no point did anyone from the Foundation ever attempt to influence our reporting, and I have the highest respect for our program officers there.)