Troubled school districts need more than awards

Eli Broad
Eli Broad

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 to the recent news that the LA-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation had suspended the prize was one of sadness.

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. 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. 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.

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; 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.

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.

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.

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. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.