A very important education reform announcement occurred last week, but you probably missed it because of the surprising and unfortunate paucity of coverage.
In hindsight, we may come to see this news as a turning point in our nation’s generations-long effort to ensure low-income inner-city kids have access to great schools.
Early Wednesday, finalists were named for the 2014 Broad Prize for Urban Education. For more than a decade, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation have given an annual award to the urban district with the best performance and most impressive academic gains.
Traditionally, the naming of finalists and the selection of a winner are celebratory events. They’ve been used as opportunities to shine a light on districts distinguishing themselves from the otherwise discouraging universe of urban school systems. The award has been widely viewed as a much-needed feel-good moment that, not unimportantly, brings with it major scholarship money for students.
For some time now, however, roiling waters have been visible just below the surface. Yes (and by definition), there will always be a “best” among any class, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is deserving of praise; that is, it might be good in relative terms but not absolute ones.
Said another way, is the best urban district good enough?
This year, to their enormous credit, the foundation and its selection committee openly addressed this issue. Their conclusion is that it’s time to reassess.
The press release, possibly the most introspective I’ve ever read, explains it all. After naming the finalists and providing the requisite background information, the release reframes the discussion it started 12 years ago.
“This marks the first time since the prize’s founding in 2002 that the review board has opted to name only two finalists instead of either four or five as in previous years.”
Why the change?
According to Christopher Cross, a review-board member since its inception,
While we have two districts that have shown some strong gains, we were incredibly disappointed with the overall progress of urban school systems across the U.S.… When we evaluated the most recent data, we were struck by how incremental progress has been in recent years and by how far our public schools still have to go to provide a world-class education for all children.
The foundation’s new president, Bruce Reed, echoed the sentiment. “The review board has sent a clear message: In too many urban school systems, students aren’t getting the quality of education they deserve.”
In a blog post, advisory-board member Rick Hess explained further. “Today’s announcement marks a decided shift in awarding a prize that has consistently reflected a glass-half-full mindset now reflecting a more impatient stance.”
This reorientation is immensely important and hugely admirable.
No one can say the Broad Foundation hasn’t been on the side of urban districts. It has done arguably as much as any philanthropy in recent years to improve these struggling organizations.
In addition to the Broad Prize, it has given substantial grants to urban districts and created the Broad Academy and Broad Residency, which, in combination, have directed hundreds of talented professionals into urban districts. The foundation’s staff and the prize’s selection committee have spent countless hours studying the functioning and results of these organizations, doing their best to bring about dramatic change.
It speaks volumes that these smart, committed individuals have collectively hit the pause button. Their extensive research and studied deliberations have caused them “incredible disappoint(ment)” with urban district progress, leading to a “shift” toward “a more impatient stance” and the decision to send “a clear message” that in urban districts “students aren’t getting the quality of education they deserve.”
This should be a wake-up call for those hoping to fix failing urban districts.
But I also want to recognize the courage shown by the foundation and its selection committee. They are deserving of great credit and our respect.
No one likes to make public course corrections. The implication is that you’ve made a mistake, and—having been in this position more than once—I know it’s not pleasant.
But philanthropies typically find it much harder than the rest of us. When a major foundation believes in something, it ends up spending a lot of time, effort, and money. If it sticks to a theory for long enough, the world is altered by its work. That means the way things end up are, at least partially, attributable to its theory of action.
For this reason, many funders are loath to change course. They continue supporting strategies long after it’s become clear they aren’t generating the results desired. Why raise the ire of those you’ve funded, those you’ve influenced, those on your staff, and those on your board?
The only reason to do so is that you’ve faithfully kept your eye on the prize. You’ve recognized that your desired ends are immutable but all means are dispensable.
I’d wager a handsome sum that the foundation got some unpleasant calls and emails when its press release went live. I’m sure they’re being charged with all sorts of things—turning their backs, undercutting progress, and the like.
But, in truth, those involved in this decision came to the conclusion that their ultimate goal is ensuring that all inner-city kids get a great education. They decided that, in light of the facts, it’s time to reconsider their totally reasonable theory of action—that providing funding, human capital, and kudos to urban districts would substantially improve results.
I don’t know where the foundation or the prize will go from here. But those who contributed to Wednesday’s announcement have modeled good behavior for other funders, policymakers, and those of us in the chattering class: aspire to help others, develop a bold strategy designed to achieve your goals, but always remain open to the possibility that adjustments, even big ones, may be required.
This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.
No, or at least not very much
A state court in New Jersey rejected arguments by the teachers union against two charter schools in Newark that use blended learning.
The brute force and directness required for adopting national standards makes its effective implementation in a diverse, decentralized, and democratic country impossible.
In a crowded 2016 field, education could and should be a critical asset for a potential Bush candidacy. What happens with Common Core over the next 24 months will determine whether it is.
Is it legal to opt your child out of state tests? Should it be legal?
After eight years of helping make New Orleans the most exciting American city for K–12 education, Neerav Kingsland is going to focus on bringing NOLA-style reform to other cities.
The Broad Prize, awarded to an urban district for showing great improvement in student achievement, particularly among low-income and minority students, has only two finalists this year, Gwinnett County, Ga. and Orange County, Fla.
CRPE, DFER, CEE-Trust and more
A modern-day Flexner report should focus on finding a more effective model of teacher training.
Posts by Authors
- Achieve, Inc.
- Alliance for Excellent Education
- Alliance for School Choice
- American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence
- American Institutes For Research
- American Legislative Exchange Council
- Annie E. Casey Foundation
- Aspen Institute
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Broad Foundation
- Brookings Institution
- Building Excellent Schools
- Center for American Progress
- Center for Education Reform
- Center for Educational Achievement
- Center on Reinventing Public Education
- Citizens Commission On Civil Rights
- Common Core
- Consortium for Policy Research in Education
- Core Knowledge Foundation
- Data Quality Campaign
- Democrats for Education Reform
- Education Sector
- Education Trust
- Foundation for Excellence in Education
- Friedman Foundation
- Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media
- National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
- National Association of Charter School Authorizers
- National Charter School Research Project
- National Council on Teacher Quality
- National Education Writers Association
- National Governors Association
- National Institute for Excellence in Teaching
- New Leaders for New Schools
- New Schools Venture Fund
- Program on Education Policy and Governance
- Progressive Policy Institute
- Public Impact
- Teach for America
- The New Teacher Project
- Thomas B. Fordham Institute
- United States Department of Education
About the Blog
The Ed Next blog aims to provide lively commentary on education news and research and to bring evidence to bear on current education policy debates.
Our bloggers include editors at Education Next magazine and others who have written for the magazine. Education Next is a quarterly journal of opinion and research about education policy published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and additionally sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
The opinions expressed by the Ed Next bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Educationnext.org, Education Next magazine, or its sponsors. Educationnext.org is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.