Preparing Leaders for the New Economy

Turbulent times demand creative thinkers in leadership posts by Eli Broad

We are living in a new era in America. As we enter this new century, our nation's continued prosperity rests on a strongly educated, highly skilled workforce.

Specifically, I see our national economy requiring larger and larger numbers of "knowledge workers"—employees who possess strong analytical, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Unlike service workers, who typically earn $10 to $15 per hour and who frequently face unemployment cycles, knowledge workers command significantly higher incomes and face more fulfilling employment opportunities. But I worry that American public education, particularly education in our underserved and often underresourced urban communities, is not preparing our students to become these future knowledge workers.

I have been active in business and civic ventures for many years—as a supporter of the visual arts, institutions of higher education and the cultural growth of the city of Los Angeles. In 1999, our family created a new foundation with an exclusive focus on elementary and secondary education. We established The Broad Foundation because we believe there is no more critical challenge to our nation's well-being than the challenge confronting public education. This challenge is especially great in our largest urban school districts, where the greatest numbers of America's children are educated.

How do we address the vital issue of improving our nation's public schools so they provide young people from all backgrounds with the knowledge and skills necessary to take advantage of what our new economy offers?

Three Avenues

Those of us from outside the world of education who care deeply about the future of our democratic society see three schools of thought emerging as to how we should reinvent education in America.

The first group relies solely on market forces. These pro-market proponents argue that by giving every parent a publicly funded education voucher, our system of schools will be made more efficient and effective. A second group believes in limited competition, including using charter schools and private vouchers (or "opportunity scholarships") as mechanisms for putting competitive pressure on our public school system to improve. The third group aims to change public education from within the system. Proponents of the third viewpoint advocate a variety of reform initiatives aimed at improving pieces of the system or, in some instances, whole systems change.

I do not believe in publicly funded vouchers. And while I support charter schools and opportunity scholarships, these programs simply cannot grow at the pace needed to help all children achieve their highest potential. In fact, when all is said and done, I believe that at least 80 percent of America's children will continue to be educated in public schools for at least the next decade. Therefore, we must focus our attention and resources on reforming and reinvigorating the system itself.

Human Capital

The most precious resource in the new economy is not the latest technology; it is people. Effective large-scale enterprises rely on human intellect and creativity to win in the competitive marketplace and to make dramatic change in the not-for-profit and government sectors of our economy.

Similarly, schools and school districts require heavy investment in human capital, especially in recruiting, training and supporting entrepreneurial, innovative leaders. At the Broad Foundation, we invest our resources in five areas of leadership: (1) enlisting talented people, (2) redefining roles and authorities, (3) building capacity, (4) providing incentives for results and (5) honoring success.

We believe these five pillars of human capital will help transform public school systems into high performance organizations and lead to higher academic achievement for all students.

* Enlisting Talent. Recent studies indicate that more than 60 percent of school districts today are unable to attract enough quality candidates for vacant principal positions. Moreover, nearly half of the country's superintendents are expected to leave their jobs in the next five years.

To fill these positions, we need to entice the very best and brightest talent in America to consider school leadership as a highly attractive and rewarding career option. We need to do everything we can to encourage our very best educators to take on leadership roles.

At the same time, we need to aggressively attract talent from other sectors to leadership posts in public education. The new economy marketplace requires that schools and districts consider using private-sector recruitment methods, marketing techniques and income enticements (such as signing bonuses) to attract and retain excellent and diverse talent to K-12 education.

* Redefining Roles and Authorities. In recent years, we have seen a shift in the roles required of leaders in education. For example, principals are being asked to focus more of their attention on instructional leadership duties. At the same time, many principals and site-based leadership teams are taking on decision-making authority for issues such as budgeting and hiring that were formerly managed by the central office.

Like principals, superintendents are expected to be educational leaders, business managers, community liaisons, politicians, facilities construction experts and more. In many cases, educators from the current system do not have the background, training or desire to manage all aspects of the education enterprise single-handedly.

As districts seek to redefine the roles and authorities of its leaders, I am encouraged by many of the new management structures currently being tested. One promising model is the leadership team of San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin, a former U.S. attorney, with Chancellor of Instruction Tony Alvarado, a nationally regarded educational leader.

* Building Leadership Capacity. Many districts have committed significant resources to training and supporting classroom teachers. Equally important is the need to prepare, train, support and mentor school and district leaders.

Our foundation is supporting several leadership capacity-building initiatives, including districtwide programs in Seattle, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. In addition, we are funding several new national programs, including one currently being developed in Michigan to train aspiring superintendents statewide. Many other districts and foundations are working to strengthen the capabilities of existing and future educational leaders. These efforts are critical to our success in reinventing public education and to developing knowledge workers for the 21st century.

* Providing Incentives for Results. I recognize that some educators are wary of corporate models of merit pay or pay for performance. However, a properly structured pay-for-results system can provide as strong a lever to promote dramatic improvement in schools as it has in organizations from other sectors.

I believe educators should be paid more. I also believe a portion of their pay should be tied to student learning results. Already, a number of districts provide performance- and skill-based incentives for teachers and administrators. As more urban superintendents are selected from outside the field of education and as more states deepen their commitment to standards, assessment and accountability systems for students, we will see greater interest in providing incentives for results in education.

* Honoring Success. Incredible, heroic, headline-grabbing events happen in schools across America every day. Yet positive stories showcasing public education excellence are largely absent from our daily newspapers and the weeknight local TV news.

For me, this is not a matter of slick marketing or message control. It is a matter of communicating expectations and results to constituencies—local parents, community and corporate leaders, as well as to the community of practitioners, researchers, philanthropists and policymakers engaged in improving public schools. It is about honoring the success of individuals and organizations that make a profound difference in the lives of children every day.

The Broad Foundation, along with many others, is committed to increasing the spotlight on public education's success stories. I look forward to the day when I see as many articles, newscasts and best-selling books spotlighting heroes and leaders from the field of education as there are for heroes and leaders from sports, politics and entertainment.

Our future success as a nation demands that we invest our time, energy and resources in reinventing a public education system that works for all children, regardless of background or circumstance. To develop the next generation of knowledge workers for our new economy, we must invest heavily in the people who educate America's future.

Eli Broad is the chairman of SunAmerica Inc., a global financial services firm. He is also the founder of The Broad Foundation, which focuses on improving governance, management and labor relations in urban school districts. He can be reached at 1 SunAmerica Center, 9th floor, Los Angeles, Calif. 90067. E-mail: eb@broadfoundation.org