December 28, 2015; San Francisco Chronicle

What happens when you marry contest philanthropy with billionaire interventions in public schools? It may strike fear in the hearts of skeptics like us, but at least the XQ Institute’s initiative has the benefit of asking for the ideas to come from the schools themselves.

Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, launched a competition, “XQ: The Super School Project,” this fall to crowdsource ideas on how to reinvent the nation’s high schools. To date, according to XQ Institute officials, more than 1,700 teams are forming to submit entries or brainstorm ideas to compete in the hope of being one of five selected to win up to 10 million dollars to bring their school blueprint to life.

The objective of Powell Jobs’s initiative, according to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle is to be “rethinking and building public schools that prepare students for the rigorous challenges of college, jobs, and life.” The idea is to “overhaul an antiquated model that hasn’t changed in 100 years.” This is crucial, Powell Jobs believes, because “nearly every aspect of our daily lives—from how we communicate to how we work and play—has changed dramatically.”

Philanthropy News Digest, in their coverage of the XQ competition, said that proposals for the discovery and design phases are due by February. Teams “will explore the needs and aspirations of the youth and communities they aim to serve, along with the latest scientific research about learning, then will be invited to apply that knowledge to reinvent high school as most teens currently experience it. Design elements can include school mission and culture, teaching and learning, student agency and engagement, and networks and partnership.”

Up to fifty semi-finalists will be invited to complete the development phase in March; twenty-five finalists will be selected in June and, finally, five winners will be announced this August. According to GeekWire, “once they’ve selected the finalists, they’ll work with them closely, offering ‘expert support,’” in addition to giving a piece of the $50 million in funding. The ultimate goal will be to turn “at least five schools over the next five years into ‘Super Schools.’”

There have been many calls for change to the current model of high school education, which was conceived in the early 1900s to address the needs of the industrial revolution. There have also been a number of initiatives, including, as Jill Tucker reports in the Chronicle, “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.”

Responses by “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.” William Corrin, deputy director of K-12 education at MDRC, a nonpartisan social policy research nonprofit, has said, “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.”

However, he points out, “it also raises serious questions, 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.”

Russlyn Ali, chief executive of the XQ Institute, sees a lot of potential for this to work and has said they’ve already identified a number of common themes in concepts submitted in November. These include the importance of using technology, personalized and self-paced learning, and making content relevant to real-world experiences.

“While only a handful of schools will be selected,” said Ali, who formerly worked in the Obama administration for the Department of Education, “the organization is looking at how to support new school models, helping them develop and spread.” Tom Vander Ark, chief executive of Getting Smart, a for-profit education consulting group, and the former head of the Gates Foundation, said, “It is fair to say this is the most concentrated grant program, the largest individual school grants that anyone has contemplated.”—Susan Raab