Disappointed Broad Foundation Pauses its $1 Million Prize for Urban Schools. Foreseeable?

The Broad Foundation has decided to halt its 13-yr-old prize for academic improvement.The idea of the prize was that recognizing and celebrating top performance within our traditional district-based school system would lead to widespread emulation of the most successful practices. The proximate cause of the decision is reportedly the Foundation’s disappointment at the paucity of high performing districts. It may also have to do with the the fact that earlier prize-winners did not spark the mass replication of successful methods, as hoped.

While no doubt frustrating for the Foundation, it was neither unforeseeable nor unforseen. Two years before the Prize for Urban Districts was launched, I reviewed the Foundation’s programs and plans. Concerned, I addressed a letter to Mr. Broad, which I reproduce in its entirety below.

March 14, 2000

Dear Mr. Broad:

It was with great pleasure that I read your letter describing the creation of the Broad Foundation. Your organization’s dedication to encouraging exemplary educational leadership has the potential to do great things for our nation’s children.

Having also read the brief prospectus enclosed with your letter, I wonder if I might raise a question which I consider crucial to the Foundation’s success? It seems as though the Foundation will be promoting pockets of excellent leadership in urban districts around the country. My question is this: Does the Foundation have a plan for ensuring that these pockets of excellence will 1) consistently endure beyond the lifetime of the individuals involved, and 2) systematically expand to reach all students rather than remaining isolated?

Much of my research on educational governance has been historical, chronicling the relative merits of education systems from 500 BC to the present. One of my findings is that, while there have been few periods that lacked isolated pockets of excellence, these pockets very rarely lasted for more than a generation or two, and very rarely spread beyond a tiny fraction of the population.

There have been only a handful of exceptions to this sad historical record, such as classical Athens, the early medieval Islamic world, and early 19th century England and America. The difference between these remarkably successful periods and their less successful counterparts was that they enjoyed a mechanism that reliably perpetuated excellence over time, and relentlessly drove its spread to an ever wider group of children.

The specific nature of that mechanism is not the point of my letter. My point is to highlight the compelling need for some such mechanism given the patently transitory nature of nearly every education reform effort in the history of civilization. The goals of the Broad Foundation, which I share, are too important to be left to erode in the sands of time like the mighty works of Ozymandius, or to burn like a few solitary candles amidst a vast and lingering educational darkness.

There have been many foundations created for the improvement of education over the years. The ones that will be remembered will be those that understand excellence is not intrinsically self-perpetuating—that it only endures and thrives within systems whose incentive structures inexorably drive people to perpetuate it. I hope that your organization will be among this rare group of insightful foundations.

Please feel free to call or e-mail me if you would like to discuss this issue in detail.

Yours very truly,

Andrew J. Coulson