Guest Column

What If?


It seems I was born without the gene that makes a person afraid to try new things. I only know about this gene because I’m often asked, “Weren’t you afraid when you started (fill in the blank)?”

The honest answer is always, “No, I wasn’t.” This isn’t because I am fearless; it’s merely because it never occurred to me to be afraid. I simply ask myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

During my life, I have launched many initiatives, and I’ve come to realize this: Beginnings are best. They are moments of shining opportunity and exciting challenge. They are ventures into an unknown space that you then get to shape.

Thanks to the fact I was unconstrained by fear, I was able to create two Fortune 500 companies and am now, through our family’s foundations, focused on helping to improve K-12 education, discover cures for some of humanity’s worst afflictions and make the arts more accessible to more people.

Healthy Skepticism
It’s an exciting time for new beginnings in K-12 education. Innovative, cutting-edge ideas are taking shape, ideas that have the potential to reinvent education as we know it.

For example, what if a student’s individual learning style and academic progress on a given day determined how and what he or she would be taught the very next day?

This notion now is driving highly successful digital, individualized learning taking place in schools like Rocketship Schools in San Jose, Calif., and New York City’s School of One. The founders of these schools, Rocketship Education’s John Danner and Preston Smith and the School of One’s Joel Rose, weren’t afraid to try something new. Now, because these schools gear learning to every individual student’s needs, teachers have the tools they need to propel students — many of whom are low-income — forward, further and far faster than other schools.

Many new things are being asked of school leaders and teachers these days. Naturally, skepticism exists. But healthy skepticism, which can be overcome when the right questions reveal the benefit of a new approach, is altogether different than simply fearing something new. While we may be skeptical of change, it is only by having an open mind as we boldly pursue answers to our questions that we will discover, uncover or invent the best way to propel students to high levels of academic achievement.

I am optimistic. More and more teachers across the country are telling us that while they initially opposed ideas like data-driven teaching or an expanded learning day — new approaches that asked them to operate quite differently — they came to embrace them as soon as they saw their students’ results.

Mixed Results
Of course, all beginnings do not end in success. I have had my share of disappointments.

For example, over the last 10 years, we have spent more than $40 million to train school leaders. When we began that work, we were very excited by the premise that a highly effective, well-trained principal could make a statistically significant difference for students. If training helped principals set the right school goals and climate, provide effective support to their teachers, and properly manage school resources and staff, we presumed student achievement might dramatically improve.

The programs we funded were highly selective and had rigorous standards. Graduates were immediately placed into schools and received practical support based on real student and teacher needs. Our training programs cost some 10 times more than traditional principal training programs, so we expected to see far higher relative student performance in graduates’ schools.

Data, however, show that resulting student gains have not been commensurate with the cost of training, meaning we have not seen far higher student performance versus comparison groups, with a few exceptions, most notably principals trained by KIPP public charter schools and the New Leaders for New Schools.

But even these mixed outcomes have been successes of a sort, not just for those schools that did progress more rapidly under newly trained principals, but also because they’ve raised new, important questions. For example, even the most talented, well-trained school leader may have his or her hands tied without the right autonomy and empowerment from the central office to make localized budgetary or personnel decisions necessary for students and teachers to improve. Which now leads us to ask: What more should central offices be doing to create the conditions under which school leaders can help teachers and students succeed?

Clearly the role of principals and the effectiveness of their training matters. We still believe every school needs a good principal, but our data indicate that we may also need larger systemic changes, including greater central-office support for principals during their first couple of years, because other variables may be at play. We now are funding New Leaders for New Schools’ efforts to identify the specific components of principal training and skills that likely lead to a uniformly higher-quality principal corps.

Persistent Pursuit
Our initial hopes may not have been realized, but we were able to see how these concepts played out, learn from our mistakes and then begin again. The answer to the question “What’s the worst that can happen?” has always been “It’s not as bad as wondering ‘What if?’” It’s far better to pursue an idea, a dream or a relationship that doesn’t work out than to spend your life adrift in an ocean of regret.

In K-12 education, we are far from knowing all the answers, but we must keep asking the questions. And, if we are to move American students forward, we must keep being unafraid to start down a new path.

Assuming anyone possesses that pesky gene that discourages beginnings, may I suggest you turn it on its head and use it to your advantage. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

The next time you find yourself not beginning something because you’re afraid, simply view that fear as a certain sign that you should immediately roll up your sleeves … and begin.

Eli Broad is the founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in Los Angeles. E-mail: