Author: Mike Montgomery
I write about the many issues technology entrepreneurs confront.
It’s pretty clear that our high schools are almost hopelessly broken. In math and science, the United States scores below countries like Slovenia and New Zealand. But the question of how to fix our schools is a thorny one.
Big government programs, like No Child Left Behind and the Common Core, aren’t moving the needle. Charter schools and voucher programs might seem like panaceas, but too often they leave the neediest students behind. And faced with unmoving bureaucracies and entrenched unions many innovative educators simply throw their hands up in frustration and move to more welcoming fields.
Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, thinks there’s another way. Through her Emerson Collective, she’s helped create the XQ Institute, a movement to crowdsource fixes to the biggest problems facing our nation’s high schools. The movement kicked off with the XQ Challenge, a call for ideas to imagine and design the next great American high school.
“High schools haven’t changed in 100 years,” says Russlynn Ali, the former U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights, who is running the project. “All the data shows that it has been a complete market failure.”
Through the XQ Challenge, Jobs, Ali and their supporters are bringing Silicon Valley thinking to the world of education. Engineers live to fix problems. They see obstacles and they immediately start designing ways to work around them. They collaborate and move quickly and nimbly, employing technology to create changes that become systemic.
Not all of the teams that take part in the challenge will include engineers, but Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and big thinkers will be available to every team as they go through the process of the challenge.
Initially, XQ asked for teams made up of community members, parents, entrepreneurs, administrators — basically any group of people who thought they could come up with new thinking to improve America’s high schools. So far, 22,153 people have signed on to the challenge.
The groups will then work through modules to design their ideas. They will also be able to work with people from a matching directory who might come from outside of the community but who will be able to offer specific advice. At least five schools will share $50 million in funding to support their ideas over the next five years.
Ali says she doesn’t know what they’re ultimately going to see from the proposals. Some plans might call for new schools built from scratch, while others might propose changes that can work within the existing system. One thing is sure, though — all of the ideas will have an entrepreneurial bent.
“Schools are a black box,” says Ali. “Unless you can get in there and sell it, unless you can penetrate the market, those ideas die before they really start.”
Jordan Meranus, CEO and co-founder of the edtech company Ellevation Education, believes that the XQ Challenge has a chance to do some real good.
“I’m pretty bullish that some of the best systemic changes in our country have come from ideas that bubble up and show us how we can do things differently,” says Meranus.
He expects the challenge will open the door to more entrepreneurs who want to work in education. Schools usually make up about 55% of a state’s budget. But vendors tend to be entrenched heavy hitters like textbook publishers. Meranus, whose company makes a platform to track and better serve English learners, has managed to get his software into thousands of schools. He sees that schools are hungry for better solutions — there just needs to be a way to connect those ideas with the people who hold the purse strings.
“This is a tough space to break into,” says Joe Lonsdale, a founding partner of VC firm Formation 8, which has investments in several edtech companies. “The best way to do it is to inspire the actors in the system to acknowledge that they need to try out new things.”
That’s exactly what Ali hopes will happen with XQ. The deadline for proposals is Feb. 1. By then the teams will have learned about their local problems and come up with creative fixes. This could be the beginning of a whole new world in education — one where entrepreneurs can help better prepare our students for the challenges of life after school.