February 7, 2019; Providence Journal
The state of Rhode Island and XQ, a nonprofit formed and supported by mega-philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, have partnered in an effort to transform the state’s public high schools. The partnership will bring five of the state’s schools grants of $500,000 and XQ’s ongoing technical assistance. In exchange, this gives the nonprofit a chance to implement its approach to “reimagine high school education in the United States” and “transform high school so every student succeeds.”
In a statement announcing the agreement, Governor Gina Raimondo said,
Rhode Island schools are doing some truly exciting work, with a record number of students taking advantage of advanced coursework, early college, and hands-on learning opportunities. XQ chose to do its first-ever statewide partnership with Rhode Island because they see tremendous potential here, and with their support and experience, we will be able to scale up best practices so that we can make high school more challenging, engaging, and relevant than ever before.
XQ was launched in 2015 as an extension of Jobs’ Emerson Project LLC to respond to a conclusion Jobs and her team had reached about the nation’s secondary schools: High schools are seen as failing their students, as measured by standardized test scores, because they “haven’t changed significantly…while the world has. Our education system is still nested in that century-old idea while students are shepherded through similar courses, preparing them for a time long since passed.”
Led by a former member of the Obama-era Department of Education team, XQ began by issuing an open call to “rethink and redesign the American high school.”
More than 10,000 people from all 50 states answered our call with unique ideas for innovative, student-centered high schools that prepare young people for tomorrow’s world. XQ has pledged more than $130 million to create Super Schools that make those visions a reality.
Subsequently, XQ began making grants to individual schools to support their efforts to become model “super-schools.” The partnership with RI is XQ’s first attempt at transforming an entire state’s education system.
While seemingly collaborative, XQ’s approach is based upon seeking solutions for a problem they have defined toward an end result they have also defined. But what if their premises are wrong? Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment raised this concern in comments reported by the Washington Post back in 2017.
“Americans continue to support the broader purpose of education,” Schneider said. “That’s why students have always done far more in school than train for work.…Our students don’t spend their days building cars and designing phones. Instead, they’re developing their full human potential, across a wide range of activities.”
And America’s schools have changed significantly over the past decades. As Schneider noted, “Encouraging such tinkering is a fine use of philanthropic dollars. But that isn’t what the XQ project is promoting. Instead, it is publicizing a historically uninformed message that today’s technologies demand something new of us as human beings and that our unchanging high schools are failing at the task.”
XQ’s resources allow it to proceed on this shaky foundation. Accountable only to their own judgment, XQ can dangle large grants as inducements for individual schools, and even entire states, to follow their game plan. While they may strike gold, they may also strike out.
NPQ has followed how other mega-philanthropists have used their great wealth to impose their desired approaches toward fixing the nation’s education systems. A prime example can be found in the Gates Foundation’s several efforts to solve the nation’s educational problems. Each was well financed, each proved unsuccessful, and each left the funder unscathed—but not so the schools and students who had been their guinea pigs.
Hopefully, XQ’s work will prove more fruitful and the schools in RI will see only the benefit of this partnership. But with control kept by the funder, will support go to those solutions that schools may know they need that do not fit XQ’s definition of the problem? Or will the answers be shaped by the power of Big Money? The test of how well a nonprofit like XQ meets its obligation to the public good lies in how they will face that challenge.—Martin Levine