Laurene Powell Jobs’ Glitzy Projects versus School Reform that Is Basic and Essential

Here are two fascinating and radically contrasting articles on the subject of school reform. They tell us about the different ways people think about school reform, about the factors that determine which reforms begin to permeate the public mind, about what does or doesn’t seem to matter to reformers prescribing particular ideas, and about the long term political effects the language and framing by which policies are sold.

The first is David Montgomery’s Washington Post profile of Laurene Powell Jobs, her philanthropy—the Emerson Collective, and several of the Emerson Collective’s projects, including the XQ Institute and College Track. Laurene Powell Jobs is Steve Jobs’ widow, and among America’s tech-multi-billionaire philanthropists. Montgomery describes the way Powell Jobs has structured her philanthropy: “She set up the collective as a limited liability company rather than a foundation, not unlike the three-year-old Chan Zuckerberg Initiative established by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. This gives flexibility to do more than just make grants to nonprofit groups… Emerson invests in private companies, Powell Jobs said, not because the goal is to make money but because Silicon Valley has shown her that ‘amazing entrepreneurs who… are 100 percent aligned with our mission’ can find solutions that might not occur to a nonprofit. Emerson is also able to back advocacy groups, launch its own activist campaigns and contribute to political organizations… The LLC structure also means Emerson need not disclose details of its assets and spending… For the crew Powell Jobs has assembled, being tapped to join the collective was like being called to a mission.  In early 2016, shortly after he had left the Obama administration, Arne Duncan mentioned to Powell Jobs his idea for a novel experiment to confront the gun carnage in his home town of Chicago.” She also hired Russlynn Ali, Duncan’s assistant education secretary, to run the XQ Institute.

Like other mega-philanthropists, Powell Jobs is leveraging her voice through the media, though she insists that her money is not driving the content. “(L)ast year, Powell Jobs unleashed a series of dramatic moves across a three-dimensional chessboard of American culture. In July, Emerson Collective purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic, a 161-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment. In September, an arm of the Collective and Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry Foundation co-opted the four major networks in prime time to simultaneously present an hour of live television, featuring dozens of celebrities inviting the nation to reconceive high school.  Over the following weeks, the Collective partnered with the French artist JR to create two monumental pieces of guerrilla art on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border that went viral on social media as satirical critiques of the border wall. In October, she bought the second-largest stake—about 20 percent—in the estimated $2.5 billion holding company that owns the NBA’s Wizards, the NHL’s Capitals, Capital One Arena and several other ventures… In February, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant announced he was committing $10 million to help create a Washington-area branch of a program that Powell Jobs had co-founded, which supports students to and through college in nine cities.”

The second article is featured in the Summer 2018 Issue of American Educator, the journal of the American Federation of Teachers. The piece is written by scholars at Stanford University’s Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. In Community Schools: A Promising Foundation for Progress, Anna Maier, Julia Daniel, Jeannie Oakes and Livia Lam present the well-researched case for bringing full-service, wraparound Community Schools to support children and families, particularly in the public schools in our society’s poorest neighborhoods.

What is a Community School?  “Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to integrate a focus on academics, health and social services, and youth and community development, and also foster community engagement. Many operate on all-day and year-around schedules, and serve both children and adults.  Although this strategy is appropriate for students of all backgrounds, many community schools arise in neighborhoods where structural forces linked to racism and poverty shape the experiences of young people and erect barriers to learning and school success. These are communities where families have few resources to supplement what typical schools provide.”

The article outlines the four conceptual pillars of Community Schools:

  • Patch together resources to bring integrated student supports—medical, dental and mental health and social services inside the school;
  • Expand learning time and opportunity with after-school, weekend and summer programs, and added individualized learning opportunities;
  • Bring parents and other community members into the school for enrichment and shared decision making regarding the school.
  • Build collaboration among all partners led by a community-school coordinator who brings together the academic program with medical, social service, extracurricular, and parental support programming.

The authors summarize the evidence from 143 research studies and conclude: “Community schools cannot overcome all problems facing poor neighborhoods—that would require substantial investments in job training, housing, and social safety net infrastructures, and other poverty alleviation measures. However, they have a long history of connecting children and families to resources, opportunities and supports that foster healthy development and help offset the harms of poverty. A health clinic can deliver medical and psychological treatment, as well as glasses to myopic children, dental care to those who need it, and inhalers for asthma sufferers.  Extending the school day and remaining open during the summer enable the school to offer additional academic help and activities, such as sports and music, which can entice youngsters who might otherwise drop out.”

The contrast between Powell Jobs’ philanthropy and the movement for Community Schools is not about the purpose or worthiness of Powell Jobs’ projects versus the value of Community Schools.  Montgomery describes how Powell Jobs, by creating an LLC instead of a philanthropy, can engage in political advocacy, including an effort to get some kind of Dream Act passed to protect students in the threatened DACA program.  In several cities the Emerson Collective is paying for programs to help high school students apply to college and providing non-financial supports to help them stay there and graduate. And in Chicago, under Arne Duncan’s direction, the Emerson Collective is working to connect young adults with work.

Here is what is different.  The authors of the American Educator‘s article on Community Schools represent major academic institutions—the National Education Policy Center and Stanford’s Learning Policy Institute. And the article is published in the journal of one of the two largest organizations representing the primary practitioners of education—schoolteachers. It’s purpose is to make the case, documented by the kind of research required in the academy, that Community Schools represent an innovative and at the same time responsible investment of tax dollars. Such schools, defined loosely enough to be locally adaptable from place to place, have been proven a worthwhile public investment.

In contrast: With $20 billion to invest, and the freedom from any kind of oversight (by government or any outside agency), Powell Jobs can experiment. With so much money involved—and so many celebrities assembled—her experiment has a glitzy profile.  Her four-network TV special on high school disruption typifies her way of operating.  Montgomery describes: “The long list of storytellers in acting and song who participated in last fall’s prime-time education reform special—from Tom Hanks and Viola Davis to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andra Day—(who) did a good job of selling Emerson’s approach to reimagining high school. The XQ Institute, Emerson’s independent education arm, has pledged $115 million to 18 schools across the country pursuing their own innovative approaches…. Without prescribing exact models, the group wants to focus on the competence a student achieves in a given subject more than the number of hours she sits in that class. There’s an emphasis on knowledge relevant to employers of the future. However, some reviews of the televised special were skeptical: ‘Encouraging such tinkering is a fine use of philanthropic dollars,’ Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at College of the Holy Cross wrote in the Washington Post. ‘But that isn’t what the XQ project is promoting.  Instead it is publicizing a historically uninformed message that today’s technologies demand something new of us as human beings and that our unchanging high schools are failing at the task.'”

When someone’s so-called philanthropy is big enough to purchase TV time and the participation of a cast of celebrities, it is easy to forget that Powell Jobs has not really confessed that her XQ Institute is a mere experiment: pouring $115 into 18 high schools just to watch how the money might transform them. Like the Gates Foundation’s failed experiment to replace comprehensive high schools with small high schools or Gates’ other failed experiment with evaluating teachers by students’ scores and offering incentive pay, Powell Jobs’ experiment may never come to anything helpful. But, as Schneider explains, there is political content—trumpeted by celebrities on TV—to the whole endeavor: to discredit America’s high schools in some vague, undefined way.  We’ve been watching the creation of a similar stereotype for several decades: America’s so-called “failing schools.”

I think it is far more worthwhile to pay attention to the American Educator‘s report on full-service, wraparound Community Schools. There is a political agenda in the movement to expand Community Schools, but it is explicitly stated and the method carefully defined. The political goal is to patch together social service, Medicaid, and education dollars to create full service institutions in America’s poorest communities. Evidence has been amassed to document that such wraparound institutions support children and their families, and that where teachers, social workers, counselors, doctors, dentists and Head Start teachers work together, children thrive and do better in school.

I wish Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective would invest its vast resources in an already well known reform. Research has documented that the expansion of Community Schools would support the children enrolled in our nation’s most vulnerable public schools.

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2 thoughts on “Laurene Powell Jobs’ Glitzy Projects versus School Reform that Is Basic and Essential

  1. Pingback: Laurene Powell Jobs and the New Philanthropy | Diane Ravitch's blog

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