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Full page ads in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today promoted the XQ Superschool Project. The project, according to Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, and chairman of the XQ Institute’s Board of Directors as well as President of Emerson Collective, seeks to “crowdsource new ideas on education,” to help America “win the brain race.” It  is intended to reinvent the American high school experience. By bringing together teachers, parents, businesses, students and innovators, XQ asks the public, on its website, to “Rethink: Repetition, Desk Time, The Bell, Knowledge, The Questions, The Answers, The Future, High School.”

The project essentially seeks to create a program where teams of stakeholders previously mentioned  “immerse themselves in the leading thinking and research on how students learn today; spend time unearthing student needs and the changing demands of the world of work; and do rigorous systems-thinking to build their ideas into the next American high school.” Jobs has contributed $50 million to the pot which will be awarded to the teams with the best ideas in fall 2016.  Judges will consider three focus areas in making the awards: school schedules, curricula, and technologies.

According to its website, XQ is IQ (how we think) + EQ (how we learn) + That Certain Something.  “XQ is the agile and flexible intelligence that prepares students for a more connected world, a rapidly changing future, and a lifetime of learning.”

Lauren Jobs may be best known in education for her College Track program started in 1997 which follows low income student through high school and college.  The program offers intensive support, both academic and financial as well as leadership training, to low income students in eight cities. The program claims that 90 percent of the nearly 1,200 children they have served have graduated from high school. In addition, its students graduate at a rate that is 2.5 times the national average of their low-income students (11%).

Jobs’ involvement in College Track connected her to the children of illegal immigrants who struggled in poverty and poor English skills which kept them from succeeding in school. Strangely, her solution was to push in 2013 for passage of the DREAM Act to bring even more of these children into our country to struggle in a very different culture but where being legal will somehow magically make the poverty, low skills and lack of cultural knowledge of their parents go away.

XQ’s other leaders include Michele Cahill who some may recognize from her work with attorney and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. As Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department under President Clinton, Klein was the lead attorney in the government’s anti-trust case against Microsoft. Fortunately he was able to put all that aside and work with the Gates Foundation on its abysmal failure the Small Schools Project in NYC. From there he moved to Rupert Murdock’s NewsCorp which leased tablets to New York schools through its Amplify division where they hoped their on-line curriculum would revolutionize education. That too did not come to fruition.

Cahill is vice-president for national programs at Carnegie Corporation of New York, you know the ones who have been trying to direct public education in America since the 1930’s, the ones who hired Marc Tucker to write “A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century” and who helped him establish the National Center on Education and the Economy which in turn created the National Center For Education Statistics that collects all that student data for the federal government. Yes that Carnegie.

XQ Institute also Russlynn Ali at its helm. Ali served as Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and Managing Director of Education at Emerson Collective. Her goal for the XQ project is to “make high schools back into the great equalizers they were meant to be.” I guess she forgot that originally high schools were actually the great sorters where students were either tracked for college or vocational training. Watch the XQ promotional video below. Its message seems at odds with Ali’s.  The video complains that high schools prepared students for the industrialized America right down to rigid time schedules punctuated by bells and uniform instruction. Today high schools are meant to prepare students for college or the workforce. Seems like nothing much has changed. XQ proposes in the front of their website to do away with the industrial trappings and worker focus, so why would we want to go back to what high schools were meant to be?

Rounding out the leadership is Keith Yamashita who will act as a consultant, bringing his experience at companies like Apple, IBM, and General Electric, to the process. An excerpt from Yamashita’s book “Shift and Reset” gives insight into his way of thinking.

“But for every person inside the non profit community who thinks differently, there are hundreds of corporations pumping money into a cause for the sole benefit of improving their brand and reinforcing what doesn’t work. For every organization that has shaken up its leadership, restructured its team, begin to experiment with new and different ways of tackling big issues, there are tens of thousands of other groups who are still stuck in a model that (maybe) worked 20 years ago.”

Let’s see if Yamashita can keep those negative corporate interests out of the XQ program.

The XQ website is full of quotes and information that are confusing and sometimes contradictory like these two statements from students:

“There’s not an individualized way of teaching, and I want to go into teaching to try and change that.” – Brenda

“I mean if it’s public school, it should all be the same, regardless of where you’re from.” – Harper, Grade 11

Which is it – individualized and differentiated, or all the same?  Vista Unified which tweeted about this project asked,

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If you allow children to explore themselves and then direct their own journey, you sometimes get these unclear or contradictory conclusions.

Referring to his high school experience, one student commented,

“In reality, you didn’t learn anything. All you did was memorize.”

I suppose that memorization is no longer a part of learning. Then there was this quote.

“50% of American High Schools do not offer calculus.  Just a few more offer physics.”

These two statistics are offered side by side with no additional context provided. Since the trend now is to reduce the amount of math required for many non-STEM college degrees, the public clamor for calculus is declining and not being fought for too hard by those in academia. These statistics are a logical result of that trend. For decades, we have only required students to pass Algebra II course work in order to graduate. While calculus is important to those going on to further study mathematics, it is unclear where the panic over the fact that only half our schools offer calculus is coming from.

Adding to the hype for XQ is The Gates Foundation and partners like Exxon Mobil and Staples and who  rolled out its own flashy education initiative last week, Think It Up. Promoted on CBS by the likes of Kristen Bell, Stephen Colbert, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew McConaughey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Renner, Ryan Seacrest, Jessica Williams and other stars from film, television, sports, music, THINK IT UP  “invites public school students in grades 7-12 to develop student-powered, teacher-led, crowdfunded learning projects. Together, we can address real-world problems, generate new ideas, and prepare for 21st-century challenges students and teachers develop projects that draw on the students’ passions and help them pursue their educational goals.”

Think It Up is an initiative of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), which was created to “bring broad cultural attention to the urgency of improving the learning experience in America. The national education initiative will seek to reframe the public discussion about education, create a culture of excitement about learning everywhere in America, and build a sense of optimism about the potential of education in classrooms across the country.” XQ Superschools is noted on TIU’s website.

Instead of completely changing education, as XQ envisions, Think It Up seeks to work within the current model and focuses on middle school as well as high school to identify class projects that will somehow prepare students for life after high school. Examples of projects include: students using iPads to build friendships wit students in Ethiopia and other countries, Bronx students using an electronic cutting machine to make products, New York students using laptops to participate in codethons (computer code writing competitions).

Though only announced on 9/11/15, Think It Up claims teachers at “over 60 percent of all the public schools in America have created project requests, and more than a million people have donated $330 million to projects that inspire them.” Think It Up appears to focus on low income schools or schools recovering from disasters which have been given books, art supplies, field trips, technology, and other resources.

If businesses want to get involved in the preparation of their future employees, or competitors, AND they want to provide their own money to do so, AND districts can choose whether to participate or not, programs like XQ could be the type of education experiment that provides real innovation and improvement in education. However, all of this business interest in education seems at odds with the US Chamber of Commerce’s call for uniformity for outcome comparability in public education. Even their own website shows that the creators of XQ have not exactly figured out this contradiction either. Working to improve the current system, or abandoning it in favor of something completely different both have their merits. What would be a tragedy however, was if American school children were caught in the middle of this war of ideas trying to appease both sides or if a hybrid of both ideas using the worst of each is implemented.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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