At 8 p.m. on Friday, September 8, it was likely more TV viewers than usual were looking for escapist fare that would take their minds off Hurricane Irma, which devastated idyllic Caribbean islands and was zeroing in on Florida. The latest exploits of MacGyver, the quick-thinking user of applied sciences to squeak out of tight situations, would have been perfect. School reform was likely not on anyone’s radar.
Perhaps when viewers realized that they were about to receive a live presentation presented by four major TV networks – NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox – they figured it would be emergency information about the monster storm or a telethon to aid victims. After all, how often, short of a presidential address, do the networks share programming? Ah, but when ABC news anchor David Muir led off a parade of network luminaries introducing a special on the need to reinvent the American public high school, viewers probably secured their wallets and prepared to be bored.
XQ Super School Live was anything but boring. It was a lively mix of youthful song, dance, comedy, and commentary. It featured lots of glitz and glitter, and even celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, Justin Timberlake, MC Hammer, Samuel L. Jackson, DJ Khaled, and dozens of others participated in the event, which hawked the idea of a total remake of high school. But many viewers surely wondered about underlying agendas.
Valerie Strauss, an education writer for The Washington Post, was right on target in observing, “But when an hour of prime time on four networks is purchased, it’s fair to ask whether that is a public service or propaganda.” Clearly, this hour-long explosion of an education-related glitter bomb was both entertaining and propagandistic.
The two prime movers of this initiative were Laurene Powell Jobs, billionaire widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Russlyn Ali, a U.S. Department of Education civil rights official in the Obama administration. Both frequently speak of aspiring to bring about social justice, and Ali has termed their friendship “a kindred spiritual alignment.” Jobs founded the Emerson Collective, which presses environmental, immigration, and education issues, and the XQ Institute (XQI) became a social-justice offshoot led by Ali.
The TV show celebrated XQI’s awarding of $10 million in competitive grants to each of 10 schools that showcased major redesign. Some of them certainly break out of 30-kids-in-a-row conventional boundaries. For example, the “school on a barge,” Louisiana’s New Harmony High School, takes students out to wetlands to study coastal restoration and urban planning.
The prevailing theme was using technology in creative ways “to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist and a future that we can never see with perfect clarity,” as Jobs wrote on a website promoting the TV show.
The idea of teenage MacGyvers brainstorming to create new products has appeal, but the purpose of education is broader than simply preparing for a slot in the workforce. Becoming a good citizen and a well-rounded, independent thinker are also important.
While the XQ Initiative purports to be competitive, it has an agenda and operates within a governmental framework. All 10 of its super schools are state-controlled (though six are charters and thus have a degree of autonomy). Furthermore, as the author of the Obama administration’s infamous “Dear Colleague” letter that drastically reduced due-process rights of students accused of sexual assaults on U.S. campuses, Ali has shown she is comfortable with using big government as a social-policy bludgeon.
A different model exists for bringing real competition to the needed task of reforming education, and Steve Jobs himself made that case in a 1995 Computerworld interview, which was recently revisited by Joe Kent for the Foundation for Economic Education. Here are excerpts:
“I’ve been a very strong believer that what we need to do in education is go to the full voucher system,” Jobs said.
Referring to the government-created Bell phone monopoly that was broken up in 1982, Jobs said, “I remember seeing a bumper sticker with the Bell logo on it, and it said, ‘We don’t care, we don’t have to.’ That’s certainly what the public school system is. They don’t have to care.”
“I believe strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher – a check for $4,400 [what California spent per pupil in 1995] that they could only spend at any accredited school – that several things would happen. … Schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to parents, to get students. … You could have 25-year-old kids out of college – very idealistic, full of energy – instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they would start a school, and I believe they would do far better than many of our public school teachers do.”
“The market competition model seems to indicate that where there is a need, there is a lot of providers willing to tailor their products to fit that need, and a lot of competition which keeps forcing them to get better and better,” Jobs added.
Steve Jobs died in 2011, but his vision of transforming education through true competition remains totally relevant today.