End. The Broad Prize. Now.

I stared at the tweet, dumbfounded.

Houston: 2013 Broad Prize winner?

That can’t be.

I had recently dug through old city-level NAEP results. They were all terribly depressing.

But Houston’s stopped me cold.

Somehow it had won the 2002 Broad Prize (for supposed urban district excellence) despite dreadfully low performance.  Worse, its scores are virtually unchanged nearly a decade later.

Houston NAEP TUDA. Click to enlarge.

It’s being honored again?

This is what earns an urban district a Broad Prize?

San Diego was a Broad Prize finalist and also participates in TUDA. So off I went searching for its data.

Maybe it will be better; Houston was probably just a mistake.

San Diego’s overall scores are slightly better than the appallingly low “large-city” average (8th reading, 27 percent vs. 23 percent). But it has considerably fewer low-income students than other participating cities: 61 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; in Cleveland it’s 100 percent; Dallas, 85 percent; Chicago and Baltimore, 84 percent.

Hmm. Does San Diego still have an advantage if we compare similar cohorts of students?

No. Its performance is as heartbreakingly low.

In Houston and San Diego, about one in ten African American eighth graders can read proficiently. Their low-income students do only the smallest bit better.

NAEP TUDA. Click to enlarge.

This is what earns you national recognition? This is what “reducing achievement gaps among low-income and minority students” looks like?

Boston NYC NAEP TUDA. Click to enlarge.

Lest you think this year is an aberration, consider the performance of Boston and New York City, winners of the Broad Prize in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and both participants in NAEP TUDA since 2003.

Both perform at virtually the same distressingly low level as the average large city, neither more than budging in nearly a decade.

So much for exemplary performance. So much for exemplary progress.

Given this jaw-dropping data, you could be excused for thinking those behind the award this year were being ironic—bestowing a brilliantly sardonic “prize” along the lines of the faux “modesty” of Jonathan Swift’s infamous proposal: Force the observer to see the outrageousness of a situation by making a deadpan case for something even more outrageous.

At first we’d be confused by the accolade given to Houston and San Diego—wait, that can’t be right…—then, slowly—Oh, the selection committee’s genius!—we’d realize that we had been had.

The committee is obliging us to swallow the uniformly deplorable condition of urban districts by mordantly “awarding” best-in-breed status to two failing districts.

If only it were so.

Regrettably, when it comes to the Broad Prize, most of our sector’s leaders—like Melville’s description of a character concealing a darker truth behind a grave façade—appear immune to sarcasm and irony. Indeed, this annual feting plays host to education reform’s glitterati, temporarily turned solemn and doe-eyed.

Strolling around some posh setting—the Museum of Modern Art or Library of Congress—rubbing shoulders with glamorous entertainers and media celebrities, they play the role of the servile court, mesmerized by the Emperor’s new clothes. Beguiled, they celebrate the weavers’ finery.

My, what a spectacular suit the Emperor wears!

If only the fable’s innocent child were there to scream, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

In Houston and San Diego, only 10 percent of African American eighth graders can read proficiently!

So why in the world does the foundation honor such galling performance?  The answer can be found in one of the Prize’s four goals.

• Restore the public’s confidence in our nation’s public schools by highlighting successful urban districts

They have made the tragic error of conflating “public education” and “the district.” They apparently believe, mistakenly, that admitting the urban district’s abject failure is tantamount to admitting public education’s failure. And so they feel compelled to go to these extraordinary, excruciating lengths to prop up the failed urban district.

But the district is just one delivery system for public education—a century-old institutional arrangement. Its failure only implicates its own structure, not public education.

By praising such low performance, the Broad Prize doesn’t do a favor for public education. Instead, it serves to obscure the truth—that the urban district has been an unmitigated failure for 50 years—and to perpetuate a myth—that if we are to care about public education, we must commit ourselves in perpetuity to the district structure.

Unfortunately, the Broad Foundation bet big on the wrong horse more than a decade ago, believing that the urban district was fixable. It created the Broad Superintendents Academy and the Broad Residents program, two grand efforts to drive highly talented people into urban districts. But, of course, those districts continue to fail to this very day.

To the foundation’s credit, they’ve hedged their bets over time. Both programs now send talent into other organization types, like high-performing CMOs and state departments of education. Even more importantly, the foundation launched in 2012 a prize for superior charter school performance, honoring YES Prep for actual, not contrived, urban public education excellence. This year, the undeniably superb Uncommon Schools won.

Regarding this new program, the foundation’s benefactor, Eli Broad, encouragingly said they have found that the “best urban public charter-school systems are performing significantly better than the best traditional school-district systems.”

But then, like so many others before him, Mr. Broad restated his intention to continue investing in perpetually broken urban districts.

If we want to help disadvantaged urban kids, we must stop propping up the failed urban district. We must stop driving our most talented and dedicated professionals into this disastrous structure that has repulsed every effort to improve it for half a century.

We must build The Urban School System of the Future, not double down on the failed urban district of the past.

No more awards for urban districts with 10 percent of African American eighth graders reading proficiently.

No more improperly linking the fate of urban districts to the fate of public education.

No more blind faith in an institution with a 50-year track record of failure.

End. The Broad Prize. Now.

-Andy Smarick

* Note: My Bellwether colleague Andy Rotherham has an affiliation with the Broad Prize. These are my opinions and they do not necessarily reflect the views of Bellwether.

An earlier version of this blog entry appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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