Deep Pockets, New High Schools: What's Laurene Powell Jobs Up To?

High schools have turned out to be the toughest nut to crack in the quest to improve U.S. education. While drop-out rates have fallen, they're still too high, while student engagement lags and academic gains have been difficult to achieve beyond primary school.

None of this is surprising to the many critics of high school, who've long complained about cookie-cutter approaches that fail to engage restless young people on the cusp of adulthood. 

So it's been interesting to watch a top-tier philanthropist—Laurene Powell Jobs, working through the Emerson Collective (her vehicle for philanthropic giving)—embark on an ambitious effort to redesign the American high school. “There is a huge gap between what students want for their future and what their schools are offering,” Powell Jobs said when the project launched last year. Initially slated for $50 million, the collective recently put up $100 million for 10 new model high schools (some completely, some reimagined existing schools) across the country.

We’ve written before about how Powell Jobs is an “unusual suspect” in education philanthropy. While she's been aligned with the education reform movement, she's nevertheless found her own path, focusing on modernizing the ways students learn. She's most well known for launching the nonprofit College Track, which serves low-income students of color with after-school tutoring and extracurricular programs to improve their college readiness and retention.

The investment in new high schools is very much in keeping with her atypical approach. And judging by the response to the first call for applications, over 700 of which came in, Powell Jobs has really struck a chord. What the winning schools have in common seems to be their flexible use of time and their focus on personalized learning through the use of technology and alternative approaches to teaching. Some, like the New Harmony High School in Louisiana offer unique opportunities for experiential learning. That school "will teach students about real-world skills related to coastal restoration and urban planning by bringing students out into the middle of the wetlands of Plaquemines Parish—on a barge."

Overall, the so-called "super schools" are a pretty diverse lot, including both traditional public schools and charters, as well as schools in rural areas and urban centers. (See the full list here.) 

The investment was made under the auspices of Emerson Collective spinoff XQ Institute, managed by former Obama administration alum Russlynn Ali. Ms. Ali left Obama’s Education Department to lead grantmaking at the Emerson Collective in 2012. Now, XQ Super Schools (as it's called) is operating on the ever-more intriguing frontier of school design. While other funders like the Carnegie Corporation continue with their school design investments, Powell Jobs—tapping a $17 billion fortune—is adding some powerful reinforcements.

XQ Institute has taken great care to frame the investment as a true partnership between the institute and the fledgling schools, in which XQ will drive other non-monetary resources (experts, policy advocacy, talent, etc.) to nurture the schools’ development over the next few years.

While school design is red hot right now in education reform, not everyone is completely excited about Powell Jobs' new effort. Critics like Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute were quick to highlight past failed attempts at school redesign such as the New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC), a similar attempt by a privately funded nonprofit to engage in whole-school reform in response to President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 call for new model schools. Hess backed up his assertion with AIR and RAND evaluations of the NASDC schools, which showed that the vast majority of the new schools made very little impact on student achievement. Hess also questioned the faddish nature of school redesign efforts and the celebratory XQ announcement (filled with high levels of edu-jargon) as a repackaging of promising ideas but not quite the “super schools” that they have been billed.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see how this initiative unfolds. Among other things, it will be interesting to see how XQ will measure and publicize results along the way.