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What is XQ and Why Is It Spending $100 Million to Reinvent High School?

Russlynn Ali discusses the foundation-backed ‘Super School’ project with journalists

Photo credit: EWA

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At a gathering of education writers last week, the Emerson Collective’s Russlynn Ali walked not one but several fine lines, promising an “open source” ethos when sharing lessons gleaned from the group’s XQ Super School Project, but declining to commit the private philanthropy to transparency in its political spending and investments in education technology companies.

There is no way the XQ initiative could finance the creation or transformation of enough schools to change the institution of high school, Ali said, so lessons from the 18 schools selected to date for support must be available to all.

“It could be a thousand schools and it still wouldn’t be enough,” Ali said. “It absolutely has to be about open source. Everything has to be open to everyone.”

XQ Project Backs Schools in 16 States

The Super Schools initiative in 2016 awarded some $102 million to existing and new innovative high schools in 16 states. The project is an initiative of the XQ Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by and closely affiliated with the Emerson Collective.

In the months before the grants were announced, the XQ Institute team visited cities throughout the country — traveling on a brightly colored bus to draw attention to the effort — talking to some 10,000 students, parents and educators about their vision for transforming the institution of high school.

The impetus, Ali told her audience of journalists, was to revolutionize high school, which the Emerson Collective and others see as little-changed from the 1890s. Instead of Carnegie units of “seat time” that prepare students for an industrial economy, high schools should be preparing students for college and careers with hands-on experiences that instill critical thinking skills.

Addressing the wider education landscape, Ali lamented the effect the Trump administration has had on public discourse about school choice.

“The way the civic and political conversation is pushing [charters] into the same category as vouchers for private and religious schools is unfortunate,” she said. “It is indeed unfortunate to see the rollback that we’ve seen across the board in terms of equity and rigor and resources.”

Ali was sharply critical of a provision in the GOP tax legislation currently wending its way through Congress that would extend 529 education savings plans to K-12 tuition for private schools, saying it would mainly benefit families that don’t need the tax savings.

She declined, however, to extend her criticism to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s frequent statements about “rethinking” high school, saying she doesn’t know much about DeVos’s beliefs in that arena but some of the ideas she’s heard, such as the creation of a job apprenticeship pipeline, merit attention.

The Emerson Collective was founded in 2004 by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, the former CEO and a co-founder of Apple. Emerson funds initiatives in immigration, education, gun violence, social innovation and media, among other efforts. Ali, formerly the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, oversees Emerson’s education programs and also is the CEO of the XQ Institute.

She spoke in early December to members of the Education Writers Association, who were gathered at San Diego’s innovative High Tech High to learn about efforts to redesign U.S. high schools. High Tech High is a highly recognized charter school network that operates 13 campuses at the elementary and secondary levels, with a focus on project-based learning. For the segment, Ali was interviewed by Liz Willen, the editor-in-chief of the nonprofit Hechinger Report, which has produced extensive news coverage of high school reform efforts.

The Emerson Collective is structured as a limited liability corporation, like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy launched by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan. Unlike a charitable trust, an LLC can spend money on lobbying or supporting political candidates, can earn profits and doesn’t have to disclose executive pay.

During the session, Education Week reporter Ben Herold asked Ali if the Emerson Collective was willing to publicly disclose all of its contributions to political causes, as well as its investments in education technology companies.

“I’m not prepared to answer that question here today,” Ali replied, though she emphasized that Emerson adheres to all applicable public disclosure and reporting rules. “Emerson is a hugely important vehicle that builds on lots of tools, whether that be investments in or other ways of supporting great leaders and great ideas and great change that’s happening, with a laser focus on equity always.”

Herold has reported for Education Week on some of the Emerson Collective’s political contributions — including for education-related ballot measures — as well as investments in ed-tech companies such as AltSchool and Panorama Education.

Inspired by ‘Race to the Top’ Initiative

Ali said the Super Schools competition was inspired by the Obama administration’s much-debated $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative, that encouraged states to adopt such measures as more rigorous standards and teacher evaluations that relied in part on student test scores.

The promise of resources, she said, pushed states to get past “a real resistance to thinking differently.” The XQ challenge was embraced to a degree that surprised its creators, she noted.

“What we didn’t expect was 10,000 people would participate in that design process across the country,” she said. “The fact that the applications were as ambitious and innovative as they were we did not anticipate.”

The contest was originally to have five winners, which would receive $10 million each over five years. When the competition drew an unexpected 700 entries, XQ’s leaders expanded the number of schools that would receive grants. Most winners received the full $10 million, though a few got smaller grants.

Winners include a Louisiana high school located on a barge that has a focus on coastal restoration, a high school located in a museum in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, where students will help restore a watershed, and a school in Los Angeles that will cater to students who are homeless or in foster care.

The day before Ali’s appearance, Houston Public Media’s Laura Isensee spoke to the assembled reporters about a series of stories she produced while embedded in her city’s XQ-winning Furr High School. Furr’s transformation plan included using personalized approaches to engage students on issues ranging from the environment to social justice.

In addition to enduring Hurricane Harvey’s devastation at the beginning of this school year, the high school last fall also lost its 83-year-old principal, who was suspended for reasons that remain unclear.

The turmoil will not affect Furr’s grantee status, Ali said in response to Insensee’s question about the program’s future.

“Leadership change is a hugely relevant facet of the way schools run,” she said.

Earlier in the day, High Tech High founder and CEO Larry Rosenstock was asked whether he thought a contest was a good way to stimulate the creation of schools that are innovative and effective.

“My answer has two letters,” he said, meaning “no.”

“The way to do it is not to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times before you’ve done anything,” he said.

XQ made a serious investment in drawing the public’s attention to its high school transformation effort, sponsoring a live TV special featuring Tom Hanks and other celebrities and engaging in what the Times called “an advertising campaign that looks as if it came from Apple’s marketing department.”

Shining a ‘Bright Spotlight’

Asked how XQ would evaluate the schools’ success, Ali did not give a specific answer. She mentioned a number of things the group was interested in trying to measure, such as students’ social-emotional growth, as well as the SAT “suite” of college-admission assessments.

“We are building out the frameworks,” she said. “We will make all our frameworks public early next year.” She added, “We want to be able to shine a bright spotlight on things that work.”

Stepping back, Ali said that equity “will be front and center” in judging the effort’s outcomes. “This work has been nested in closing the opportunity and achievement gaps,” she said. “A school is not a good school unless it’s good for all the kids in it,” she said.