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High School is too old school

Amy Scott Sep 18, 2015

High School is too old school

Amy Scott Sep 18, 2015

Laurene Powell Jobs is launching a $50 million crowd-sourcing campaign to rethink the American high school. Teams from around the country will compete for funding and support to turn their ideas into new “super schools.”

Powell Jobs is best known in most circles as the wife of the late Steve Jobs, but she’s also made a mark as an education philanthropist. A group she co-founded called College Track has helped send thousands of disadvantaged high school students to college. The new campaign is dubbed XQ: The Super School Project.

“High school hasn’t been reinvented in over 100 years,” said Powell Jobs, board chair of XQ Institute, in an interview. “It was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs, and as we all know, in the last 100 years the rest of our world has changed radically, but schools have not.”

Take the traditional lecture-style class.

“Teachers have told us across the country that what’s severely outdated is the teacher at the front of the classroom as the font of knowledge, because as we know access to knowledge and information is now ubiquitous,” she said.

Not everyone has equal access, but why bother memorizing the Platt Amendment when you can look it up on your smartphone?

“Instead teachers want to help students learn how to think,” Powell Jobs said. “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.”

What could that look like? Rashid Davis has some ideas. He’s principal of P-Tech, a technology-focused high school in Brooklyn, New York, and he’s helping promote the competition. Davis said the next-generation high school should collaborate with colleges and employers. His school partners with IBM.

“Every student has an IBM mentor, so they get to experience the worlds of work by leaving the school and actually going into work site visits,” Davis said.

Students also have opportunities to do paid internships. The end goal is an associate degree in applied science, setting students up for careers.

Of course, people have tried to reinvent high school before.

“That idea is as old as students sitting in desks and a teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom,” said education historian Jack Schneider, an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross.

In the mid-20th century there was a movement to make high schools much bigger, with more courses from which to choose, Schneider said. Fifty years later, people decided high schools were too big. The Gates Foundation spent $1 billion promoting smaller schools. Neither was a smashing success.

High school is far from perfect, Schneider said, but it’s been evolving all along.

“To say that the process isn’t working, when we have the world’s largest economy, and when we have a more or less functioning democracy, I don’t see the outward signs that the educational system is failing,” he said.

With its Race to the Top and Promise Neighborhoods initiatives, the Obama administration has also favored competitions as a way of driving school reform. Reached on a bus during his annual back-to-school road trip, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan welcomed the challenge.

“I think folks will make some mistakes, and you’ll learn some things, but the chance to significantly improve student learning and student engagement — I think there’s a huge upside here,” Duncan said.

If you have ideas for the high school of the future, you’d better hurry. The competition’s first deadline is Nov. 15.



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