I think it is hard to discern what history will make of what’s going on right now. And it is especially difficult in the domain of education, because newspapers and their investigative reporting are fading. Education reform has also been dominated by powerful philanthropists and ideologues who operate out of the public eye—in the world of think tanks and training institutes and ideas festivals.
That is why I’m grateful this week for Jeff Bryant’s fine new article about Eli Broad and his Broad Academy for urban school superintendents, which has created a pipeline feeding its graduates into urban school districts and then promoting their careers even when things are not going well. Bryant tells the story of John Covington, the unsuccessful school superintendent in Kansas City, who, in 2011, moved at Broad’s bidding to run Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority. After a couple of years, when Covington was fired from the Michigan job, “(H)e was hired with a contract for $300,000 to start a new school reform initiative—for the Broad Foundation.”
If you are a Broadie, Bryant explains, you don’t have to be successful; you just have to be connected: “Covington’s story… sheds light on how decades of a school reform movement, financed by Broad and other philanthropists and embraced by politicians and policymakers of all political stripes, have shaped school leadership nationwide. Charter advocates and funders—such as Broad, Bill Gates, some members of the Walton Family Foundation, John Chubb, and others who fought strongly for schools to adopt the management practices of private businesses—helped put into place a school leadership network whose members are very accomplished in advancing their own careers and the interests of private businesses while they rankle school boards, parents, and teachers… The actions of these leaders are often disruptive to communities, as school board members chafe at having their work undermined, teachers feel increasingly removed from decision making, and local citizens grow anxious at seeing their taxpayer dollars increasingly redirected out of schools and classrooms and into businesses whose products and services are of questionable value.”
Here’s how John Covington’s tenure worked out in Kansas City and Michigan: “During his tenure in Kansas City, Covington generally angered teachers and parents and focused on leadership imperatives more familiar in the business community, such as ‘right-sizing.’ Student scores on standardized tests declined under his tenure, and after he left, the Kansas City district lost its accreditation due to continuing low achievement… Covington also left his Michigan position under a cloud of controversy over the lack of academic progress in the schools and questions about tens of thousands of dollars a month spent on travel expenses by his administration. The state-operated district he led was regarded as a failure and was shut down in 2017. But what Covington brought with him from Kansas City to Detroit was his connection to Broad and his relationships with private businesses—most notably, a software company called Agilix, its Buzz learning platform, and the School Improvement Network (SINET) consulting firm… Covington’s efforts to advance the interests of education-related businesses, while disrupting the community and accomplishing little on improving academic achievement, are recurring themes of many Broad network school leaders.”
Quoting Thomas Pedroni, an education professor from Wayne State University, Bryant divides the corporate school reform and school privatization movement into two groups. The first, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are ideological privatizers who want to cut government out of education, slash taxes, and expand freedom of choice for parents. The second group, like Eli Broad, want a publicly funded school system but also, according to Pedroni, “want to limit who can make decisions about how that money is spent and to keep those decisions behind a managerial curtain.” Bryant explains: “Broad-inspired school leaders are seen by Pedroni to be working to increase their collective power by disrupting community-based governance, creating mutually beneficial relationships with private businesses, and limiting the supply of leadership ideas that are acceptable for transforming schools.”
Specifically, writes Bryant, “Broad’s efforts to transform school governance and management include conducting a training center for school leaders; advocating for school governance models that emphasize business methodologies rather than democratic engagement; circumnavigating traditional teacher preparation programs by funding Teach for America; and supporting charter schools and organizations and political candidates that promote charters.” Most important, through the urban superintendent’s academy, Broad has created a pipeline of educational leaders who look out for each other through a network of consultants, education publishing companies, and even superintendent search firms which promote candidates who favor disruption as the way to turn schools around.
Bryant profiles Robert Avossa, a 2011 graduate of the Broad Academy, who went on to be the school superintendent in Fulton County, Georgia, then superintendent in Palm Beach County, Florida, where, “After serving a little over three years, Aavossa abruptly resigned in 2018 to join publishing company LRP Media Group that specializes in the school leadership market. LRP publishes District Administration, a long-running magazine distributed for free to qualified subscribers. The publication generates most of its revenues by selling advertising to companies that market education-related products. The same year Avossa joined LRP as senior vice president and publisher of education products, a short article in District Administration announced LRP had also acquired the National Superintendents Academy, a leadership professional development business previously owned by Atlantic Research Partners, the company owned by fellow Broad graduate Joseph Wise. The article includes a quote from the former managing director of the National Superintendents Academy, Peter Gorman, who was Avossa’s boss at Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools in North Carolina, where Gorman served as superintendent and Avossa as chief strategy and accountability officer. Gorman is a graduate of the Broad Academy, class of 2004. LRP’s events business includes professional development ‘summits’ for school leaders and a graduate style academy, al la Broad, where ‘motivated participants’ can learn from highly successful superintendents and executives. The events often feature speakers who are Broad Academy graduates….”
Bryant briefly quotes Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a book in which Ravitch identifies the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations as a Billionaire Boys’ Club investing in corporate school reform. It is worth returning to a longer section of Ravitch’s book, in which she describes exactly who Eli Broad is: “Eli and Edythe Broad attended Detroit public schools. He received a degree in accounting from Michigan State University. With his wife’s cousin, Broad entered the home-building business and later bought a life insurance company that eventually became a successful retirement savings business called SunAmerica. That business was sold to AIG in 1999 for $18 billion, and Eli Broad became one of the richest men in the nation. He promptly created the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which invests in education, the arts, and medical research… Having been trained as an accountant and having made his fortune as an entrepreneur, Broad believes in measurement, data, and results. He created training programs for urban superintendents, high level managers, principals, and school board members, so as to change the culture and personnel in the nation’s urban districts… In 2006, Broad invited me to meet with him…. He explained his philosophy of education management. He believes that school systems should run as efficiently as private sector enterprises. He believes in competition, choice, deregulation, and tight management. He believes that people perform better if incentives and sanctions are tied to their performance. He believes that school leaders need not be educators, and that good managers can manage anything if they are surrounded by smart assistants.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 212-213)
It wasn’t very long ago when Diane Ravitch exposed the problems of the No Child Left Behind Act and corporate education reform in that book. But it is too easy to forget exactly who continue to be the big philanthropic investors in public education policy and management. That is why Jeff Bryant’s new review of Eli Broad’s creation of a pipeline of corporate reformers is so important. The corporate reformers have not for the most part been people who know a lot about the civic purpose of America’s system of public education and they were, for the most part, not themselves educators. We are, however, living with the way they have remade our public schools through their philanthropic investments.