The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation today announced the finalists for the $1 million Broad Prize in Urban Education—the biggest and most visible prize in K-12 schooling. In a stark break with more than a decade of practice, just two districts were named as finalists: Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and Orange County Public Schools in Florida. (Full disclosure: I sit on the 13-member review board for the Broad Prize.)
Since the award’s 2002 inception, the Foundation has always named four or five finalists. This year, however, the award announcement quoted Broad Foundation Bruce Reed saying, “The review board sent a clear message: In too many urban school systems, students aren’t getting the quality of education they deserve.” My fellow review board member, Chris Cross, a former assistant US Secretary of Education, added, “While we have two districts that have shown some strong gains, we were incredibly disappointed with the overall progress or urban school systems across the U.S.”
Seventy-five urban school systems are eligible for the prize, and are judged on metrics including reading and math achievement, academic improvement, graduation rates, SAT and ACT scores, Advanced Placement participation and performance, demographics, poverty, and spending. Finalists are those districts which receive nominations from more than half of the review board.
Of course, it’s not like districts were making phenomenal gains last year and have suddenly hit a wall. Since 2002 (the same year that President Bush physically signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law), school reform has been torn by competing impulses: to celebrate evidence of progress but to insist on the need for more ambitious, dramatic improvement.
Today’s announcement marks a decided shift in awarding a prize that has consistently reflected a glass-half-full mindset now reflecting a more impatient stance. Is this a one-time blip? Does it mark a sea change? Does it mean that, a dozen years after NCLB, patience is wearing thin? If so, it seems to clearly suggest a willingness to raise the bar for urban school performance and to ever more firmly reject “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And that is an altogether good thing for students, schools, and educators.
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