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XQsupesrschool – a blessing or a waste of money?
Three weeks ago the Boston Globe posted a huge add, and that was how I learned about Ms. Jobs’ $50 million dollars XQsuperschool project. I had read materials on the website and that made me feel sad. I wrote a letter to Ms. Jobs warning her that she most probably would spend the money without having achieved much (and since a regular letter did not have a chance to reach her I also posted it online; please scroll down).
Yesterday I saw another huge add inviting Bostonians to visit XQsuperscool booth in Cambridge. So I went. It was a nice on-street exhibition. I asked a guy with an XQ tag if he knew that $200 million dollars spent in New Jersey from 2010 to 2015 did not make much of a difference? He didn’t. I asked him if he knew why Ms. Jobs thought that spending a quarter of what had been spent in New Jersey would make more difference in the whole country than it was meant to be achieved in there? He guessed that Ms. Jobs just wanted to do something good, he said that he was not familiar with the specifics behind the project, and that he was there just for collecting some feedback on the project. I asked him to pass along my letter. He said he would (we all know that chances of that are near to zero).
Let’s consider the best cases scenario. Let’s assume that in two or three years there will be a dozen of absolutely amazing high schools, so unique and so effective that three or maybe four thousand high school graduates from those schools will beat all other graduates in grades and SAT scores. Great! But what about other 99.9 % of the graduates who attended a regular public school? If there are about 21,000 public high schools in the USA, how can the presence of five perfect ones change the learning outcomes of about 3 million of graduates?
There are exceptional public high schools in America, but their existence so far have not had a significant effect on the rest of the schools (since about 70 % of high school gradates are still not ready to college). Why does Ms. Jobs think that her exceptional schools will make that difference which other schools lacked?
This is one of many questions to which you will not find an answer at xqsuperschool.org.
And this makes me feel sad again.
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An open letter to Ms. Lauren Powell Jobs.
Dear Ms. Jobs,
I realize that the chance of you reading this letter is very small (this is why I also post it online), but I have to take it anyway.
As a seasoned educator I share your passion for education. Like you I believe that bad, ineffective, insufficient educations is the root for all major problems our society has.
That is why I have to apologize for what I say next.
Unfortunately, your new and highly advertised project (XQsuperschool) is bound to fail.
If despite all the odds you are reading this letter, I know that right now you feel defensive.
As I would.
As every human being feels when his or her views and ideas are being criticizes; because on the emotional level being criticizes feels like being attacked.
But where would the world be now without people criticizing each other? (FYI: this question is rhetorical)
1. In order to succeed any project must be aimed at achieving specific and measurable goals^1.
As an MBA graduate you expect that your experts will be assessing project proposals using a set of specific criteria (to measure potential success of the proposed projects). You find natural to have such a set of criteria applied to projects of others. But your own website does not provide a set of specific criteria to measure the success of your new project.
Without specific and measurable goals those goals are not achievable (unless it happens by a chance).
Without specific and measurable goals those goals are definitely achievable (who can say the opposite if there is no way to access it).
It all depends on the point of view.
Someone might say: “Fortunately, your new and highly advertised project (XQsuperschool) is bound to succeed!”
If this is all you want – that someone would just tell you that you did good – there are simpler and cheaper ways to achieve it.
You may say that having five super great, super innovative, super different (from others) and super successful high schools is a measurable goal. But you also say that you want to address the fact that “seventy-two percent of graduating high schoolers don’t have the skills they need for success in college or a career”.
Will those five schools teach millions of students – to bring the percentage down? (FYI: this question is rhetorical)
If you really want to drop the number from 72 % to, say, 36 % (as a specific and measurable goal), you should also ask yourself a question: ...
2. “Why, despite years of intensive efforts and billions of spent dollars, seventy-two percent of graduating high schoolers still don’t have the skills they need for success in college or a career”?
Since the “Sputnik Shock” (1957!) the system of education in the US has been in the state of constant reformation. Numerous reports, which had been issued over the decades, stressed the need for better education. Legislators of all levels have adopted numerous laws to address various issues in education. There is no country which spends more money on education than USA. Each year the NSF and philanthropists like you influx millions of dollars into research and innovations.
Schools went through many waves of innovations of different kind.
And yet we need a new one.
Or do we?
How do we know that we do?
How do we know what kind of innovation do we need?
How do you know that having five super-duper high schools is the solution?
Are you sure that you are the first person in the history of education who invites everyone to “make learning wilder, wider, inexhaustible”, or to create “a place that explores a new kind of intelligence”? (FYI: this question is rhetorical: two books immediate come to mind; “The teacher Wars”, and “The Prize” )
Are you sure that you are not doing “more of the same” which have been done in the past decades without having a significant effect? How do you know that? Why do you think your $50 million dollars will make a difference?^2
I understand that ...
3. You rely on people surrounding you (we all do).
Some of them spent years or even decades in the system. Do you think that at least some of them (still) can be “perpendicular” to the mainstream ideas in the way your late husband could? Are they capable of “quantum leap” themselves (like your late husband was), or all you want from them is evaluating somebody else’s ideas?^3 Could any of them lead one of the schools you are dreaming of, or at least play an important role in its functioning?
I do not know your team, but I think you should ask yourself some of the questions I asked above.
Do not get me wrong. I am absolutely positive that all your team members are good and honest professionals. But sometimes it is just not enough (otherwise no firm would go bankrupt, no project would fail)^4.
4. You can ask me back, do I have a positive suggestion, an advice, a recommendation, or all I can do is just to criticize and ask questions?
Yes, I do.
And anyone can find them, read them , criticize them, use them, or ignore them^5 (some of my views might be seem as “perpendicular” the mainstream ones).
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov^6
(all the quotes below are taken from “Teachology: or Everything, People Who Care about Education, Should Know about Teaching and Learning”; all pages refer to a pdf version):
^1. Chapter 7 (page 32): “Ask yourself, what factor united all scientists, engineers, generals and all the staff of Manhattan Project? If you said “The mutual goal”, it would not help much, because it would not be specific (too general). And such a goal as “Making a new highly destructive weapon” could pretty much separate people because people may have different ideas of “highly destructive weapon”.
^2. Chapter 5 (page 24):“We know from many reports, which say it over and over again, that the quality of education is not sufficient, that the quality of teaching is not as a good as needed. Maybe it is a signal that we are doing something the same over and over again, which does not work? Maybe it is a sign to try some new approaches to fixing recurring problems?”
^3. Chapter 7 (page 31): “A space shuttle really looks like an airplane. However, it is impossible to invent and to construct a space shuttle just by making airplanes better, and better, and better. Even the very idea of a spacecraft (including a shuttle) cannot be derived from the ideas which had lead to the creation of airplanes.”
^4. Chapter 5 (Page 26): “A good manager can perform a “position analysis” and see who in the team is an innovator, who is an imitator, who is reliable, and who can make people feel good, who is a cooperator and who likes to work alone, etc.”
^5. Chapter 5 (page 24): “The key problem of contemporary education is not an insufficient teaching, it is an insufficient teacher preparation.”
^6. Chapter 1 (Page 4): “My friends know that sometimes I exaggerate things. For example, when I say that this book has everything what anyone who cares about education needs to know about teaching, my friends would know that I am making an overstatement.”
So is true for my statement that “your new and highly advertised project (XQsuperschool) is bound to fail”; the correct statement is: “your new and highly advertised project (XQsuperschool) in its current form has a high probability of not making a big difference you are hoping for”.
Appendix 2 #A2 (this appendix was posted after hearing a news about establishing a new – potentially 49 billion dollars worth of – philanthropic organization)
Some people say that they want to change Education, but really they just like attracting attention. Some people attract attention, but truly just want to change Education. The latter ones should start from asking themselves questions like “Am I the only one who wants to change Education?”, “Am I the first one?”, “Why despite decades of effort and billions of dollars we do not like a lot what we see in Education?” (see an open letter to Ms. Jobs). Possible answers to questions like that given in “Why have hundreds of millions of dollars been spent on developing the common core math standards if content-wise they are not much different from the ones they replace?” at http://teachology.xyz/3r.htm. History shows that every project involving lots of money always (and proportionally!) involves a lot of BS (FYI: BS stands for “Beyond Sense-making”: see “How is The Third Program of the USSR Communist Party related to education reform in the USA?” at http://www.teachology.xyz/3pc.htm). If a problem consistently reappears, it indicates that the problem is systemic and requires an approach which had not been developed yet and usually has to be invented – often from scratch (see “Education reform needs a new paradigm at http://www.teachology.xyz/np.htm). Developing a solution to such a problem requires people of a certain kind (Mr. Jobs comes to mind as a starring example, or Albert Einstein). What kind of people are being attracted to an organization depends totally on the management . The true future of another new philanthropic organization yet remains to be seen.
Appendix 3: Another followup post on the topic.
What doesn’t Ms. Lauren Powell Jobs want us to know, or
the hidden agenda of XQsuperschool project.
This is the third (and I am pretty sure not the last) installment of my comments on XQsuperschool project initiated by Ms. Lauren Powell Jobs.
I have already pointed out at a huge gap between the declared goal of the project (reshaping high schools in the whole America) and the expected results (the best case scenario will lead to reshaping less than 1 % of the high schools in the whole America).
But I do understand why Ms. Jobs and her colleagues hope for more.
Let’s say you see one of the commercials and get excited.
“Fifty million dollars!”, you think, “I could do a lot with that kind of money!”.
And you go to my.xqsuperschool.org site and create your profile.
The next thing which happens to you is you are being channeled through a set of questions (a la assignments) specifically design to make you think about education in general and your role in education in particular.
You will have to think about the mission of the education, about what students want to learn, and many other interesting and important things to think about (I do recommend to walk through all the questions). And in the end you will have to find people who would like to cooperate with you on the project, or people which project would you like and would wont to join to.
Imagine thousands or hundreds of thousands of people – teachers, and school principals, parents and politicians – teaming up and joining their energy to engage communities for making education better, for redesign schools and reshaping teaching practices.
This does look as a good idea, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, this is not going to happen.
There are many reasons for that, but I only mention a couple.
First: there is a big difference between igniting an excitement and keeping this excitement for a long period of time. A recent example is MOOCs completion rates; for example, “the average completion rate of a Harvard course offered on edX is roughly six percent”. All participants are excited at the beginning, “I want to change my life, I have to learn this stuff”, but as time goes by other things become more prioritized, “It can wait now, but I will definitely do it when …”.
Of course, if one hundred thousand people create their profile, 6 % means that six thousand people will present a project which might find a support – if not from XQ, but maybe from a local donor, or from a local district.
If an average team has six members, one thousand teams will be pushing for better education, which IS good, but (a) I would expect that many of those people have been already doing what they described in their projects and just want to scale it up (so they would not add a lot of new initiatives), and (b) even one thousand of brand new high schools would still make less than 5 % of the total number of the high schools in America.
There is however an even deeper reason for not expecting this project to work as it is being advertised.
The human history knows many seemingly good ideas which had not been achieved.
Take Communism, for example.
A lot of people thought of Communism as a good idea. But look what happened every time when the idea of Communism was used to generate populous excitement.
Don’t take me wrong, I am not advocating for Communism, I just use this as an example of a case when a big idea did not work. It did not work not because “bad people in the government” only used it to keep others in line and make them do what “bad people” wanted them to do. No. Many top USSR officials and politicians as well as many ordinary citizens (including myself) truly believed in the ideas of Communism. The project “Communism” fell apart because the designers ignored “the fact that in ordinary circumstances ordinary people are not led by visions or ideas, but led merely by “a carrot and a stick”, like having more money or not being fired.” (the quote is from my resent essay “How is The Third Program of the USSR Communist Party related to education reform in the USA?”). FYI: this is one of the reasons why all dictators always depict the outside world as filled with enemies – to keep in people the feeling of a danger and being threatened, hence “there is no place for a simple and ordinary life, we all must be heroes!”
Fifty million dollars might seem as a big “carrot”, but it is so abstract, so far away, has so many hoops to jump through to get it, so it looks kind of unrealistic, like a dream, and not the one you really want to achieve, but the one you had in your sleep.
So, is XQsupesrschool project a blessing or a waste of money (the title of my previous comment)?
The answer is “neither”.
It will not result in reshaping high schools in the whole America, thinking that is just naïve.
But it will give people with ideas and ambitions an opportunity to make some difference on a local level.
I consider myself as one of such people; that is why earlier today (Oct. 14, 2015) I challenged Ms. Jobs with presenting to her my concept of a high school (you can find it via my.xqsuperschool.org or you can just click on this link).
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
Appendix 4: Nov. 1st, 2016.
Winners have been announced:
ten schools instead of original five! Who knows, maybe some of the people had read my open letter?
Unfortunately, no one can see why were those schools selected and how will the projects be monitored and evaluated.
What should have been done is making available for everyone the applications of the winning teams, and minutes/protocols of the decision-making discussions. That step would clearly indicate the openness of the judges and those materials would help everybody to measure up their schools with the winning ones.
However, I can bet ,we will never see anything of such.
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
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