Column: The Broad Foundation’s Bruce Reed on education reform, teachers and charters
The Broad Foundation’s education initiatives began 15 years ago, but the organization is just now getting its first president, and his surname isn’t Broad. Bruce Reed is tasked with minding the foundation’s investments and its work on K-12 reform, which has shaken the educational apple tree. The foundation spends about $60 million a year on things like training school superintendents and supporting charter schools. Reed, an Idahoan, changed coasts after three decades deeply entrenched in D.C., working on campaigns and/or policy for Al Gore, the Clintons, Barack Obama and, most recently, Vice President Joe Biden. He switched reform teams but didn’t leave the playing field.
When Eli Broad hired you, did he ask you to change anything at the foundation?
His first request was that I [look] back and see what worked, what hasn’t, and how we can make the most difference. There are things we plan to do: The foundation’s work is well known in L.A., not so well known nationally. We’re looking to partner with other like-minded foundations — Bloomberg, Gates, Walton, the Emerson Collective — to do more to press the cause of education reform nationally.
We’re trying to provide more and better options in urban schools by increasing the number of good charters and closing down bad charters.
Are there too many bad charters?
Yes. In places where the authorizers never look back at the results. The challenge is to get rid of the ones on the low end and expand the high end. There are high-quality charter management organizations that do extraordinary work. It’s much harder for the first-timer or mom-and-pop shop trying to figure this out as it goes along.
Charter supporters emphasize “autonomy.” Autonomy from what?
School districts have made the mistake of thinking they know best. Centralized bureaucracies need to focus on things they do well: managing facilities [and] transportation, making sure the rules are fair. But they’re not good at telling a teacher or principal everything he or she ought to do.
“Accountability” is another charter movement word — accountability to whom? Private reform groups like yours, or the public? Parents? Charters use public education money.
We oppose vouchers, we oppose privatization, so all the money we give goes to public school efforts, but the schools and other organizations that help schools don’t have to take the money. One of our main obligations is to track what works and what doesn’t. That’s not the practice everywhere in the philanthropic world.
Is a business model, with the emphasis on the bottom line, a good one for reforming schools?
I don’t see it as a business model. It’s imperative for any organization, public or private, to hold itself accountable for delivering the goods. Education is not a business, but public schools owe the public a great product.
Do for-profit charters challenge that?
Most of the best charters are nonprofit. We believe in keeping public money in the public system. The best charter school operators, like the best principals and teachers, don’t go in this for the money
Personalized learning is a new emphasis in school reform. Isn’t charter education already personalized?
It should be, but the new technology can make it easier for teachers to tailor education to a student’s needs.
What about the iPad experiment to bring technology into LAUSD classrooms?
The impulse is the right one. Schools shouldn’t be the last holdout in the information age.
A 2013 Stanford study found that charter school students do better than other public school students in reading but about the same in math, when you correct for demographics.
We’re seeing a great test of charters in New Orleans, where the system is almost 100% charter so there’s no “creaming” — they take everybody. And they’ve cut the achievement gap twice as fast as the rest of the state.
There should be a ruling soon in the Vergara lawsuit, brought by L.A.-area students challenging teacher tenure, seniority and firing policies. The foundation supports the students’ case. In some quarters it’s seen as being about busting teachers unions, not improving education.
The goal of Vergara and efforts like it is to make sure there are quality teachers in the classroom. We do a very poor job as a country in teacher preparation. Most education schools aren’t any good. We throw first-year teachers into the classroom. No one comes along to see how they’re doing, give them advice. No good workplace works that way. We should pay teachers more for doing well, for teaching in the toughest places to teach, for excelling at one of the toughest professions. We need to elevate the profession.
If there’s no more job security than working at Wal-Mart, isn’t that a disincentive for would-be teachers?
Tenure is fine if getting it means something, and we want to make sure that a truly ineffective teacher can be counseled out of the profession. There are many ways to ensure that teachers’ interests are protected. Insisting that every teacher should be an effective teacher shouldn’t pose an existential threat to the system.
The foundation is a believer in metrics. Some of my best teachers were unorthodox, and what made them great probably couldn’t be measured. How do you account for those qualities?
Tests are only one measure. We need fewer and better tests. The Common Core is a big step in that direction [because its] tests measure how well you think, not just how well you fill in bubbles. Schools should look at other measures in addition: student and parent satisfaction, peer review.
The reform movement has lots of critics. What points do they make that make you think, hmm, this is something we should think about?
I would agree with those who say not everything can be measured. We have to measure things that are measurable, and remember we are dealing with kids, not widgets.
The reform community is often criticized for being top-down, which is a good admonishment to keep in mind. It’s important for the long-term success of the reforms that the people with the most at stake — parents and students — are at the front lines. If all we do is have a political or ideological debate, parents are going to tune us out and kids are going to be stuck in lousy schools.
Eli Broad put his own money into the LAUSD school board races. School boards are supposed to know best because they’re local and closest to the school community.
The U.S. faces a challenge most other leading nations don’t, by having 15,000 school boards. A well-informed, thoughtful school board can do a lot of good. My general experience with political elected bodies is that the odds of them being thoughtful and well informed are never very good. Multiply that by 15,000 and you’re going to have a lot that don’t help.
Do you have to do an end-run around them?
It’s important in a democracy to lead and bring the people along. It’s never a good idea to do an end-run around the public. But on issues like education, there’s always an obstacle course of politicians in the way of doing what the people want. It’s essential that the public be able to hold leaders accountable for progress. That’s harder to do [with school boards]; [the public] doesn’t know who’s in charge.
But don’t local people on a local board epitomize decentralized school control?
The reason [education] needs to be a top priority for governors, for mayors, for other prominent political leaders is that they [can and] should be held accountable.
Elected leaders shouldn’t use school boards as an excuse to say, “Sorry, I can’t do anything.” Ideally, every governor would make this issue his or her highest priority because a governor can make the most headway in this field. There’s plenty of room for local input, but public accountability only works if there’s somebody the voters know whose neck is on the line in the next election.
The foundation’s programs train superintendents and education managers. How are they working?
Both have done a spectacular job in attracting talented people and giving them superb training as well as introducing them to a network that they can turn to throughout their careers. We are intensifying our efforts to make sure that the best talent goes to the places where it can make the most difference. A great superintendent in a community with a hopeless school board isn’t going to get as far as a great superintendent in a place that’s open to change.
Our schools have fallen so far back compared to other countries. How does this happen?
In a prosperous country, it’s easier to become complacent and worry less about the future than we should. We need that Sputnik moment in education for every parent to realize that their children’s lives will be a lot easier if they work hard and the schools are great.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a transcript. firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @pattmlatimes.
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