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Russlynn Ali on Sharing Lessons from the $102M XQ Super Schools Project — and Why Trump May Be Damaging School Choice

By Beth Hawkins | December 6, 2017

CEO Russlynn Ali and Board Chair Laurene Powell Jobs at an XQ Super Schools event. (Photo credit: facebook.com/XQAmerica)

San Diego, California

At a gathering of education writers Tuesday, 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 Schools Project but declining to commit the private philanthropy to transparency in political spending and education technology investment.

There is no way XQ could finance the creation of enough new models to change the institution of high school, so lessons from the 18 Super Schools recognized to date must be available to all, she said.

“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.”

The Super Schools initiative in 2016 awarded some $102 million to existing and new innovative high schools in 16 states. In the months before the grants were announced, the XQ Institute 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 reminded her audience of journalists, was to revolutionize high school, which the 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.

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 tax bill currently wending its way through Congress that would extend 529 education savings plans to K-12 tuition, 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.

Founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’s widow, Emerson funds initiatives in immigration, education, gun violence, social innovation, and media, among other efforts. Ali, formerly the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Obama administration’s U.S. Department of Education, oversees its education programs and is CEO of the group’s XQ Institute.

She spoke 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. A public charter school with multiple campuses, High Tech High is a 17-year-old network of celebrated elementary, middle, and high schools with a focus on project-based learning.

Like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy launched by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, the Emerson Collective is structured as a limited liability corporation. 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.

Answering questioning from Liz Willen, editor in chief of the nonprofit Hechinger Report, 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 things 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.

“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 it 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.

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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 unclear.

The turmoil will not affect Furr’s grantee status, Ali said in a somewhat indirect response to Isensee’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 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.”

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.”

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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.”

In any case, equity “will be front and center” in judging the effort’s outcomes, Ali concluded.

“A school is not a good school unless it’s good for all the kids in it,” she said. “We want to be able to shine a bright spotlight on the things that work.”

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