After 13 years, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has announced that it is suspending the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education that has been awarded annually to the urban school district which the Broad Foundation deemed was improving academic achievement and at the same time “narrowing gaps among low-income students and students of color.” The Broad Foundation says it is “pausing” the award until it can be updated “to better reflect and recognize the changing landscape of K-12 public education.”
A primary problem is that there has been no real change at all in the landscape of student achievement in America’s big city public schools. The wave of test-based-accountability in the 13 years since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act hasn’t altered the landscape. That’s the real reason why the Broad Foundation is suspending its prize.
Writing for Education Week‘s “District Dossier” column, Denisa Superville is clear about why the Broad Foundation has chosen not to award a Broad Prize this year: “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.” Superville writes that the Foundation suspended the award “because of ‘sluggish’ academic results from the country’s largest school systems.” She explains that Bruce Reed, the Broad Foundation’s president said a year ago that “the foundation was ‘disappointed’ that more districts weren’t showing the progress that Gwinnett and Orange counties (last year’s winners) have displayed and that as a country ‘we desperately need to do better, in more places, much faster.'”
Superville quotes Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (far to the right and frequently an ally of the Broad Foundation), and formerly a member of the Broad Prize review board. Hess reflects on the suspension of the Broad Prize this year: “I think it’s a fascinating decision. 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.” “It’s hard to look at urban school systems and say… that (they) are truly producing the kinds of results for their children that we would want to brag about. 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.”
In a September 2013 guest blog for Flypaper, a weekly publication of the far-right Thomas Fordham Foundation, Andy Smarick of Bellweather Education Partners (also a far-right enterprise) writes: “I stared at the tweet, dumbfounded. ‘Houston: 2013 Broad Prize finalist?‘ 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.” (emphasis in the original) The data that follow in Smarick’s post track Houston’s students scoring below 15 percent proficient on the 2003 Houston NAEP TUDA test, and slightly higher, above 15 percent but below 20 percent proficient, on the 2011 Houston NAEP TUDA test.
Smarick explains that he also looked at NAEP TUDA scores for San Diego, another finalist for the Broad Prize in 2011: “San Diego’s overall scores are slightly better than the appallingly low ‘large-city’ average… 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.” “In Houston and San Diego, about one in ten African American eighth graders can read proficiently.”
Smarick continues by imaging a Broad Prize award ceremony: “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 children 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!” (emphasis in the original)
Smarick, of course, then blames the failure of test-and-punish school “reform” on his own pet villain, the traditional public school district. District governance structure reform is Smarick’s favorite cause. But in the meantime Smarick identifies one of our society’s ongoing tragedies: persistent low school achievement in urban communities that are segregated not only by race but also by highly concentrated family poverty with many children living in families whose income is half the federal poverty level.
Apparently the luminaries responsible for the Broad Prize for urban education reform have finally felt compelled to take note.
Sometimes it is important to stop and pay attention when there has been a shift in the conventional wisdom or a shift in the momentum of public opinion—even when there is an attempt to hide the facts with glossy spin. We need to notice that the Broad Foundation is not awarding its prize this year, and we need to name accurately the reason why. Things are not going very well for test-and-punish school “reform” and no amount of rhetoric and obfuscation can cover that up. Test scores among our nation’s most vulnerable children have not risen since No Child Left Behind became the law in 2002, and the black-white test score gap has not narrowed since that time, while an income-inequality achievement gap has widened.
The question is whether our society is willing to look at the truth and do something about investing in services to support very poor children at school and about ameliorating the poverty their families suffer at home.