Op-Ed

Troubled school districts need more than prizes

Truly troubled districts need fresh approaches, usually involving successful charter schools

I once sat down at an education gathering and placed my orange-and-black computer bag with the lettering “Broad Prize for Urban Education” on the floor. Said the woman next to me, “That's the most highly coveted satchel in the room.”

She was right. What urban school district doesn't want to win the prestigious $1-million Broad Prize? That's why my initial reaction this week to the news that the L.A.-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation had suspended the prize was one of sadness.

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FOR THE RECORD:

An earlier version of this op-ed said Eli Broad built and sold two Fortune 500 companies. He sold only one. Also, the state of Tennessee, not city of Memphis, created the Achievement School District.

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Sad, but understandable.

My association with the Broad Prize comes from working as the “project journalist” for the 2009 prize. That meant accompanying the small band of Broad researchers, most of them experts in the arcane world of education outcome data, as they visited each of the five finalists.

It was an amazing experience. In Texas, I watched teachers in the very high-poverty Aldine Independent School District invent ingenious solutions for keeping their students on track for graduation. Most notable were the separate Ninth Grade Schools, where teachers tenaciously tracked down and helped any student deemed likely to falter in high school.

In the Long Beach Unified School District, I marveled at the success of a community that saw tremendous economic change coming and quickly whipped its schools into shape to deal with that change. In Georgia's Gwinnett County Public Schools, I saw educators do pretty much everything but arm-wrestle their students to persuade them to take ever-more-demanding classes.

Despite those impressive efforts, however, it was clear then that not all was right with the prize program. As the Broad team dined together, there were stories about past winners and runners-up slipping back — sometimes because persistent school improvement is tough, sometimes for other reasons.

The tiny Brownsville Independent School District in Texas won the 2008 prize. “Brownsville is the best-kept secret in America,” Eli Broad said at the time. The next year the winning superintendent was fired. These days, Brownsville is a no-show on top district lists.

It can't be heartening for the Broad Prize team to see districts such as New York City (a 2007 winner) lurch suddenly from Michael Bloomberg tough-love reforms to Bill de Blasio soft-love reforms. Regardless of whose style is right, the lurching rarely pays off for students.

There were clues that Broad was beginning to question the wisdom of the award, which dates to 2002. In 2011, the award, used for student scholarships, dropped from $2 million to $1 million. The next year, Broad launched a separate prize for charter schools. Was Broad, a proud graduate of Detroit public schools, losing hope in turning around big urban school districts?

Perhaps. “Eli has kept a close watch over the prize throughout its existence,” Bruce Reed, the president of the Broad Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times. “And over the past year he has become more concerned than ever about the slow pace of progress.”

Most likely, Broad is just seeing what any close watcher of urban districts can see. It's clear to education experts that only a few traditional urban school districts favored with both strong leadership and resources — Long Beach; Charlotte, N.C.; and Tampa and Miami in Florida come to mind — can continue to improve pretty much on their own.

The truly troubled districts, such as St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and plenty more, stand little chance of incrementally improving (the business-like approach Broad likes to see in school districts) their way out of trouble. The poverty is too severe, the resources too few, the unions too wary of change and, most of all, the leadership too prone to rapid turnover.

Those districts need fresh approaches, usually involving successful charter schools. Denver, which integrates high-performing charter schools directly into its system, is a great example of that promising new way. Tennessee created the independently run Achievement School District to scoop up its lowest-performing schools, which are usually turned over to top charter groups.

There are a lot of very hopeful education trends playing out across the country. In Spring Branch, Texas, a gutsy superintendent reached out to two top charter organizations, KIPP and Yes Prep Public Schools, to become reform partners, not separate charters within the district. Scores of school districts could and should follow that lead. That way, the very different school systems can learn from one another.

Top charter groups in recent years have demonstrated that they can aggressively borrow best practices from one another. Now, these groups, such as KIPP, Uncommon Schools, IDEA Public Schools, Yes Prep, Achievement First and Aspire Public Schools, can grow quickly and sure-footed on their own. Or, better yet, they can couple with school districts seeking their expertise.

Through the Broad Prize for charter schools, Eli Broad can continue to reward those promising charter groups that are expanding on their own, joining with traditional urban districts or both.

As someone whose book is titled “The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking,” Broad is not likely to double down on an iffy bet. He's built two Fortune 500 companies and sold one. He is simply following his very astute business instincts.

And he's not alone. After all, the winner of the 2009 Broad Prize, the Aldine Independent School District, recently took on a new partner to help maintain its school improvement momentum: Yes Prep charter schools.

Richard Whitmire, a fellow at the Emerson Collective, is the author of several education books.

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