Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations Better – Part 3

Part of an ongoing series from a much longer essay I wrote for school. Introduction is here. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Today is Part 3. Don’t steal it, obviously.

The Broad Prize for Urban Education was designed to be seen as equivalent to “Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes for education” (Prothero, 2017). It awarded up to $1 million to major American urban school districts that succeeded at closing the achievement gap for low-income minority students, and existed from 2002 to 2014, until it was suspended.

The prize was awarded based on a series of metrics including reading and math scores, standardized tests, graduation rates, and Advanced Placement. It specifically targeted the 75 largest urban areas in the country, with the stated goal to improve public school performance. The prize sought to “restore the American public’s confidence in public schools by spotlighting districts making significant gains in student achievement” (Broad Foundation, 2002, p.3). In any given year of its existence, the selection committee and review board could count among its members former US Secretaries of Education, university presidents, chief executives of high-profile non-profit organizations, and even several state governors. Unlike some of the other examples cited here, the Broad Foundation sought what anyone might consider verifiable educational expertise. Some have criticized the Broad family for their personal donations to school choice and charter expansion movements, but the director of the prize counters this by saying the foundation’s ideology is kept entirely separate (Wieder, 2014). Whether or not one chooses to believe this assertion, it is clear that the Broad prize was not without guidance from accomplished leaders in education.

As we saw in Newark, however, seeking counsel from leaders and chief executives is not the same as seeking input from community members, students or even classroom teachers. Governors, for example, have outsized impact on school funding in their states, but don’t exactly have experience working with struggling learners. University presidents are usually experts in their field, but unless and until our education system truly transitions to a more P-20 structure, their field is separate from that of public elementary and secondary schools. In other words, the Broad prize sought counsel from prominent figures who were affiliated with education to varying degrees, but not from people directly connected to the public schools they wanted to save.

It strikes me, when looking at said results, that 70% of the awardees were from the Southeast. In researching student performance over the past several years, much of the publicly available data has come from this region. The Broad prize was clear that it sought out to close the so-called “achievement gap” between students of different demographics, and saw even their recipient districts show only incremental progress year over year. I mention the region because the American Southeast has a particularly high black population, relative to other parts of the country (Henry J Kaiser Foundation, 2016). There are certainly different student outcomes based on race in almost every state, but in the Southeast, it is a particularly salient problem because of how many students are affected. I use the word “problem” purposefully here, because I believe that is the obstacle preventing many of these donations from the level of success they would like to reach. Black students do, factually, have structural disadvantages. But these donations, by seeking guidance only from the top and not from the communities themselves, see these students as part of a collective problem to be solved instead of as learners who need to be treated as individuals with idiosyncratic challenges, even if those challenges might recur within a community. In other words, it brings prestige and attention to have the governor of Kentucky on the selection committee (as was the case in its first year) (Broad Foundation, 2002), but I’m not sure he really had anything to say that would have made things better for these students.

The idea behind the prize is an incentive: if this $1 million could possibly be awarded to a district, they should be particularly motivated to improve outcomes for their students. The money was awarded via scholarships to college-bound seniors, and, although the prize is “taking a break” (Broad Foundation, 2014), they continue to fund the scholarships that were promised; it cannot be said that no one has benefitted from these donations. Unfortunately, offering an entire school district a financial incentive is a flawed idea in the first place, as it assumes that what these districts lacked was enough motivation to help their students. If the prize was intended to rival a Nobel or Pulitzer, it should assume, like those prizes do, that great work is being done and truly exceptional outcomes will be rewarded.

There is a persistent insistence on creating a so-called “national model,” as we have seen in previous sections. A national model is scalable, transferable, and adaptable. And if a national model is found, then experts can be imported from any urban area and expected to improve the outcomes for students in a given city. But are the issues in Newark or Nashville the same as those in New York? According to Ben Wieder of the Center for Public Integrity, “Although some of the curriculum is transferable between schools, …varying socioeconomic characteristics of different school districts — and the challenges they might present — require a tailored approach to school management” (Wieder, 2014). And even within a district, schools in adjoining neighborhoods will require different approaches from one another. Considerable effort and substantial sums of money have been directed towards nationalizing student achievement, when, as has long been the case in American education, the most viable solutions are local and specific.

As an example, in White Plains, New York, the Federal government found that black students were underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes, which is a common issue across the country. At one middle school, they noticed that minority students were not aware of how to access these programs. “At Highlands Middle School, for the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders, Principal Ernest Spatafore said there used to be no clear explanation of what advanced courses were offered and what grades and scores were needed to be eligible for them. So, they developed a handbook in English and Spanish that is distributed to every student. The schools also hold curriculum nights for parents to discuss class options and engage families in the course-selection process” (Wilson, 2018). The district was commended for their progress in 2015, and although they still struggle to enroll English Language Learners in AP courses, I suspect they will find a tailored, district-appropriate solution to this challenge, even without the promise of a financial windfall.

Of course, small tweaks that help an individual school population don’t make national news and they certainly don’t help the bottom line of consultants and education management companies, so donors continue to throw money at the “education problem” and wonder why this sort of top-down education reform doesn’t lead to more than incremental progress. In a way, this is a sort of trickle-down education reform, and it’s just as effective as trickle-down economics, which is to say that it helps the executives but not the teachers, the students, or the families.