Laurene Powell Jobs Just Ponied Up $50 Million to Rethink Public High Schools. Will It Go Anywhere?

Laurene Powell Jobs
Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, has just launched a new high school reform effort.

Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Another day, another tech billionaire—or in this case a widow of a tech billionaire—attempting to revolutionize education by throwing a lot of money at an amorphous reform scheme. This time it’s Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve, who has committed $50 million to a campaign called XQ: The Super School Project, the goal of which is to “completely transform the model for public high school,” the New York Times reported Monday.

According to XQ, which is a project of Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective organization, American public high schools are stuck in a post–Industrial Revolution morass and haven’t kept pace with our changing universe. A video on XQ’s brand-new Twitter page frames the basic problem in Silicon Valley–ese: “As we’ve gone from a Model T to a Tesla, a switchboard to a smartphone,” the voice over intones, “high school has stayed frozen in time.”

The goal of XQ is to “scrap the blueprint and revolutionize this dangerously broken system” and “challenge the idea of bodies in seats and 500-page textbooks” and “change the poverty rate and the inequity of incarceration,” OK, that all sounds noble enough, but then it could all just be, to quote Hamlet and Eliza Doolittle, “Words, words, words.”  How exactly do we make the high schools of the future “agile, creative, and endlessly relevant?”

We know from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s low-yield $100 million sally into Newark schools that money, when grossly mismanaged, doesn’t necessarily buy a better education system. And, to her credit, Powell Jobs doesn’t claim to know how exactly to achieve XQ’s lofty ideals.

On the contrary, her donation is structured as if to acknowledge the driving-blind difficulty of school reform: Instead of advancing a specific plan, XQ is an “open call to reimagine and design the next American high school,” a Vietnam Memorial–style competition for a new school model. According to the Times, the idea is to

inspire teams of educators and students, as well as leaders from other sectors, to come up with new plans for high schools. Over the next several months, the teams will submit plans that could include efforts like altering school schedules, curriculums and technologies. By fall next year, Ms. Powell Jobs said, a team of judges will pick five to 10 of the best ideas to finance.

Proposals are due Nov. 15.

It’s unclear whether she will spend more than that $50 million baseline. (And, by the way, while $50 million sort of sounds like an impressive sum, Powell Jobs, the world’s ninth wealthiest woman, is worth an estimated $19 billion. At 5 percent interest, she adds $50 million to her fortune in fewer than three weeks.)

Still, Powell, unlike Zuckerberg, has a long-standing interest in the type of educational equity the XQ project hopes to promote: She has mentored disadvantaged students and bankrolled College Track, a nonprofit that “makes the dream of college graduation a reality,” since the mid-’90s. Let’s hope Powell Jobs succeeds in making the dream of better high schools a reality, too.