Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mrs. Jobs Antes Up

Laurene Powell Jobs came out of the Wharton School of Business with an MBA and went to work for Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs. She started a health food business and went to Stanford's business grad school. And then she married Steve Jobs.

She's no lightweight. She's spent time working in various philanthropic undertakings, including College Track, a group that works to support "underserved" students in getting into, and through, college and they haven't done poorly. Her husband died after a long bout with pancreatic cancer at age 56, which is too young to die from such a crappy disease no matter how much money you do or don't have.

Jobs is now responsible for a huge pile of money, mostly as part of a trust that owns, in addition to a giant chunk of Apple, 7.3% of the Walt Disney Corporation.

Mrs. Jobs is rich, and powerful, and she would now like to fix schools.

The Good News

Jobs has said, “We want to make high schools back into the great equalizers they were meant to be."

Her new initiative is a huge grant competition called XQ: The Super School Project

The Super School Project is an open call to reimagine and design the next American high school. In towns and cities far and wide, teams will unite and take on this important work of our time: rethinking and building schools that deeply prepare our students for the rigorous challenges of college, jobs, and life.

The website is remarkably clear of even coded messages to implement a particular format or program. Teams are encouraged to self-assemble and then begin the work of figuring out what this super school would look like. "No one knows exactly how to build the next American high school."

Then the team is to start working out the details of how to manage and sustain their new concept.

The website encourages ideas like starting by looking at and talking to young people. What are their dreams and aspirations? Look, too, at the science of how children learn. Look at how to get them invested in their own learning. And nowhere did I see instructions to think about how you could scale your idea up for the whole country. Jobs was asked if she's talking about a charter school here, and she said that she doesn't know; I'm going to take that to mean she at least has an open mind on that point.

And at the end of the road, there's a fund of $50 million to help launch 5 schools. 

The Bad News

At the end of the day, is Jobs one more education tourist, dabbling with school-building, or is she one more Master of the Universe who thinks schools are just businesses?

Well, maybe.

The XQ site uses the language of business. You have to figure out how you'll manage your human capital and performance management. And part of Jobs previous experience in the education world is her membership on the board of NewSchools Venture Fund, a group specializing in helping hedge fundies make money off of the ed biz.

Her advisors in this adventure include Michelle Cahill, whose career in policy has included a stint working for Joel Klein in New York City, and Russlynn H. Ali, who was assistant secretary for civil rights at the USED and is currently head of the fiduciary board at Education Post. So, no actual teachers at the upper levels of this project. The tab for XQ has a fun rotating text feature that says alternately, "What if learning is a game?," "What if we take the desks outside," and "What if we knock down the walls," which are charmingly naive in a "Gosh, I bet nobody has ever thought of this before!" way. I wish Jobs would talk to actual teachers.

Jobs told the NYT, "The system was created for the work force we needed 100 years ago. Things are not working the way we want it to be working. We've seen a lot of incremental changes over the last several years, but we're saying, 'Start from scratch.'"

Start from scratch? Cool-- but the time frame on this puppy is not encouraging-- your initial concept proposal is due by November 15, with the first phases due by mid-February. I want to meet the working teachers involved in any of this, because if they're designing a school from scratch while actually teaching, I have much to learn from them about time management. But this certainly sounds like the sort of thing that a charter operation is better positioned to attempt.

There's that term "super school," as if the schools the rest of us ordinary plebes labor in are just ordinary schlubby schools. Which fits with the subtle suggestion by Jobs that no school, anywhere, is getting it right. Nowhere on the lists of things to consider do we find "Schools with successful programs." Given the requirements to put all this together, it seems certain that Jobs' super school will not be in a poor neighborhood serving poor children. That's fine. Rich kids need super schools, too.

And this is an entirely personal, subjective bias, but the whole thing smells of Palo Alto to me. I've had family living in the area, and the Silicon Valley is an odd place, filling up with newly rich tech millionaires who declare their support for social causes while simultaneously pushing their own local poor out of neighborhoods and housing and sight. I want to help the poor of the world, but if I see that raggedy poor guy on my street again, I'm calling the cops. But that's my own personal bias about the Jobs neighborhood.

So what have we got here

A very rich person with an interest in education, but no expertise or experience, who condemns the current system and turns to certified reformsters for advice on how to create a new system. Well, there's no way this can end badly.

On the other hand, I salute Jobs for using her own money and not simply coming up with a clever plan to use other people's tax dollars to fund her dream reform. I'm not optimistic, but there's no point in condemning the outcome of this competition before we see it. I'm definitely looking forward to the super school updates.


  1. Just ONCE I'd love to see a super rich person say something like, "I'm donating $50 million to improving school HVAC systems."

  2. Ha,ha. "I'm selling off my part of Disney and putting a fine arts program in public elementary schools that don't have one. Low income neighborhoods first."

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  4. "The whole thing smells of Palo Alto to me."

    Absolutely right. I live across the bay from Palo Alto. Silicon Valley is full of a certain kind of social engineer who gravitates towards all things new, and bright, and innovative. There is much emphasis on breaking molds, thinking outside the box, and all that stuff - but really, a lot of people are "thinking outside the box" because they don't know how to unlock the damn box and examine the contents, and thus have decided to rename their ignorance "innovation." It's Jobs who will be starting from scratch, not schools. After all, she's basically going to finance some charters - which is perfectly fine and so on, but nothing new.

    The revolutionaries of the Valley are deeply handicapped, imho, by a lack of a liberal humanist education. So many of their ideas are not new. And so much of the technological revolution is so trivial - it makes getting places easier, but doesn't help clarify where you should go, or why.

  5. Since Mrs. Jobs is interested in applying an innovative business model to the field of education, she might do well to examine the way private school administrators run their businesses.

    If educating students worked better with the desks outside, fun-and-games learning, and the walls knocked down, then these private schools would have already gone there. They continue to use anti-innovative, traditional methodologies because their students continue to succeed.

    Perhaps their businesses are successful primarily because their students arrive ready to learn. They are well-supported, with most of their needs met.

    It's possible that the biggest barriers to learning in the public schools are the tremendous needs of many students. If so, Mrs. Jobs and the recipients of her grants need to find out ways--innovative or traditional--to meet these needs.