Ongoing Impact of the School Leadership Pipeline Created by Eli Broad’s Superintendents’ Academy

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.

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The Billionaire Boys Keep On Experimenting, Charterizing, and Limiting Democracy

Until Diane Ravitch published her 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, we didn’t really have a name for the major transformation in the size and practice of venture philanthropy.  Ravitch describes “the Billionaire Boys Club” to explain a new trend in gigantic philanthropy in our age of the plutocrats, fortunes being used to transform society, and in particular the public schools, in ways citizens cannot really control.

Ravitch worries about the abrogation of democracy as philanthropies with enormous fortunes manipulate public policy privately, accountable only to their own carefully chosen boards of trustees: “There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies… They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Joanne Barkan, who has written extensively about mega-philanthropy, points out that because gifts to non-profit foundations are not taxed, foundations are making influential investments for which they can take credit, but they are doing so at public expense: “Although this plutocratic sector is privately governed, it is publicly subsidized.  Private foundations fall into the IRS’s wide-open category of tax-exempt organizations, which includes charitable, educational,  religious, scientific, literary, and other groups.  When the creator of a mega-foundation says, ‘I can do what I want because it’s my money,’ he or she is wrong.  A substantial portion of the wealth—35 percent or more, depending on tax rates—has been diverted from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use.”  Writing in the NY Times recently about the philanthropies spun from the tech industries, Alessandra Stanley adds: “Tech entrepreneurs believe their charitable giving is bolder, bigger and more data-driven than anywhere else—and in many ways it is.  But despite their flair for disruption, these philanthropists are no more interested in radical change than their more conservative predecessors.  They don’t lobby for the redistribution of wealth; instead, they see poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and the solution is their own brain power, not a tithe.”

Barkan reminds us that philanthropy has changed significantly in the past two decades through a transformation in the role of grantor and grantee:  “Once upon a time, the mega-foundations established a goal and sought experts to do independent research on how to achieve it.  Today many donors and program officers have preconceived notions about social problems and solutions.  They fund researchers who are likely to design studies that will support their ideas.  Instead of reviewing proposals from outside the foundation, they hire existing non-profits or set up new ones to implement projects they’ve designed themselves.  The mode of operation is top-down; grantees serve their funders.  Mega-foundations also devote substantial resources to advocacy—selling their ideas to the media, to government at every level, and to the public.  They also directly fund journalism and media programming in their fields of interest.  All this mark a a cultural transformation of big philanthropy.”

It has been five years since Diane Ravitch introduced the Billionaire Boys—the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate of mega-philanthropies engaged in disrupting the workings of the institution of public education. In her book Ravitch describes Gates’ already abandoned project to break up large high schools into small schools.  She recounts the story of the Walton Foundation’s huge investment in school choice and the proliferation of charter schools.  And she tells readers about the Broad Foundation’s investment in training school leaders in business practices including test-based accountability and merit pay for teachers.  She describes the infusion of Gates “solutions” into Arne Duncan’s Department of Education with the hiring of Joanne Weiss and Jim Shelton, and the impact of Gates-Broad-Walton policies on New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg.  Let’s look at what the Billionaire Boys are doing today.

THE BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION—We can begin with the Gates Foundation’s $100 million grant—to be matched by the school district— to the Hillsborough County Schools (Greater Tampa, Florida) for a massive experiment in a new plan for evaluating teachers and then incentivizing teachers with merit pay.  Gates has now given up on the idea and moved on. Foundations can abandon an initiative that doesn’t seem to be working without having to worry about any wreckage their exit leaves behind.  But today there are serious consequences in Hillsborough County.

According to an extremely thorough and arresting report by Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times the Gates Foundation’s plan in Hillsborough County transformed a cadre of 265 of the district’s best teachers into full-time peer-evaluators paid to “observe teachers… (and) score teachers on everything from subject knowledge to how well they get their students to behave.  Their findings, after multiple visits, are combined with results of principals’ evaluations.  A third component, based on student data, is dependent on state test results and comes later in the year.  The total scores now factor into teacher pay.”  Sokol lists some of the failures of this experiment: “The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in…. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.”  “The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teacher into high-needs schools.  More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants… After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model.  And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses…. Hillsborough’s graduation rates still lag behind other large school districts.  Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced….” And the school district itself has spent more than $100 million on a program it cannot afford to maintain.

The editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times  wonders, “The achievement gap affecting poor and minority students still exists even as test scores on the whole are on the rise and as more students take advanced courses.  What’s been going on for the last six years?  What have these hundreds of millions of dollars bought beyond higher salaries and consultants?”  (This blog recently covered the education policies of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation here.  For an excellent summary of the Tampa debacle, see Valerie Strauss’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Bill Gates Spent a Fortune to Build It. Now a Florida School System is Getting Rid of It.)

ELI AND EDYTHE BROAD FOUNDATION—In a brand new project, described in an internal document obtained by the Los Angeles Times at the end of September, the Broad Foundation apparently views itself as the catalyst for charterizing half of the Los Angeles Unified District in California.  Here is how Howard Blume, the newspaper’s excellent education reporter, describes what he learned from the document: “According to a 44-page memo, obtained by The Times, the locally based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and other charter advocates want to create 260 new charter schools, enrolling at least 130,000 students.  Organizers of the effort have declined to publicly release details of the plan.  But the memo lays out a strategy for moving forward, including how to raise money, recruit and train teachers…. The document cites numerous foundations and individuals who could be tapped for funding.  In addition to the Broad Foundation, the list includes the Gates, Bloomberg, Annenberg and Hewlett foundations.  Among the billionaires cited as potential donors are Stewart and Lynda Resnick, major producers of mandarin oranges, pistachios and pomegranates; Irving Co. head Donald Bren; entertainment mogul David Geffen; and Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk.”  Blume adds that Los Angeles has more charter schools already than any other school district in the United States.  Charters currently enroll 16 percent of the school district’s students.  While the Broad Foundation has said it’s proposal remains in the planning stage, the Foundation has appointed Paul Pastorek, who helped oversee the charterization of the New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina “to lead the group’s efforts to expand charter schools in Los Angeles Unified.”

Only last week the Washington Post described another recent Broad Foundation initiative: funding education reporting at the Los Angeles Times.  The new project called “Education Matters” is being funded by the K & F Baxter Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.  Paul Farhi, the Washington Post reporter, adds: “The Broad Foundation’s chairman, billionaire businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad, has repeatedly expressed his interest in buying the Times.  The newspaper’s owner, Tribune Publishing, has rejected his offers, reportedly including one this month.” Los Angeles Times education reporter Howard Blume has striven to remain independent by explicitly mentioning Broad Funding for the newspaper’s new education project in his reports.  Neither has his reporting skewed to favor Broad Foundation initiatives; he is the reporter who surfaced  Broad’s new plan radically to expand charter schools in Los Angeles.

WALTON FAMILY FOUNDATION—On Monday, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss called our attention to a recent report on a “new direction” being set by the third of the Billionaire Boys.  Strauss reminds us that, “The Walton Foundation is one of the biggest players in the education philanthropy world, having poured some $1.3 billion in K-12 education over the last two decades largely to support charter schools and fuel the ‘school choice’ movement.  But foundation honchos aren’t exactly satisfied with the the results of their work and now they are using a new investment strategy to make a broader impact…  Choice isn’t enough.  So what is?  Apparently dismantling traditional public school systems and creating collections of charter schools across cities.”  The report itself explains, “There are a lot of similarities between the Walton Family Foundation’s approach and what has come to be called a ‘Portfolio Strategy’—a concept researched and supported by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  Portfolio strategy identifies the entire city as the unit of change with respect to school reform, and tasks education and civic leaders with developing a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public (including charter) schools.  These systems prioritize school autonomy, parental empowerment, and system leader oversight and responsibility for accountability.”  (It should be noted that the Center on Reinventing Public Education—with its strategy of “portfolio school reform,” was launched with money from that other Billionaire Boy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Here is how the new report on the Walton Family Foundation describes the Foundation’s priorities for the future: “While choice remains the Foundation’s cornerstone approach to grant making, it acknowledges that there are certain additional conditions and mechanisms necessary for its successful implementation.  The Foundation has identified what it calls ‘choice enablers’—other conditions or supports necessary for choice—including open enrollment platforms, portable and weighted student-funding, and the provision of more readily accessible real-time data on schools for parents.”  The strategic plan acknowledges that its efforts to now have been top down, and there are plans to build better parent and community engagement, though as Valerie Strauss points out, “After 20 years, the foundation realizes that its top-down approach doesn’t adequately address the needs and desires of parents, local advocacy groups and community groups.  Now it wants to engage local partners and communities—not, apparently, to ask what they actually want in their communities but to build ‘a local and civic base of support for the work that’s going on'”—the work that Walton plans to impose according to its theory of school choice.

Joanne Barkan’s prophetic article summarizes pretty well what’s happening with the Billionaire Boys these days: “Have the voices of ‘stakeholders’—students, their parents and families, educators, and citizens who support public education—been strengthened or weakened?  Has their involvement in public decision-making increased or decreased?  Has their grassroots activity been encouraged or stifled?  Are politicians more or less responsive to them?  Is the press more or less free to inform them?  According to these measures, big philanthropy’s involvement has undoubtedly undermined democracy and civil society.”

Dangerous Bipartisan Conventional Wisdom Threatens Public Education

Public education policy is one area where consensus crosses political party lines—the consensus, that is, about imposing punitive “reforms” like school closures, expanding charterization, and scapegoating public school teachers if they cannot seem to raise their students test scores.  In these days when much of our politics is highly partisan, it may be difficult to grasp and accept that current theories attacking traditional public schools and supporting privatized alternatives are fully bipartisan. But harsh turnourounds, school closures and privatization are supported these days by prominent Democrats as well as the Republicans who are better known for such policies.

Bruce Reed, profiled recently in Inside Philanthropy, provides case in point.  Reed is a long and experienced Democratic operative who, in November 2013, left a job as chief of staff for Vice President Joe Biden to move into a highly influential school “deform” position by becoming president of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.  According to Education Week‘s Marketplace K-12 blog, Reed was chief domestic policy advisor for President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001.  Inside Philanthropy reports that Reed also served as CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Reed was once a speech writer for Vice President Al Gore.

According to Inside Philanthropy‘s profile, “Ideologically, Reed looks like a perfect fit for Broad, whose political affiliations lean Democratic but who is an ardent foe of teachers unions, a traditionally reliable Democratic constituency.” “The Broad Education Foundation approaches school reform at the system level, funding projects that design new schools and education systems.  That includes staunch support of charter schools, but also big investments in bolstering the management skills of public education leaders.  The foundation favors reforms that are designed to reduce what Eli Broad sees as bureaucratic barriers that interfere with teaching and learning.  The foundation also supports value-added teacher appraisal models.”  The Broad Superintendents’ Academy certifies business leaders and military officers without experience in public schools to become school superintendents.

Inside Philanthropy reports that, “After the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, Broad has been the biggest spending education philanthropist of recent years.”

Here is a very brief history of the development of a bipartisan consensus supporting corporate “school reform”—by which today in Washington, political leaders in both major parties relentlessly pursue school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy.  As early as 1989, President George H.W. Bush, responding to fears that the United States was becoming uncompetitive,  launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, chaired by Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, to agree on national education goals. Through the 1990s states began to embrace test-based accountability. Then in 2001, when Congress—under President George W. Bush—reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated test-and-punish.

After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. These programs required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top, Innovation Grants, and School Improvement Grants, but strings were attached. To qualify, states had to agree to adopt additional punitive reforms prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education.  States earned points:

  • if their legislatures rewrote laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools;
  • if they promised to implement specified models for school “turnaround”—plans that included firing the principal and half the staff in so-called “failing” schools without hearings or individual evaluations, closing low scoring schools and moving the students elsewhere, and turning over low-scoring schools to charter management organizations or education management companies; and
  •  if their legislatures changed laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores.

The No Child Left Behind waivers that the U.S. Department of Education has been offering the states to help them escape NCLB’s unworkable Adequate Yearly Progress requirement, demand the same punitive reforms.  President Obama’s education policies continue to epitomize test-and-punish.  Increasingly school closures, rapid charterization, and evaluating teachers based on students’ test scores have become the bludgeon used to punish.  These are attacks on the heart of public education.

Test-based accountability has become the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.  Parents, teachers and others who understand the value of our society’s historical commitment to public education need to look for and support political leaders who courageously endorse expanding opportunity through public schooling.  New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio is one such leader.