And the Prize Goes To …

When talking school improvement, we often hear that an individual school or even a school district may be beyond repair.  Wrong teachers.  Wrong curriculum.  Wrong buildings.  Wrong students.  Sure, we may hear that, but it is just the wrong thing to say.

If you look at public education across the United States, there is not a single district, school, or student we can afford to give up on.  It may be hard.  It may take time.  It may require suspending previous thinking.  But Eduflack would like to believe any school can be turned around with the right culture, knowledgebase, commitment, curriculum, measurement, and feedback loop.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the Broad Prize.

Nearly impossible to miss, yesterday the Broad Foundation awarded the New York City Public Schools with the annual Broad Prize, the sixth urban school district to win the prestigious award.  A $1 million pot speaks volumes about the impact of the Prize, but what does the Prize tell us about urban school reform?

If you look at NYC — along with past winners like Houston, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Norfolk, and Boston — you see a collection of urban school districts that, a decade or two ago, we were ready to complete give up on.  We see districts that many, especially those who knew them best, said were beyond repair.  Spurred by a desire to improve and encouraged by the prize across the Broad finish line, these school districts did the impossible.  They made real change.  They reinvented the school culture.  They demonstrated real student achievement.  Simply, they got the job done.

And this year’s winner?  Chancellor Klein and company have much to be proud of, even without the oversized Broad check.  In reading and math, NYC outperformed other New York districts serving students of similar income levels.  African-America, Hispanic, and low-income students showed great improvement in reading and math.  The city has made real strides in closing the achievement gap.

This isn’t a revolution.  By definition, a revolution has a finite end.  Instead, NYC and its fellow winners have started a movement.  An ongoing process of improvement and success designed to continue to gain momentum.

What lessons can we learn from the Broad Prize, aside from the notion that school improvement is a universal possibility?  Interestingly, the Broad Prize can serve as a teaching tool for those who are weighing the future of NCLB and AYP.  Much has been written, spoken, and shouted about the issue of multiple measures.  Is there one — and only one — way to effectively measure student achievement?  Or are there a number of factors that must be taken into account when evaluating the success of a school or classroom?

If Broad is any indication, the true measure of school improvement requires multiple measures.  Looking at quantitative and qualitative data, analyzing a range of topics and issues, taking all facets of the school and the operating environment into account, Broad makes its decisions.  It is a complicated process.

It’s one thing to give an award to the urban school district that simply shows the greatest year-on-year improvement in student achievement.  It is something completely different to recognize that there are a number of factors — some immeasurable — that contribute to the overall success of a school district.

It’s enough to give even the strongest of data-driven decisionmakers a little something to think about.

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