Laurene Powell Jobs sees high school as the next design problem Silicon Valley can help solve

Time to think outside the box?
Time to think outside the box?
Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe
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As the wife of Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs had a front-row seat to the rise to Apple. Now she is turning her philanthropic efforts to what she says is one of the great design failures in modern America: high school.

Speaking Monday (April 4) at a YCombinator conference for female startup founders, Jobs described her $50 million reform push with the Super School Project, a national competition open to artists, teachers, musicians, and technologists who want to rebuild secondary education.

Secondary education in the US wasn’t badly designed when the movement to make it widely accessible took hold in the early 1900s, Jobs said. “But we’ve been out of the [industrial era] for 50 years, and there’s been no substantial systemic change in the way we do high school.”

The XQ Institute, which runs the Super School Project, has identified four issues it says are crucial to ensuring students’ success: college preparation, fair discipline, teacher support, and equal student spending.

XQ found that students who arrive at college unprepared—if they go at all—frequently suffered from a lack of exposure to crucial subjects such as biology, physics and calculus. Exacerbating the problem was a lack of teacher support, a tendency by schools to graduate students based on classroom time rather than subject mastery, inappropriate discipline (including a good portion of the 3.3 million suspensions handed out annually), and big variations in the amounts spent on students in different states.

Jobs’ plan to fix this comes straight out of the Silicon Valley handbook: a “moonshot” competition to redesign high school from the bottom up.

XQ put out a call last year for new models ranging from alternative school schedules to new curriculums and technologies. By February, it had received 10,000 ideas and 700 applications from teams hoping to win a share of the $50 million in prizes to be awarded over the next five years. Five winning teams will be chosen in August. “Each one is going to be different,” says Jobs. “We’re going to have a whole bunch of different models of schools that we’ll follow and share across the network, the successes and failures of each one.”

Jobs and Russlynn Ali, XQ Institute’s CEO, appealed to the audience at the San Francisco event, hoping to inspire new education companies to address the problems of access and opportunity in school districts where there is too little of each. “We now have the means to ensure that every kid in America gets access to a great teacher,” said Ali. “That may not be the teacher that stands in front of the classroom but through technology we now have the access to reach them.”

An earlier version of this article contained inaccurate figures for the number of ideas and applications submitted for the XQ contest.