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Running education more like a business

Kai Ryssdal Dec 8, 2011

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.

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