The Broad Prize and the Courage to Change

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.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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