Unusual Suspect: Laurene Powell Jobs Charts Her Own Path as an Ed Philanthropist

“To create the future, we must first imagine it.” These are the carefully crafted words that introduced America last week to the XQ: The Super School Project, a $50 million initiative from Laurene Powell Jobs and the Emerson Collective to reimagine high school education in the U.S.

With a strong interest in education and a net worth of nearly $19 billion from her late husband Steve Jobs, we have long been anticipating a major move from Powell Jobs to fund something big in the ed space. Two years ago, we wrote about her early funding in this area and wondered where she might go next. Now we're finding out. 

Related: Laurene Powell Jobs is Poised to Revolutionize Education Philanthropy

In the context of the polarized ed wars, Powell Jobs is not easily pigeonholed—although some are eager to do exactly that—Diane Ravitch wrote that she "has impeccable reform credentials, that is, she approaches the problem with no knowledge or experience." Ravitch noted Powell Jobs has backed Teach for America and hired former aides to Arne Duncan and Joel Klein.

In fact, though, Powell Jobs has been working on ed issues for some 20 years, and in ways that don't fit neatly into categories. In 1997, Powell Jobs co-founded a nonprofit called College Track, which aims to improve minority education success through extracurricular programs and tutoring. The group's goal is to get underserved kids into college and help them succeed. She's also supported college access for undocumented immigrant young people, the so-called DREAMers. 

In contrast to funders like Walton and Broad, Powell Jobs isn't obsessed with the lightning-rod issues of school choice and charters, and it's notable that her big philanthropic move isn't throwing resources behind the existing array of ed reform groups seeking to blow up the current system through market competition and more accountability.

Rather, Powell Jobs has set out on a different path that reflects a rising interest of many funders—modernizing how kids learn and schools operate, with the goal, as she puts it, to "help educators everywhere foster students who are curious, engaged, and creative—armed with the new literacies, knowledge, and skills needed to thrive."

We've written about other ed funders on this track. Most recently, we wrote about how the Sandler Foundation has bankrolled the creation of the new Learning Policy Institute led by Linda Darling-Hammond that will push for an education system that equips "all children with the problem-solving, critical-thinking, communication and collaboration skills to solve complicated problems and meet the complex challenges of our fast-paced, quickly changing world."

RelatedCan a New Focus on Learning by Funders Move K-12 Past the Ed Wars?

To our ears, the mission of LPI and what Powell Jobs is doing with XQ: Super School sound closely aligned—and we suggested last week that maybe ed philanthropy was entering new terrain that will shift focus away from the battles of the past 15 years over systems and accountability. 

It's also worth noting that the particular focus on reinventing high schools is most closely associated with the Carnegie Corporation, which has invested millions in this area to reshape the last leg of K-12 so it better prepares students to participate in a knowledge-based economy. Michelle Cahill, who designed Carnegie's Schools for a New Society effort has also been involved in XQ: Super School. 

In addition, while one critic of Powell Jobs compared her to Mark Zuckerberg, saying she was on a path to blow millions "working with the usual reform suspects," the actual design of XQ suggests that she is a philanthropist who is keenly aware of the pitfalls of clueless top-down reform schemes. Powell Jobs’ grantmaking organization, the Emerson Collective, says in its education mission statement, "We believe change starts with shared commitment and partnership—by families, students, teachers, administrators and community leaders."

The design of XQ reflects that outlook, seeking out ideas for reinventing high schools from a wide range of people through an open call for proposals, as well as a traveling road show to multiple cities with an interactive installation that will allow nearly anyone to "have the opportunity to record and share their ideas for ways to make American public high schools work for a 21st century world." Local teams that come together and present the best proposals will get financial and expert support to turn their ideas into Super Schools. 

By essentially crowdsourcing education reform, Powell Jobs and the crew behind XQ hope to inspire new formulas for education that reconsider each and every layer of the high school experience—from start times to curricula and everything in between—to prepare our kids for the rapidly evolving future unfolding before them.  

This effort is led by former assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, Russlynn Ali—who stepped down from her post in the Obama administration to oversee grantmaking at Emerson Collective. XQ is also pulling in collaborators from outside the education community, adding a twist to what has largely been a highly specialized space. From the XQ website:

Deep collaborators include Yo Yo Ma, the globally accomplished musician and creator, who wants to see schools that use creativity as a window to discipline, rigor, and a better world. Geoffrey Canada—education advocate and head of the Harlem Children’s Zone—believes it’s time to look at the hard data, and think about how students need to be treated with a whole new level of respect if they are to truly excel. Leon Wieseltier—writer, former editor of The Atlantic, advocate of true cultural discussion—believes that we should engage deeply in conversation, debate, and ultimately resolution about the intent of our public school system in America.

Like so many philanthropists before her, Laurene Powell Jobs has thrown her hat into a crowded ring of funders hoping to revolutionize American education. But rather than tell Americans how education should look, Powell Jobs is hoping America will tell her.

Will this effort succeed? Who knows? But XQ and a team of judges expect to pick between five and 10 ideas to finance by fall 2016.