Bringing Business Into Education Reform

The American educational system is antiquated. That’s the thinking of homebuilding and insurance tycoon Eli Broad, whose Broad Foundation has invested $450 million in schools over a decade. A product of 1950 Detroit’s public schools, he stresses that while his public education readied him for the business world, we’re now working with an outdated model.

“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,” Broad said in a recent interview on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

Among other efforts (including the yearly Broad Prize, which awards $1 million an urban school district that demonstrates improvements in student achievement), the Broad Superintendents Academy trains business executives to fill leadership positions in urban school districts. The thinking is that people who have been successful and innovative in business can apply those same management, labor relations, logistics and communications skills to overseeing the diverse operations of a troubled school district.

In that same Marketplace interview, Broad stated “We want to see increased student achievement and we want to see the gaps between income and ethnic groups narrow,” which is an admirable goal, though others worry that the foundation is more concerned with creating charter schools than anything else. Critics see the plans laid forth by the Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as usurping schools from cities without any real input from the community. Many public Detroit schools have closed and reopened as charter schools under the authority of Robert Bobb, a Broad Academy alumnus. Or they see the organizations – and their millions and millions of dollars – as simply misguided, pouring money into projects with little change in student achievement or teacher salary.

What do you think of the efforts to get more people of business backgrounds involved in education administration? Does philanthropic activism, especially from outsiders,  have a place in schools?