Surely Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hanks, Mahershala Ali, Justin Timberlake, Cate Blanchett and a bevy of other celebrities (see list below) have nothing but laudable intentions by appearing on Friday night’s live televised high school reform spectacular on four — count them, four — major networks (NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox).
But when an hour of prime time on four networks is purchased, it’s fair to ask whether that is a public service or propaganda.
The alphabet-soup-titled show — “EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” — is a joint project of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which for decades has used the power of celebrity to help various charities (such as last year’s live televised fundraising “Stand Up to Cancer” production) and the XQ Institute, co-founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
XQ Super School Live uses music, comedy and documentary to promote an effort to “disrupt” the American high school and redesign it for the 21st century. That, of course, presumes that the American high school needs to be redesigned for the 21st century, a contention with which some in the education world disagree. And it uses the power of celebrity to push its faulty narrative.
The show stems from an initiative co-founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, who donated half of the reward for a $100 million competition calling for new high school designs. Roughly $10 million was awarded to 10 schools last year through the XQ Institute, an independent affiliate of the Emerson Collective, which Jobs started to focus work on social justice issues. XQ is continuing its work to use technology to “transform” high school, with the Web page promoting the show quoting Jobs as saying: “We all know America’s high schools need to be transformed to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist and a future that we can never see with perfect clarity.”
Not everyone believes that. Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, writes here that this notion expounded by Jobs is wrong. He wrote in part:
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.
The thinking that if “only we can find the right school design model then all kids will have a great education” disregards the fundamental problems that do harm public education: devastating funding inequities that disadvantage the poorest of the country’s schools; curriculum deficits; issues facing teachers, including training, retention, lack of diversity, low pay and lack of authority in their own classrooms; and issues facing students, including poverty, trauma, poor health, unstable family life and learning disabilities.
Such thinking is also part of a myth that all public schools look alike, and that they have looked the same for 100 years. You’ve heard about it before, surely, as the “industrial model.” Actually, public schools have changed enormously in the last century, and they are not all the same. And there are brilliant high schools educating students in the United States.
The show is a follow-up to the Education Industry Foundation’s 2015 televised extravaganza to highlight its new education initiative, “Think It Up,” which is described this way on its website:
“Think It Up seeks to inaugurate a new movement in support of the nation’s students, teachers and schools, helping generate excitement about learning everywhere in America and building a sense of optimism about the changes underway in classrooms across the country. Because education is the cornerstone of our democracy and economy, Think It Up aims to renew a sense of promise for all of America’s public school students. With new technologies, ingenuity and higher expectations, we are living today in the most dynamic era in learning and education since free public school was established in the US.”
So, did seeing stars including Jennifer Garner, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matthew McConaughey make you think about issues in education in America for much longer than the length of the show? It was an attempt to show that America’s entertainment industry cares about helping young people and improving education — and no doubt many in the industry do.
But there is another message that these shows send, to which it is safe to presume that the participants haven’t given much thought: that America’s public education system is a charity that needs a live television show with celebrities singing and dancing and interacting with students and teachers to get ordinary people interested and to be transformed.
The U.S. public education system is not a charity. It is a civic institution, the most important, many argue, in the country, and it educates the vast majority of America’s children — the well-off ones and middle-class ones and those who are so poor that they turn up in class with flea collars around their ankles (as one superintendent told me). It is in some areas of the country a brilliant success and in other places a crushing failure, differences that reflect embedded inequality in the U.S. society and economy.
It needs serious reform, but certainly not the kind that has been pursued by state and federal lawmakers for more than 15 years with thinking that includes the notion that there are silver bullets in education: The right teacher can make all the difference for every kid; the right teacher can be determined by standardized test scores; charter schools are inherently better than traditional public schools. It’s just not so.
Now we have a large group of celebrities who have apparently bought into the notion that America’s high schools are failing wholesale and need to be reimagined — and that this is such a big issue that it is worth paying for an hour of prime time on four different networks.
In America, celebrities can sell just about anything, and they do. Unfortunately, that’s because it works.
These are some of the celebrities participating in Friday’s show:
Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hanks, Mahershala Ali, Tony Hale, Bill Hader, Christian Slater, Common, Randall Park, Rami Malek, Portia Doubleday, Thomas Mann, Anna Deavere Smith, Miranda Cosgrove, Melissa Rivers, Kevin Frazier, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Andra Day, Sheryl Crow, Max Weinberg and Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, MC Hammer, Jon Boogz, Sheila E., J.J. Abrams, Kelsea Ballerini, Maria Bello, Cate Blanchett, Ashley Campuzano, James Corden, Cindy Crawford, Michael Ealy, Matt FX, Salma Hayek Pinault, Sean Hayes, Allison Janney, JAX, DJ Khaled, Gayle King, Norman Lear, Marshawn Lynch, Joel McHale, Alano Miller, Hasan Minhaj, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Maren Morris, David Muir, Chris Paul, Tanika Ray, Conrad Ricamora, Adam Rodriguez, Al Roker, Ian Somerhalder, Karla Souza, Ringo Starr, Justin Timberlake, U2, Danielle Vega, Chris Walla
(Correction: An earlier version of this said high schools had changed a lot in the last decade. It is, rather, century.)