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Broad Foundation Puts Hold on Its Prize for Urban Education


Disappointing academic results are prompting the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to "pause" its $1 million annual award that recognizes improvements in student achievement in the nation's urban school districts.

When it was founded 13 years ago, the Broad Prize for Urban Education was meant to galvanize urban school districts that serve low-income students to significantly improve student performance and close the achievement gap. But today, the foundation announced that the prize has been "paused"  because of "sluggish" academic results from the country's largest urban school systems and to allow it time to reflect on how it can improve the prize-awarding process given the ways that urban education has evolved in the last 13 years.

The foundation cited changes in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, Tennessee's Achievement School District, and other "portfolio" districts that offer a mix of traditional public schools and charter models as some of the changes that the foundation will review and to update the award. (Some of those efforts are funded by the foundation.)

"The decision to pause the prize was further precipitated by sluggish academic results from the largest urban school districts in the country," according to the press release making the announcement. "Previously, 75 of the largest public school districts in the country were automatically eligible for The Broad Prize each year. A review board of education experts reviewed performance data and selected the finalists. Since 2002, there have always been four or five finalists."

But last year, only two districts made it past the review board to a jury for consideration.

"The rise of a new definition of public school systems, coupled with more rigorous standards and higher expectations for our public schools, convinced us that now is the right time to take a break and evaluate how to improve The Broad Prize so it fulfills its original mission: to catalyze dramatic improvement in America's public schools," said Bruce Reed, president of The Broad Foundation. "We want to make sure any award recognizes the best achievement in K-12 public education today while incentivizing school systems to raise student achievement to the highest level."

The foundation will still award its $250,000 annual prize for charter schools, which Reed said he hoped would inspire educators across the country "to work with heightened urgency and creativity to make sure that every student achieves at high levels."

The prize for urban districts had four goals: reward districts that boosted achievement levels for disadvantaged students; restore public confidence in public schools; create incentives for districts to improve; and showcase best practices for urban school districts.

The announcement was not entirely a surprise for those paying attention. In selecting two winners in 2014—Gwinnett County, Ga., and Orange County, Fla., with Gwinnett being a repeat winner—jurors said they were underwhelmed by the lack of progress.

Mr. Broad himself hinted that there was some soul searching under way when he took the stage in Manhattan last year to recognize the winners.

He acknowledged the hard work in the 15 years they spent trying to move the achievement needle in urban systems.

And Reed indicated at the time the foundation was "disappointed" that more districts weren't showing the progress both Gwinnett and Orange counties have displayed and that as a country "we desperately need to do better, in more places, much faster."

Frederick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute who has served as a Broad Prize review board member, said:

"I think it's a fascinating decision," Hess said. "The prize was intended to recognize and encourage urban improvement efforts, and after more than a decade of energetic activity, The Broad Foundation has concluded that progress has not been substantial enough or fast enough. I think this occasions appropriate reflection among all of us."

Hess went on: "One can also say looking at the TUDA [Trial Urban District Assessment] data there has been real improvement in urban education over the past 10 or 15 years," he added.  "It's just that the results aren't anywhere close to where we all might wish...and the question this poses is whether we are inevitably going to grow frustrated with the pace of improvement in urban school systems."

Prizes are given to those with the best performance, and it was difficult to argue that the urban school systems were delivering the best, Hess said.

"It's hard to look at urban school systems and say that any one of them that [they] are truly producing the kinds of results for their children that we would want to brag about," he said. "There is no urban system where 95 percent of children are graduating, and they are going off to great jobs and terrific colleges, and [are] taking lots of advanced placement courses."

But the prize, he said, brought attention to those districts that were making some headway.

"I think the Broad Prize did a really remarkable job of bringing attention to urban school systems that have been doing some really good work," Hess said. "There are systems like Gwinnett and Aldine [Texas] that hardly anyone had heard of before the Broad Prize, but which are now recognized for the good work they are doing. I think it has illuminated some useful practices and brought deserved attention to some talented and hardworking leaders. "

Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, who had called for the abolition of the prize, said he agreed with the decision and called it a courageous one.

"This is courageous," Smarick said. "For the foundation to do something for a decade and to have the wherewithal to step back and reassess such a public award after a decade and decide it's time to move in another direction—that's bold. That does not happen in our field very often. I give the foundation enormous credit for making this decision, and the big question now is what flows from that."

Smarick later added: "My belief is that the prize was never about districts; it was about better opportunities for kids in inner-city public schools.  Districts were the means; but the ends were always the lives of boys and girls. The foundation seems to be saying, "Let's keep our North Star, but let's allow our strategies to change as the evidence demands." Traditional districts haven't gotten the job done, so the prize is going to bring attention to other, more promising approaches.

The Broad Prize for Urban Education has awarded $16 million to 1,200 low-income students since its inception. The foundation said it will award scholarships this spring to Gwinnett and Orange County Public school students and it will continue to renew scholarships for students who are already in school.

The foundation will continue to pay for diagnostic visits to school districts, which is normally done for districts that are finalists for the prize.  

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