At least five winners will each get about $10 million over five years to make their schools come to life. The competition hopes to stimulate out-of-the-box thinking, with the eight-figure award luring public, private and nonprofit contestants, including San Francisco Unified School District, to vie for the money offered up by Palo Alto heiress Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
“In towns and cities far and wide, teams will be rethinking and building public schools that prepare students for the rigorous challenges of college, jobs, and life,” according to the contest literature from XQ: The Super School Project.
The XQ contest — like IQ, but with an X-factor — is funded by Powell Jobs through her nonprofit Emerson Collective, which advocates for social issues like education and immigration reform.
‘Wherever life takes them’
The $50 million has pushed her effort into high-profile territory, prompting hundreds of teams to work on entries that are due in February, with at least five winners expected to be announced in August. The competitors represent both traditional and charter schools, and their new or revamped programs would then launch the following fall.
“Imagine a learning environment you can’t see today that brings the best of technology, the best of teaching, that truly prepares young people to make choices, to be ready for wherever life takes them after high school,” said Russlyn Ali, chief executive of the XQ Institute.
The country’s high schools were last transformed in the early 1900s to accommodate the industrial revolution and factory work. That new system required students to spend an hour a day in each course, a standardization of education based on time spent in classroom seats. That’s a problem, Powell Jobs said at the September launch of the contest.
“Nearly every aspect of our daily lives — from how we communicate to how we work and play — has changed dramatically,” she said. “But our high schools have stayed frozen in time.”
While the contest leaves the door wide open to the kinds of changes teams can propose, several themes have popped up in the concepts submitted and reviewed by XQ officials in November, Ali said.
Using technology is a critical feature of the new high school model. Personalized and self-paced learning, with students focusing on what interests them at their own level and speed, is also a common idea.
More practical lessons
Making academic content relevant to real-world experiences is a core goal, and one that perhaps requires internships or other real-world learning. A teacher standing in front of a class teaching facts and figures, however, is not really on the table.
“You ask a teenager anything, they pull it up on their phone so fast, the capital of New Delhi to quantum physics,” Ali said. “Imagine a school that actually taught people how to think rather than what to think.”
In Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, the district plans to submit an XQ application for a school located in a public museum, with students focusing on problem-solving and critical thinking while incorporating the museum’s whale skeleton and other artifacts.
Yet, education reform experts across the country offer mixed feedback on the notion of fueling an overhaul of the high school experience with five schools and $50 million.
“Even though it’s only a handful of schools, it is a lot of money, and it may offer an opportunity for a set of schools to actually try to come up with and try to do something that’s potentially radically different than the past,” said William Corrin, deputy director of K-12 education at MDRC, a nonpartisan social policy research nonprofit. “In that sense, I can kind of see the vision behind this.”
But it also raises serious questions, Corrin said, including how one judges success and how to push change across 50 states and thousands of school systems, each with political autonomy and their own funding scheme and demographics.
Those differences were among the factors that bogged down past efforts to spark change, like the New American Schools’ “break-the-mold” initiative in 1991; the $500 million Annenberg Challenge in 1993, supported by President Bill Clinton; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants, starting with the small schools movement in 2000 and “redefining the American high school” five years later.
“America’s high schools are obsolete,” Bill Gates said in 2005. “By obsolete, I mean that our high schools — even when they’re working exactly as designed — cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.”
Now, a decade later, Powell Jobs is repeating that mantra and pushing her chips into the fix-the-public-schools pot.
The difficulty is that while the public school system might need extensive updating, especially incorporating technology, injections of money and good intentions don’t seem to translate directly into success, said Maria Ferguson, executive director for the Center on Education Policy, a group advocating for more effective schools.
President Obama’s 2011 Race to the Top initiative, arguably the biggest public buy-in for competition-fueled reform, gave out $4.5 billion in grants to schools and districts focused on transformation and innovation. Yet, none of the many reforms paid off in long-lasting change, Ferguson said.
“My entire career has just been watching people make the same mistakes,” she said.
What happens, she asked, when the money runs out? And how do you navigate elected school boards in the thousands of districts across the country, not to mention unions and parent groups?
“One is always a little hesitant to be critical of those who want to do good, wonderful things with their money,” Ferguson said. “You can give it a jazzy name like XQ, but at the risk of sounding too cynical, I haven’t heard anything yet that gives me reason to believe this is anything different.”
XQ officials believe the competition is already creating a movement, with 1,700 teams forming to submit entries or brainstorm ideas. While only a handful of schools will be selected, Ali said the organization is looking at how to support new school models, helping them develop and spread.
“It is fair to say this is the most concentrated grant program, the largest individual school grants that anyone has contemplated,” said Tom Vander Ark, chief executive of Getting Smart, a for-profit education consulting group, and the former head of the Gates Foundation.
“There’s no question they’ll get several dozen extraordinarily good proposals,” he said. “It’s quite likely these will be five extraordinary schools that really do rethink the learning environment and probably deploy technology in new and interesting ways.”
In San Francisco, school district officials are working on their XQ entry, getting feedback from middle and high school students about what they think high school should look like, district officials said. Specifics about where the school would be and how it would teach have yet to be ironed out.
Oakland student Camille Brewster, 17, believes she has the recipe for a winning entry. A great high school experience, she said, should include internships and maybe studying abroad, but definitely life skills to navigate what a young person will actually encounter after graduation, like how to get a job or communicate effectively.
Reciting the Pythagorean theorem or calculating the speed of a train leaving Boston is probably not on that life skill list.
“I feel like we are put in a box in high school, and we need to step out of that,” said Brewster, a senior at MetWest High, where students do internships and have customized learning plans. “I think my school is the kind they’re trying to create.”