Interview with Eli Broad, the Investor

This visionary philanthropist details progress on his efforts to dramatically improve American K–12 education.

When it comes to re-imagining how America’s children can learn, Eli and Edythe Broad are among the nation’s most visionary philanthropists. Their investments range across the full spectrum of educational reform, from advocacy to personnel to technology. Their gifts affect everything from daily life in classrooms to the structure of the overall school system.

Among the Broads’ signature initiatives are the Broad Prizes. Launched in 2002, the Broad Prize for Urban Education awards $1 million in scholarships to an urban school district that demonstrates the best overall improvement in closing achievement gaps. In 2012, the prize was expanded, with the creation of the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, a $250,000 annual award going to a high-performing charter school system.

Eli Broad famously built two Fortune 500 companies from scratch. He attributes much of the success of those businesses to finding and cultivating the right people. To build similar leadership for education reform, the Broads launched the Broad Residency and the Broad Superintendents Academy. Since 2002, academy graduates have held 96 superintendent positions and 124 other senior executive posts in big-city districts, with research showing that individuals trained at the academy increase student achievement in their districts more quickly than a control group. The residency targets future charter-school leaders, and more than 90 percent of its alumni now serve in high-ranking positions.
Philanthropy recently spoke with Mr. Broad about his many educational investments, and about his efforts to dramatically improve American K–12 education.

PHILANTHROPY: You are one of—if not the—leading investors in urban school districts. Your Superintendents Academy is now over a decade old. It was launched with the conviction that inspired leadership can turn around a failing school system. Have you seen the improvements you expected? Or have you found that some school systems are simply too dysfunctional for even great individuals to reform?

MR. BROAD: When school systems are graduating only half of their students, can’t account for their resources, and don’t know who is doing what, it is enormously difficult to turn around our broken public schools. If you want to really learn the extent of the problem, take a look at the report we released last year, “75 Examples of How Bureaucracy Stands in the Way of Students and Teachers.” It takes years to fix such deep problems, or to create new systems from scratch. It requires bold leaders who understand the importance of honest conversations and public transparency. It takes parents, teachers, and other school employees being open to something that looks very different. By definition, change of this magnitude means that people will be uncomfortable—they must step outside their comfort zones. That’s why superintendents and managers must make it a top priority to help parents, teachers, and students see the positive end goal. Great leaders enlist others in their vision to build widespread support for systems of schools that are filled with great teachers who can deliver personalized instruction to every student. I am convinced that this is the most important issue facing our country.

Let me give you an example of where this is happening. In 2010, ACT data showed that 80 percent of Detroit high schools failed to produce a single student who was college-ready. To address that crisis, state and local leaders created the Michigan Education Achievement Authority, a recovery school district that has the power to take the worst-performing schools out of any district in Michigan. The EAA opened in September with more than 10,000 students attending 15 public schools in Detroit. Students attend a seven-and-a-half-hour school day with a 210-day school year. Each student receives a tablet and learns at his or her own pace in a personalized learning environment. In just three months, 22 percent of these students have already made more than one year of academic growth in math and 27 percent have advanced a year in reading. Edythe and I are both graduates of Detroit Public Schools, and we joined with others in Michigan’s philanthropic community and provided $12 million to support this new system.

PHILANTHROPY: The $1 million Broad Prize is by far the largest education award in the country given to school districts. Many winners have made undeniable progress, but still suffer from relatively poor test results. For example, Broad Prize winners like New York City, Boston, Houston, and this year’s winner, Miami-Dade, all have fewer than 30 percent of their eighth-graders proficient in reading according to NAEP. Has the Broad Prize delivered the kinds of results you would like to see?

MR. BROAD: There is no question that even the most improved large urban school systems—those that have shown the best academic gains for students of all backgrounds—still have a long, long way to go. But we recently began recognizing public charter-school systems that are delivering the best student outcomes, particularly for poor and minority students. And what we found was that the best urban public charter-school systems are performing significantly better than the best traditional school-district systems.
For example, Houston’s YES Prep Public Schools, a charter-school system in Houston that won the inaugural Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools last year, has closed nearly every achievement gap. To my knowledge, no other urban public-school system has done that. YES Prep also has a remarkable record when it comes to preparing its students for college. Since YES Prep’s inception in 1998, 100 percent of its seniors have graduated from high school and been accepted to four-year colleges and universities. We just published a white paper detailing how they’ve accomplished that.

It isn’t fair to directly compare charter systems—which I like to think of as modern public schools—with traditional school systems, because charters are far smaller and have many more freedoms that make it easier to attract talent, to be more creative in teaching and learning, and to continuously improve.

That begs the question, though: Shouldn’t we give our traditional school systems far more freedom and support while expecting them to perform to high standards? That is, of course, the definition of charter schools: public schools that receive certain freedoms in exchange for being accountable for outcomes. But how do we help traditional school systems, where the vast majority of students are enrolled, mirror these traits?

Roland Fryer with Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory is doing some great research that I would encourage other philanthropists to read. Roland has found that some traditional school systems like Houston—the inaugural winner of the Broad Prize and a finalist last year—are having success integrating public charter school practices like these into their most challenged schools.

PHILANTHROPY: A few years ago, Mark Zuckerberg made international headlines with his $100 million gift to the Newark school system. What advice would you give to a future Mark Zuckerberg, a beginning philanthropist who is pondering a gift to a historically problematic school district?

MR. BROAD: In our philanthropy, we have three tests when considering whether to make an investment:

  1. Will it happen without us? If it won’t, we invest.
  2. Will it make a difference 20 or 30 years from now? If it will, we invest.
  3. Is there leadership in place to make it happen? If so, then we invest.


That third test really is crucial in education philanthropy. We look at the governance and management to determine whether we think there’s a willingness by the community to support dramatic school improvement.

Our goal in our education philanthropy is simple: We want every student in an urban school system to have an opportunity to succeed. We always start with data. Student achievement is the metric we care about. Is student achievement improving—dramatically, we hope—and are achievement gaps closing? I’d suggest anyone looking to invest in school systems start by looking closely at data that will allow the donor to judge progress or lack thereof. We make available on the Broad Foundation website comparative data on the 75 largest school systems.

But given that even the most improved large urban systems across the country still struggle with low graduation rates and achievement gaps, obviously there are areas of investment available to improve K–12 education. For me, the greatest promise may lie in technology that enables learning to be personalized according to each and every student’s needs. All of the 75 bureaucratic barriers to learning can be overcome when a child, a teacher, or a parent can access terrific online classes and teaching tools directly. That is not to say that school-system transformation isn’t still necessary—it is. But I predict that infusing technology into great teaching will, in the end, be a change lever that goes far beyond anything else currently being done.

PHILANTHROPY: So what’s next for Eli and Edythe Broad? What strikes you as a particularly promising philanthropic investment?

MR. BROAD: Going forward, we plan to invest in four areas we think hold the greatest promise of improving America’s public schools. I want to emphasize that our focus is on public schools. We believe that public schools must remain public, but we have to dramatically improve the expectations we have of students, the education we provide them, and the choices we give to parents. And we have to figure out how to advance these improvements at scale.

The area I am most excited about is our work to support efforts to blend cutting-edge technology with great teaching in order to personalize learning for every child. The most important factor in a child’s academic success is an excellent teacher. But teachers today are expected to teach 30 or more students—some of whom are advanced, some of whom are behind—all at once. We need to give teachers the tools and the support they need. We must empower teachers, and it actually starts by reinventing the American classroom.

Personalized learning is how we do that. It’s also often called digital learning or blended learning. It blends the very best of teaching with the best of technology. And it enables every student to learn at his or her own pace. It gives teachers real-time information about who’s mastering the content and who needs a little extra help. Classrooms today look the same as when I went to school—even though the world around us has changed dramatically. Students today are forced to put away their iPhones and iPads and video games and sit in rows facing a teacher and a whiteboard. Why aren’t we teaching children with the tools and technology they know and use so well?

Second, we support efforts to educate state and local policymakers about policies needed—or policy barriers that need to be removed—to enable school districts to create the conditions under which good teachers can do great work and students of all backgrounds can learn. For example, when states lift illogical policies that unnecessarily restrict school districts in making local decisions about things like seat-time requirements, caps on quality charter schools, or the length of the school day and year, more children can learn. And when states develop coherent policies that enable school districts to empower teachers with useful evaluations, sophisticated tools, supports and rewards, more children can learn.

Third, we are looking to develop great leaders with the vision and skills to inspire change like we have never seen before.

And fourth, we continue to support the growth of proven public charter-school models and the best traditional school systems, like Broad Prize districts. Like most parents, we don’t care if a public school is called a charter or a traditional school. We just want it to be great.

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