The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The false narrative behind a glitzy live television show about school reform

Laurene Powell Jobs and former mayor of Washington Adrian Fenty, left, arrive for a state dinner at the White House on Aug. 2, 2016. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

If you are watching television on Friday night and happen to look at one of the four big networks — NBC, CBS, ABC or Fox — you will see something rather extraordinary: the same live show about a school reform project funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Jobs is using the occasion to promote the “XQ: The Super School Project,” an initiative to which she gave $50 million to “disrupt” the American high school and redesign it for the 21st century.

On hand to help promote the initiative will be Tom Hanks, along with Jennifer Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, Common and other celebrities, as well as students, parents and educators. The executive producers of the show: Oscar-winner Viola Davis and her actor-producer husband, Julius Tennon.

The XQ Institute was co-founded by Jobs and Russlynn H. Ali, who previously worked in the Obama administration as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. It is leading a competition in which teams of people, including educators, inventors and people in other fields, are invited to design a high school that can “give our students the education they deserve,” the website says.

Jobs is also the founder of Emerson Collective, an organization that advocates for education and immigration reform, social justice and environmental conservation.

Here’s a post about what author Jack Schneider says is the mistaken premise behind the initiative and the television show.  Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, and the author of “Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality.” Follow him on Twitter: @Edu_Historian

Laurene Powell Jobs donates $50 million to redesign high school

By Jack Schneider

At 8 p.m. on Friday,  “XQ: The Super School Project” will take over all four television networks. Funded by Laurene Powell Jobs — the widow of Apple’s co-founder — XQ seeks to redesign the American high school by selecting innovative models, pouring money into them and telling their stories.

XQ might highlight some exciting innovations. Unfortunately, however, the project is rooted in fiction. The schools themselves may be real, and some might even turn out to be “super.” But the assumptions underlying the project are false. And given that, the entire XQ extravaganza threatens to do more harm than good, by undermining what we know to be true about our schools.

The first falsehood of the XQ narrative is the claim that a dramatically changed world requires us to rethink public education. Students today, they argue, need a totally different kind of education because, as the XQ website puts it, “we’ve gone from the Model T to the Tesla and from the switchboard to the smartphone.”

Do new technologies require us to rethink the purpose of American education?

If the primary goal of school is to teach students to build products, the answer might be yes. But interviews my research team has conducted with educators and parents show that Americans maintain broad and complex aims for education. They want students to develop interpersonal skills and citizenship traits. They want schools to teach critical thinking and an array of academic skills. They want young people to be exposed to arts and music, to have opportunities for play and creativity, and to be supported socially and emotionally.

Many would also like to see students leaving high school with some job-ready skills. But as the latest Phi Delta Kappan poll indicates, Americans continue to support the broader purpose of education. That’s why students have always done far more in school than train for work.

If Laurene Powell Jobs and her friends at XQ want an answer for why the Tesla and the smartphone haven’t transformed our schools, the simplest one is this: 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.

While the core purpose of education has remained the same, much about our schools has changed over the past century. Again, however, XQ offers us a fabricated reality. As the project’s website puts it: “For the past 100 years, America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged.” Our educators, they imply, have been asleep at the wheel.

Schoolhouse desks do look largely the same. Students mostly sit in rows. And teachers generally do most of the talking. But a century ago, almost everything else was different. Teachers were largely untrained. Rote memorization was the rule. Students brought a hodgepodge of books from home and were instructed in an unpredictable range of content. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common. Greek and Latin still ruled the day. Students of color, when educated, were denied equal access. In short, though some of the basic outline may be familiar, a school of the past would seem almost comically strange to students of the present.

None of this is to say that the XQ “super schools” are unworthy contributions to the landscape of public education. The city where I live — Somerville, Mass. — is getting an XQ school: Powderhouse Studios. And many in the community are excited about a new alternative.

But the Powderhouse project began four years ago, in coordination with the district. It didn’t need XQ. As Alec Resnick, one of the school’s co-founders, sees it, the school will be just another option in the current system, not some new template other schools should copy. In his words: “We want to integrate with the district and extend what it can offer.”

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.

The American educational system isn’t perfect. Yet we might recall that our public schools serve every child in the nation, from kindergarten through the end of high school. And they have helped produce the dynamic, literate, diverse, entrepreneurial nation we live in. Can we improve the existing system? Absolutely. In order to do so, however, we need to be firmly grounded in reality.