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Running education more like a business

Philanthropist Eli Broad discusses the problems with education and his ideas on how to fix it.

Kai Ryssdal: Amy mentioned a guy named Eli Broad, one of the big donors in education philanthropy. He's one of the world's big donors, period. He made his money in homebuilding and, later on, insurance. He's taken a special interest in modern art.

Which made a visit to his offices here in Los Angeles the other day not unlike a private museum tour.

Eli Broad: These are all Jasper Johns prints.

But we didn't chat long about what was hanging on the walls. I wanted to ask him about the $450 million that his foundation has invested in schools over the past decade and, also about his methods. Things like the Broad Superintendents Academy getting more people with managerial skills into public school administration.

The first question I asked him when we sat down was why he gives to public education.

Broad: I'm a product of America's public schools and a land-grant university. And I think that we're looking at education today in what I call an antiquated system. The American classroom hasn't changed in 100 years. The biggest change is instead of a blackboard with chalk, you've got a whiteboard with marker pens. And if you think of anything else in American society, everything has changed by the use of technology and so on.

Ryssdal: You mentioned your education, Michigan State University, public schools in Detroit.

Broad: Exactly.

Ryssdal: Did they prepare you with what you needed to survive and thrive in this economy?

Broad: I think they did, but the world has changed since then. We weren't concerned with how kids were being educated in Korea, China, Japan, India or certain European nations then. We were the United States of America. The world has changed and we've got to do better.

Ryssdal: There's a tactful way to ask this question, and then there's the expeditious way to ask this question. And so I'll go straight to that way: For all your experience, for all your resources and your success, what do you know about education?

Broad: Well, I know that we aren't getting the job done. I'm looking at student acheivement. I don't see it growing rapidly -- it has too. And how do you change it? You change it -- in my view -- by having better governance, better management -- whether it's the superintendent or the principal. You've got to have better teachers, paid more money -- incentivised -- but held accountable.

Ryssdal: You'll forgive me if I say that sounds spoken like a businessman.

Broad: Well, I'm not sure that some of the things you learn in the world of business, or in government, or in other non-profits can't be applied to education.

Ryssdal: Is it for you a case of -- just to keep with that business theme for a moment -- return of investment? What do you want to see? What results do you want to see?

Broad: We want to see increased student achievement and we want to see the gaps between income and ethnic groups narrow.

Ryssdal: That's it, boom?

Broad: That's what it's all about.

Ryssdal: You have a program at the Superintendents Academy to bring in business leaders, military leaders, civic leaders and others.

Broad: And people from education!

Ryssdal: And people from education. Is that the way to do it?

Broad: I think it is a way to do it. Because when we started 11 years ago, we saw most of the superintendents or chancellors start as a coach or a teacher without any training in management, labor relations, systems, communications, logistics, etc.

Ryssdal: I wonder if something is lost when you have outsiders with resources coming in and saying, "Listen, here's what we think has to be done."

Broad: Well, I think giving people new ideas and new thoughts and saying, "Look, you've got an antiquated system that needs to change." In the last several decades, spending in real dollars has gone up 250 percent, but student achievement has been flat.

Ryssdal: Are there things that educational philanthropy can't fix, that you and foundations like yours -- no matter the resources -- just can't do?

Broad: We can't fix everything. We can come up with ideas, suggestions, we can train people that have competence, but that's all we can do.

Ryssdal: Is there then a role still for public funding for education and local government control?

Broad: Education has to be publicly funded. Local control? I think that we're now competing with too many other nations. We've got to have -- in my view for example -- a uniform math curriculum across America, probably the same thing in science also. And that's going to come from either governors or U.S. Department of Education.

Ryssdal: Is there a way that this economy gets fixed if education doesn't get fixed?

Broad: Education has to get fixed. Look, the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is far too great. And part of the reason is we've not done the job in education that needs to be done.

Ryssdal: Eli Broad, thanks very much.

Broad: Good being with you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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Mr. Broad correctly says that things have changed in the last hundred years while education methods have not. But like most businessmen he thinks the purpose of education, public or private, is to train people to work for him. We really need a more synoptic view of things. May I suggest rereading Paul Goodman's book Compulsory Mis-Education, written in 1963? It's somewhat dated, of course, especially the dollar amounts for various things that are cited, but overall still relevant. Goodman wrote, in his essay, "Why Go to School?", "In 1900, 6.4 percent of American 17-year-olds
graduated from high school, and perhaps
another 10 or 15 percent would have
graduated if they could have afforded it. This
was not prestige-schooling, for only one in
400 went to college. Now who, in 1900, were
the other 93.6 percent? They were not called
dropouts; they went on to every career, from
shopkeeper, mechanic and farmer to big entrepreneur, author, politician, and including engineer, architect, and even lawyer."

He goes on to say things that will resonate with the poor teachers who have written here, about how bored and resistant their charges are to being "educated". Again, this is in 1963: "A school is fundamentally a box with seats facing front. (Visiting the schools as a member of a local board in New York, I found that the desks were no longer bolted to the floor, but they were still nicely lined up as of yore.) School implies studying and a long attention span, and it demands a verbal and book-loving disposition. “Curriculum” is, in principle, a set of abstractions from actual industries, arts, professions and civic activities, and these abstractions are brought into the school-box and taught. A good academic can, without altogether losing spirit, spend years working on such abstractions, which are of course fascinating in themselves if well organized and well analyzed. Yet for the majority of adolescents academic routine is time-wasting, unreal, dispiriting, desexualizing and destructive of initiative; and it is resisted by the usual devices of sabotage, by “sub-culture” and—on the part of the highly intelligent—by “underachievement,” for they do not want to “achieve” in this way."
Mr. Broad might consult the whole essay: http://www.tnr.com/book/review/why-go-school

I'm not a teacher but I had plenty in my family. Four left the profession this year. I am so tired of and offended by hearing generalizations by non-educators about the American educational system. I never hear these business people mentioning "mainstreaming". I never hear them mention the difference between the US and other countries in the educational treatment of the of learning disabled and dysfunctional children. These business people look very ignorant when they go comparing the US to other countries and even to itself 20-30 years ago on average test scores alone. Wake up! Things have changed. Get some real experience in today's classroom so you can learn what this country is all about. We are not talking reject-them business values, we are talking human and humanitarian values in accepting even the most disabled child. And while you are at it, discover that "Blackboard" is not a surface hanging on the wall, it is a piece of software. There is technology in the classroom and in the hands of children. Thirty years ago Apple targeted schools with the Apple III etc. It is so hurtful to hear criticism of teachers who have given their lives to their students' educations in the public school system disregarded by business people who have enriched themselves instead.

Mr. Broad, who admirably admitted to being a product of public education, like most businessmen seems to think that the purpose of education is to train people to work for him.

He's wrong about the lack of progress in education (like most people quoted in the mainstream media). Richard Rothstein wrote in a piece in Slate last August, "Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago."

Here's a link to Rothstein's piece. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2011/08/grading_the_education_r...

Sadly, these donors think the teachers and schools are able to turn kids into good citizens. It's true that an influential teacher can change lives, but my daughter, a high school teacher, says students won't complete a homework assignment when they're worried about a gang pressing other more important concerns. As a progressive democrat, I believe whole - heartedly in public education, but I have to say that maybe the money should be spent to support young mothers instead. Teach reading to babies, teach feeding good food, teach respect for elders. These kids need a community that have their back from the get go.

It seems that everybody knows how to fix the educational system but the educators. It seems that the fault with the education system lies with the poor level of instruction and the out-0f-date methods of teaching. For someone inside the system, I have to deal with a lack of student interest in anything that requires them to think or perform. Most of my students, if they want to learn, look for me to give them the answer or expect them just to memorize definitions. Students today have so many distractions that hinder the learning process and bring them to school and expect us as teachers to allow them to use them during class. In the past most families probably had a TV/stereo in the living . Today, students have distractions in the form of cell phones (which they can't seem to keep out of their hands), constant texting, MP3 players plugged into their ears, TV and stereo in their bedrooms, the internet, hand-held games and many other forms of electronic devices that will never be as interesting as a textbook. Textbook publishers have been trying to keep up by making textbooks available online, on interactive CDs and a full-colored picture on each page. Still this learning is static and of very little interest to students. Parents often pay little attention to what their children are doing until something happens to them at school. Then they are quick to run to the school and voice their dislike of how their child has been mistreated. However, they seldom come to check on their child's academic performance unless the school requests a conference. Students are aware of the rush for schools to have them graduate on time and how they can do little and still pass. School districts want to keep their graduation rate high. I have often told my senior students that you are graduating but you know very little of what a high school graduate should know. I find the fact that the idea of having teacher performance and pay based on student test scores an improper way to judge my performance as a teacher. When will we learn that most of the students are not interested in learning but in passing. That means I made a grade of D instead of the F which I was expecting.

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