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Laurene Powell Jobs on reinventing high school

Amy Scott Sep 17, 2015
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Laurene Powell Jobs, the wife of the late Steve Jobs, has launched a $50 million campaign to rethink the American high school. Dubbed XQ: The Super School Project, the campaign is calling on teams from around the country to submit ideas for redesigning and building high schools that prepare students for “the rigorous challenges of college, jobs, and life.” Winning teams will receive funding and support to turn their ideas into new schools. The XQ Insitute expects to support at least five selected schools for five years. 

Powell Jobs, the board chair of the XQ Institute, spoke to Amy Scott, Marketplace education correspondent, about the challenges of reforming an institution she says was designed for workforce needs more than a century ago and hasn’t changed since. 

On reinventing high school:  

High school hasn’t been reinvented in over 100 years. It was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs. In the last 100 years, the rest of our world has changed radically, but schools have not. And workforce needs have changed radically.

In fact, for the students who are in school today, 65 percent of them will take jobs that haven’t even been created yet. The innovation and creativity that’s so manifest in the rest of society needs to be turned on our school systems.

On crowdsourcing:

We believe strongly that local communities have the solutions, have the knowledge, have the wisdom, understand what the needs are for all the students that live in the communities, and because education is such a local endeavor, we believe that this has to happen, the change has to happen at the local level in order for it to be sustained and meaningful and relevant.

On reaching all of public education:

We think that the need is abundant across America. So, of course we are hoping that we get to seed these thoughts of innovation. We have a crowdsourcing and a really beautiful platform that can then reach out to all communities, so everyone can participate and learn from each other.

What’s outdated in high schools?

Teachers have told us across the country that what’s severely outdated is the teacher at the front of the classroom as the font of knowledge, because as we know, access to knowledge and information is now ubiquitous. So instead, teachers want to help students learn how to think so that they can be lifelong learners. They want to be facilitators, they want to encourage project-based learning and collaborative-based learning, and they want absolutely relevant learning, so that students can understand the applicability of what they’re learning to the problems in the world that they’re going to be faced with.

On schools’ focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math):

I much prefer STEAM to STEM. The insertion of the A is arts writ large, and when you learn how to think, that means that you actually need to understand how others have thought before you, how have others made sense of the world. That includes poets and writers and philosophers and dancers, and then help people think in all different circumstances and in all different industries, so our focus would be misunderstood if it came across as just about science and engineering.

On how co-founding College Track, a program that helps students prepare for and apply to college, has shaped her views about high school:.

That experience has completely informed me over the last 16 years. Generally the students that we work with go to high schools that have about a 75 percent high school completion rate, and about a 10 percent college admissions rate for their graduates. So compared to their cohorts in their neighborhoods, they’re beating the odds, certainly, but not because they’re particularly gifted. I have found that talent and IQ is evenly distributed across America, but opportunity is not.

So what we do is we remove obstacles, we bridge the information gap, we give a lot of scaffolding around academic rigor and social and emotional learning, but students bring to us the willingness to go the extra mile, the determination, and the self-belief, and they do magnificently.

On pushback from people in education skeptical of philanthropists’ gifts:

I think of it in a few ways. First, I’m not coming to this work thinking that I have any answers. I do not have the answer to solve the ills that have beset public education. I come to the work as a beneficiary of public education, an education that worked for me 30 years ago that I see is no longer working for young people. And it’s one of the pillars of American society that we cannot compromise on. I come to it with humility and passion and a sense of gratitude that education was my portal to opportunity, and I want to make sure that it is for others.

On hope for a systemic reinvention of high school:

So far we have seen enormous embrace of our initiative, and people are really excited about it, and it gives me a tremendous amount of optimism, because we’re just in early days, and we’re hearing from teachers and school leaders and parents and students who are very, very excited to be part of this. I can’t wait to see what communities come up with. I think we’re all going to be really surprised and inspired.

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