Americans `Fat, Dumb, Happy,' Eli Broad Says

Complacency about education has put U.S. workers at a disadvantage competing in a global marketplace, said Eli Broad, the Los Angeles philanthropist who has crusaded for a decade to improve student achievement.

U.S. students lag behind nations such as India and Korea because their parents aren’t placing enough importance on achievement, Broad said in an interview at Bloomberg News offices in Los Angeles.

“The American people frankly have been over many, many years, to be blunt, fat, dumb and happy,” said Broad, 77. “If they want their children to compete with children in India, China or Korea, they better get them a far better education.”

The U.S. ranked 21st with 78 percent of high school students graduating and going on to college in 2007, according to a 2009 survey by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which promotes economic growth, employment and higher living standards. Germany and Finland led with rates of 97 percent or more.

Broad, who has sought to improve instruction and student skills, said he wants his Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to devote the next 10 years to influencing state and national education policy, and to promote a standard national curriculum for mathematics and science.

Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Eli Broad, the billionaire co-founder of homebuilder KB Home, speaks during an interview in New York, March 17, 2010. Close

Eli Broad, the billionaire co-founder of homebuilder KB Home, speaks during an... Read More

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Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Eli Broad, the billionaire co-founder of homebuilder KB Home, speaks during an interview in New York, March 17, 2010.

“The biggest problem we have in America is governance,” he said. “You cannot compete with national education ministries and have 15,000 school boards. It’s going to take more direction at the national level.”

Broad started his nonprofit in 1999 partly to bolster education at a time when U.S. students’ reading, math and science achievement scores had been declining.

Two Fortunes, Art

A Michigan State University graduate, Broad made his first fortune as co-founder of Los Angeles-based KB Home, a home building company he started in 1957 with Donald Kaufman who died last year. Broad later pocketed $3.4 billion when sold his 19 percent stake in insurer SunAmerica Inc.

A lover of art with a 2,000-piece collection, Broad became a major supporter of museums and a co-founder the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. A Democratic Party donor, Broad said he supports California Attorney General Jerry Brown Jr.’s candidacy for governor.

Broad isn’t alone in calling for improved education. In a Milken Institute panel in Los Angeles this week, economist Nouriel Roubini said investing in education and technology would benefit the U.S. economy more than spending on housing.

In the past decade, Broad has invested about $370 million in programs to improve instruction and student learning. About $100 million has been awarded to charter-school management organizations, creating 54,474 slots for students in 16 cities, Broad Foundation spokeswoman Karen Denne said in an e-mail.

Longer Year

Broad also set up the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems to train school superintendents and recruit top education managers from other professions. He established the $2 million Broad Prize for Urban Education, awarded to school districts that show the greatest improvement in student achievement.

Students need a longer school year and better instruction in the schools, Broad said. The best teachers and principals should be put into the “most challenging” schools, he said.

“In other countries, they take the top 10, 20 or 30 percent of the students and make them teachers,” he said. “We get the bottom 30 percent out of education schools.”

Broad said he is also seeking reform of school boards because they fail to address student achievement issues, and “we will see statutes that will limit their power” or define their role more clearly.

“You rarely find (school boards) talking about standards or student achievement,” he said. “That’s why you got to have more of that input coming from Washington at the national level and governors and big city mayors.”

To contact the writer on this story: Patrick Cole in New York at pcole3@bloomberg.net.

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