Blog: The Educated Reporter

High School Redesign Gets Prime-Time Spotlight

It’s rare, if ever, that education issues get live, prime-time programming across multiple major television networks. Then again, few, if any, education organizations have the star-studded, deep-pocketed backing that the XQ Super School Project has garnered in its effort to rethink and reshape the high school experience.

This evening at 8 p.m., EST, an hour-long, live television event will air on ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC that highlights the work of several schools across the country that have turned the traditional idea of high school on its head. Justin Timberlake, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, and members of U2 are just a few of the high-profile guests on the program’s lineup.

The XQ Super School Project first came into the national spotlight in 2015, when it held a national competition to fund innovative efforts to re-imagine high school. As EWA and others reported at the time, 10 teams were each awarded $10 million to create “super schools” — high schools that utilize new, innovative ways to teach and engage students.

The XQ competition has financial backing from the Emerson Collective, an organization launched by Laurene Powell Jobs, and the star-studded event is made possible by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a nonprofit that brings together celebrities to support charitable causes.

Earlier this year, EWA visited one of the XQ schools, where coding, virtual reality, and internships in the community are all part of the high school experience. And Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media discussed how a school in Houston is using its XQ grant in a recent EWA Radio episode.

Russlynn H. Ali, the executive director of the XQ Super School Project, discussed the television event with Education Week’s Mark Walsh earlier this week:

“This is an opportunity to partner with some of the best minds in entertainment to bring awareness to young people about education,” said Ali, who was the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights under President Barack Obama.

“The celebrities, the writers, the producers, and the wonks are really here to bring the issues into the public consciousness in a way that Americans everywhere can understand,” she added.

Efforts to transform the high school grades reach beyond this particular project, of course. Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported for EWA about the growing number of high schools focusing on “project-based learning” and exploring ways to use technology to personalize instruction.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Stacy Teicher Khadaroo profiled a high school in New Hampshire that has traded textbooks, grades, and bells for hands-on activities that blend traditional vocational education with “cutting-edge academic innovation.” That story was produced with support from EWA’s Reporting Fellowship program.

The movement to redesign what has been a relatively stagnant part of the K-12 system is still relatively new and comes with significant challenges.

It’s not yet clear to what extent efforts to personalize instruction and allow students to advance at their own pace, for example, actually improves student learning. And the vast majority of schools lack the extra financial support that the XQ schools have received. There are plenty of practical challenges, as well — from rethinking class schedules and student transportation, to explaining a high school experience that breaks the mold to skeptical parents and college admissions counselors.

Indeed, Teicher Khadaroo explains that transforming the high school experience in any fundamental way “could take generations.”

The XQ schools project and similar efforts to redesign high school have a colossal task ahead. Of course, having an all-star cast of celebrities behind the movement doesn’t hurt.