Criticism Grows Louder as Broad Superintendent Academy Expands Influence

Criticism Grows Louder as Broad Superintendent Academy Expands Influence

As alumni of the Los Angeles-based Broad Superintendents Academy, a ten-month educational management program founded by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad in 2002, continue to ascend to top leadership roles in many of the nation's largest school districts, critics are expressing concerns over their relative lack of education experience and disruptive approach to education reform, Education Week reports.

Created to identify and train promising leaders from within and outside the education field, the academy has been remarkably successful at placing graduates in top leadership positions at school districts across the country. Today, Broad Academy alumni occupy superintendencies at twenty-one of the largest seventy-five school districts in the country, including the three largest overall. But not everyone has a positive view of that development. Indeed, critics of the academy say that Broad-trained administrators use corporate management techniques to consolidate power, weaken teachers' job protections, cut parents out of decision-making, and introduce unproven reform measures.

Thomas W. Payzant, a Broad Academy trainer and mentor, argues that much of the resentment stems from resistance to the kinds of changes new superintendents must make in order to fix underperforming schools. "You want to be able to show improvement, and often improvement in the education sector means change that will make some people very uncomfortable and will not be popular," said Payzant, who is also a professor of educational leadership at Harvard. "That's what leads to pushback. People say, 'We were fine before you got here.' But when you look at the data, there's lots of room for improvement."

Other critics, including educational historian Diane Ravitch, argue that Broad Academy superintendents exert too much influence on their school districts. "What I see happening is that they colonize districts," said Ravitch, who criticized the venture philanthropy approach to education reform in her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "Once there's a Broad superintendent, he surrounds himself with Broad fellows, and they have a preference towards privatization. It happens so often, it makes me wonder what they're teaching them."

There is little or no independent research on the performance of Broad-trained superintendents, but according to research from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation itself, 65 percent of academy graduates who have served as superintendents for at least three years are outperforming non-Broad comparison groups, based on state test scores, improvement in closing education gaps, and graduation rates.

Richard F. Elmore, co-director of Harvard's Doctor of Educational Leadership program, argues that while the Broad Academy fills a major gap in educational leadership training, it ultimately should be judged on student success. "I wish we had five or six different ways of training sector leaders," said Elmore. "That's the discussion we should be having, instead of these ideological debates."

Christina A. Samuels. "Critics Target Growing Army of Broad Leaders." Education Week 06/07/2011.