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Leadership Profile: Eli Broad

The impatient philanthropist.

By Alexander Russo

Philanthropist Eli Broad doesn’t have the time or patience for the molasses-like pace of change in most school districts. As a result, he tends to fund efforts that bypass, or even blow up, existing systems.

More than a decade into his mission to revolutionize American education, Broad doesn’t seem to have lost any urgency (his 2012 memoir was titled The Art of Being Unreasonable), and he keeps making changes to his funding process to improve results.

Two of a Kind
Broad’s efforts are often lumped in with those of Bill Gates, which is understandable. They’re both based on the West Coast—Gates in Seattle, Broad in Los Angeles—and compared with the Carnegie or Ford foundations, they are relatively new to grant-making. Broad and Gates agree on many things, including the importance of charter schools and teacher effectiveness, and they’ve gone in together on initiatives such as the effort to make education a top priority in the 2008 presidential election.

Like Gates, Broad is often accused of wanting to privatize public education—a ­completely inaccurate interpretation of his goals, he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. As the son of a union activist and a lifelong Democrat, I’ve always thought that privatizing our public schools is not the answer. We must strengthen public schools.”

Indeed, though he backed Hillary Clinton in 2008, Broad has come to admire the Obama administration’s education agenda: “Some of the boldest changes we’ve seen in more than 40 years were jump-started by Race to the Top.”

Making Waves
Broad, who made his ­fortune in home building, is worth $6.3 billion, putting him 55th on the Forbes 400 list. That can’t compete with Gates, first on the list with $66 billion. And so the Broad Foundation is much smaller—and more strategic—than the Gates Foundation; it’s more aggressive and disruptive in many ways, and as a result more upsetting to those who disagree with its approach. The Gates Foundation is “feckless and trendy” on school reform, observed education blogger (and critic) Tom Hoffman, as compared with the “focused malice” of the Broad Foundation.

For example, Broad is a fan of the so-called parent trigger, which many other foundations and reform groups have not yet endorsed and many district administrators find threatening and unhelpful. He is a big supporter of Teach for America, which has won its share of both accolades and criticism. And he’s a fan of former D.C. schools chief and reform firebrand Michelle Rhee, though he says they sometimes disagree about how aggressive to be while remaining effective.

Teaching Leadership
Through the broad Superintendents Academy and Broad Residency, Broad has recruited and trained outsiders to work in, and even run, school districts. The academy, an 18-month, executive-style weekends-and-evenings program, emphasizes job shadowing, school visits, online education, and team projects.

“A lot of the learning that occurs is really participants learning from each other, about things like teaching and learning and complex systems-level change management,” says Broad.

Not all Broad-trained superintendents find immediate success. In Chicago, Jean-Claude Brizard lasted barely a year before resigning.

But running a school district has never been a cakewalk, and districts around the country are headed by or staffed with Broad-trained administrators, many of whom are well received and effective; there might be a few in your building. The foundation reports that nearly 40 percent of large urban district jobs open to external candidates were filled by academy grads, and that more than 250 Broad Residents were working in 39 school districts, as well as in charter networks and a half-dozen state education departments.

Through the decade-old Broad Prize for urban school district achievement, Broad has put an annual spotlight on school reform. And last year, Broad began awarding an annual prize for charter school networks. Houston-based YES Prep won the inaugural prize over much better-known networks like KIPP and Achievement First.

Broad has also supported reform-minded local union presidents through a network called TURN (Teacher Union Reform Network). More recently, he supported efforts to revamp teachers unions and fund union innovation. Broad has even supported the AFT-run Tom Mooney Institute.

The foundation has provided nearly $2 million to labor-led efforts and, according to Broad spokesperson Erica Lepping, hopes to support labor initiatives “that courageously seek innova-tive collective bargaining solutions.”

An Eye on Results
One thing is clear: broad doesn’t sit still for long. He’s constantly pushing his staff to create or improve funding programs. When the foundation’s 2008 campaign to make education a top political issue didn’t take off, Broad insisted that grantees meet biweekly benchmarks and that funding be distributed in small increments.

Broad remains impatient, says Lepping, insisting that “there is far more work to be done.” The foundation has revamped the Broad Prize methodology several times at the advice of top educational researchers­—and created a dissemination program to help other districts learn from prize winners. (So far, Austin, Texas, and Guilford County, North Carolina,
have asked for and gotten a “diagnostic audit” from the Broad team.)

In 2011, Broad decided to hold off on adding further resources to its $46 million principal training program, wanting to be sure its methods were producing strong results first.

“If you’re not on your game, Eli will crush you,” says Harvard economist Roland Fryer, whose EdLabs has received funding from Broad.

With Race to the Top and NCLB waivers in place, the next steps are up to states and districts, says Broad. “It’s critical that states improve how teachers are trained, re­cruited, evaluated, compensated, advanced, and retained. The biggest barrier we’ve seen to student progress is this: School policies and practices often prevent good teachers from doing great work and even dissuade some talented Americans from entering the profession. This needs to change.” 

—Winter 2013—

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