Laurene Powell Jobs’s $100 Million Mission to Disrupt American High School

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Laurene Powell Jobs with Russlynn Ali at Summit Everest High School, an exemplary charter school.Photo: Jake Stangel

Since 2001, about $15 billion has been spent by taxpayers and philanthropists trying to boost academic achievement in American public schools. These efforts have largely failed — especially in high school. For the average 17-year-old, reading and math scores have not budged since 1971. On standardized tests, white 17-year-olds still outscore black 17-year-olds by 20 points or more — a stubborn gap, unchanged for 30 years.

Laurene Powell Jobs is undaunted by these facts. To her, the cause of the failure is clear: High schools fail to serve American kids because they were designed a hundred years ago for an industrial society that has ceased to exist. “You can pull all the disaggregated data that you want and get depressed about it,” she told me in June, as we sat drinking wine in the lobby of a downtown Chicago hotel — but what high school needs is a “completely changed design in 25,000 places.” Powell Jobs, who is the widow of Steve Jobs and worth about $18 billion, proposes the overhaul of all high schools neutrally, as though she’s suggesting something ordinary, like a cleanup of the garage. “That’s what we need to do.”

“We should have the best education system in the world!” she continues. “We should! We shouldn’t just have the best military. We shouldn’t just have the best economy. We should have the best education system. Of course we should! Every single person would agree to that!” It is perhaps not surprising that Powell Jobs holds a version of her husband’s disregard for Establishment institutions. But whereas the myth of Jobs portrays him as an enfant terrible, his widow is his opposite: low-key, disciplined, self-contained. At about six feet tall, she looks like a Valkyrie and comports herself like a queen. It’s her insistent optimism, even in the face of dire realities, such as the failure of a generation of school reformers to achieve any substantive gains, that betrays her defiance.

Last month, Powell Jobs announced the details of a $100 million investment in American high school through a contest she helped design called XQ: The Super School Project. She is not naïve to how venture philanthropists can be perceived by the people in the trenches, as unwelcome intruders or self-regarding colonizers. But she has lived in Silicon Valley for half her life, and in her world, “people actually get excited about solving problems. I feel very strongly that the problems we get to solve are really hard, otherwise they would have been solved. Now it’s our turn. We’re going to bring in people from all different disciplines who think about things a little different. Sometimes, they take it to the extreme, so — if we were to do this, which is not plausible, but if we were to colonize Mars, what would be our first step? And so you backwards map. After a couple of decades of living there, you think, Well, this shouldn’t be insurmountable. It’s a lot harder to have an early detection of all cancers than it is to give an excellent education to every kid in our country.”

I think I’ve misheard. “It’s harder?”

Confused by my confusion, Powell Jobs stops short. The wattage drains out of her smile. Cancer is a science problem, I say, trying to clarify. Solutions may be far off, but progress is certain, linear, incremental. Schools, on the other hand, are ecosystems of humans and therefore messier — involving, as they do, families and politicians, not to mention the forces of poverty, inequality, and racism. “There are so many more variables in a school,” I say.

Powell Jobs, reserved even when she’s at ease, grows icy. “More variables than in a cellular process? Than, you know, layers and layers of proteins and glycogens?” She shuts down. She says, “I mean, if you think it’s easier to solve cancer, then you better tell me some stuff that I don’t know.”

How broken is high school? According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 66% of seniors feel disengaged. Less than a third of high schoolers feel there’s an adult at school who cares about them. Though high school, the public institution, has long been cast as a meritocracy, an engine of American social mobility, it actually functions more like a status-quo assembly line, replicating the entrenched social divisions and inequalities. And, as a rite of passage, nearly everyone believes that high schoolstinks — a thing to be endured, like heartbreak or mono. So while many high schools do need reimagining, and many others could use some repair, vast numbers of them in the country’s privileged enclaves are working fine — or fine enough to keep producing the world’s richest economy, its most decorated scientists, and epoch-defining artists and musicians. The real problem is not that all high schools are broken. It’s that “the kids who need the most get the least,” as former Education secretary Arne Duncan put it to me. (Duncan has recently relocated to his hometown of Chicago, where Powell Jobs has hired him to try to solve the problem of urban violence.)

Powell Jobs grew up in New Jersey and her high school “did not adequately prepare me for college,” she told an interviewer at Stanford last year. She worked very hard, but, even at the University of Pennsylvania, she worried constantly about money. “I was not relaxed,” she said. “I didn’t allow myself to think expansively about my life because there were exigencies that had to be attended to. I always had big dreams, but … financially, I really needed to figure things out.” Later, as a parent, her frustrations were different. By then, she was rich, and her life was technologically optimized. But when she sent her youngest daughter off to her “very, very fine” public high school in Palo Alto it was impenetrable, a black box. “There was no structure that allowed me to get in and support or in any way augment. It was very difficult.”

This is surely the complaint of a person accustomed to having control over her life’s path, and in 1995, Powell Jobs saw what it meant to have no such control. She was invited to speak to a class of graduating seniors at Carlmont high school Belmont, serving much less prosperous East Palo Alto — the best and the brightest, she was told. And they were totally unprepared for college. “They didn’t know what the SAT was. Nobody had taken a standardized test. They had not visited a college campus. In the end, of the 35 kids in that class, three — three! — had taken the classes they needed to apply to a four-year college.” The problem at Carlmont wasn’t that kids were bored or that parents were shut out — it was that the school itself could not offer even its most promising students the basic tools to improve their own lives. At schools like Carlmont, there were no AP classes; there wasn’t even calculus, or chemistry. In 1997, Powell Jobs co-founded College Track, which supports teenagers who want to be the first in their families to go to college.

The philanthropic world can be tribal, and Powell Jobs soon found herself aligned with a burgeoning movement called “standards-based reform,” joining a fervent band of politicians and venture philanthropists who believed that schools would do better if they were run more like businesses — scalable, with clearly articulated goals, and principals and teachers held accountable for kids’ performance and bonuses awarded to innovators. She contributed to the campaigns of local politicians who supported the expansion of charter schools, and she joined the boards of Teach for All, the umbrella organization of Teach for America and the NewSchools Venture Fund, which sought, in different ways, to “disrupt” school districts and loosen the hold of teachers unions on public schools. Before he died, her husband had a meeting with President Obama at the San Francisco airport, at which he railed against the antiquated state of schools, calling out teachers unions, in particular, as the impediment to progress.

Powell Jobs launched the Emerson Collective in 2011, the year Steve died. Through Emerson, an LLC, she donates openly and anonymously to for- and nonprofit entities, always in the service of stimulating huge social change. For most of her married life, Powell Jobs had kept a low public profile, raising three kids, keeping bees, and tending to her gardens and her backyard orchard; but with her husband’s death and the inheritance of his fortune, she’s had to figure out a new way to live. The past year has represented a sort of coming out for her. In addition to launching XQ — an independent nonprofit that will continue to fund schools — she works on behalf of the environment and immigration reform and has announced a substantial investment in Anonymous Content, the production company responsible for Spotlight and The Revenant. In August, she and former Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty, with whom she is romantically linked, were guests at the White House dinner for the prime minister of Singapore. Emerson itself has become a circle of friends as well as a refuge for luminaries seeking a perch. Powell Job’s son Reed is its director of health, and her brother Brad manages its investments. Former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier has become the organization’s resident “philosopher,” and Bruce Reed, former chief of staff for Vice-President Biden, its senior policy adviser. The people in her orbit speak of her reverentially, comparing her in one conversation to one of the 36 “humble righteous ones” of mystical Judaism, who are anointed to change the world.

In 2012, she hired her friend Russlynn Ali to help her transform American education. Ali was working at the Department of Education at the time, but she and Laurene have felt “a kindred, spiritual alignment,” as Ali puts it, for at least a decade, ever since they met at an event at Powell Jobs’s house. At that event, Ali, a lifelong education wonk, gave a little speech about how Big Data analytics might start to close the achievement gap — for how could you address inequity systemwide without first knowing exactly which kids were failing, in which subjects, in which classrooms, in which schools, in which districts, and why?

Powell Jobs was blown away. “You know what it was like?” she asks. “When you meet someone who actually sees the color blue the way you see the color blue. You speak the same language. And there’s a relief that someone else sees what you see and is taking action. So as soon as I heard Russlynn speaking about data-based decision-making, informed decision-making so the whole system got smarter — it was a balm.”

Ali says she decided to work for Emerson on instinct. “I knew her,” she says. “I trusted her and her values. It was where she was in her life and I was in my life. We were visioning. I remember feeling safe.”

With students at Summit Everest.Photo: Jake Stangel

As Ali pondered how to make the greatest impact with Emerson’s money, she hit upon the idea of trying to generate excitement around the idea of school reform by staging a contest. XQ would be an open call, like The Voice. Every kind of interested person — teachers, parents, principals, but also entrepreneurs, computer engineers, architects, activists, artists, and city planners — would be encouraged to submit proposals for new-model schools. Competitors would form teams and be guided through a series of educational challenges and obstacles, like on The Amazing Race, and in the end, winners would be selected by a panel of judges called “luminaries.” “I’ll say it. We had to make it sexy. We just wanted to make it sexy,” Russlynn told me.

It had to be sexy in part because adolescents don’t elicit the same kind of sympathetic concern that pre-K-age kids do, and pre-K had been the focus of much of the Obama administration’s efforts. But it also had to be sexy because the reform efforts to which Ali and Powell Jobs had for a decade devoted themselves were widely regarded to have failed. At the Department of Education, Ali had worked on Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion incentive program built into the 2009 stimulus bill. The program was, in essence, a competition. To win the money, states had to agree to certain conditions that reflected the values of Obama’s DOE — which were also the values of the standards-based reformers. They had to adhere to national standards. They had to allow the expansion of charter schools. They had to use test scores to evaluate teachers. And the results of those tests had to be transparent, in order to hold teachers, principals, and schools accountable for student performance. Ali saw how the promise of prize money spurred even contrarians into action: “The idea of a competition made people do things that they otherwise didn’t want to do.”

As the Obama era drew to a close, however, both Ali and Powell Jobs recognized that their movement was suffering from a massive reversal in popular and political opinion. Opponents saw Race to the Top as punitive. Research showed that charter schools did not significantly outperform regular public schools. And national standards, also known as the Common Core, became a political football, a proxy for libertarian objections to federal intrusion into private life. But it was the overuse of state tests that struck the deathblow for the movement, says Tom Vander Ark, who for years ran education grants for the Gates Foundation. (“We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change,” the foundation confessed in an open letter last spring.) Instead of offering clarity, the tests were seen as a blunt instrument with which to constrain educators while creating unreasonable stress on children. “America called bullshit on testing,” he says.

Powell Jobs and Ali hoped their contest — splashy, exuberant — would reignite the old enthusiasm, propelling contestants to innovate around or beyond old fault lines, to leapfrog the quagmire into which every conversation about education inevitably devolves. “The education conversation has been full of finger-pointing,” Ali told me. “It’s nothing but fights. We knew we needed to move across that.” As they saw it, the way forward was not to swear allegiance to any political or pedagogical orthodoxy but to prioritize inventiveness above all. Replication was desirable, but not required. A singular, artisanal school might win, as long as it was inspirational, with lessons that might be applied by others. The goal of XQ was not to make a cookie-cutter high school but to foment, instead, a global sense of possibility. “The scale is: It has to happen everywhere,” Powell Jobs told me.

XQ was, no doubt, the most glamorous philanthropic effort the drab education world has ever seen. It was launched on live TV during an entertainment-industry telethon. Its one-minute promotional video, and its primary-color billboards and bus ads were created by some of the same branding gurus who worked on Apple’s “Think Different” campaign (#rethinkhighschool, they said). All of its marketing in fact shone with an expensive, perfectionistic gloss signaling an institutional obsession with high-end design. (“Beauty is an essential service — that’s one of the things Laurene taught me,” Ali says.) Yo-Yo Ma, Common, M.C. Hammer, Jessica Williams, will.i.Am, and Hill Harper stepped forward as surrogates, delighted with the opportunity to be in favor of better schools without having to be against anything or anybody else.

About 700 teams entered the first round. There were district schools and charter schools, renovations of existing schools and entirely new conceptions. There were proposals for schools on buses and in pop-up locations, based in malls and in law offices. There was a proposal for a school that met every day around a tree. A school in Los Angeles hoped to reach gang members through the arts. A Chicago school promoted kids through ranks like a consulting firm. A school in Los Alamos aimed to reduce student stress, and a school in Denver was designed to combat the epidemic “crisis of meaning.” In April, 350 teams were informed they’d made it to the second round. By summer that group had been winnowed to 50.

On a sweltering July weekend, about a dozen “luminaries” met in a conference room in New York to make the final cut. With the shades drawn against the heat, they thrashed it out, trying to build a cohort of winners that represented the values of XQ, which are, in themselves, contradictory: a diverse, academically rigorous set of brand-new high schools, radically inventive in conception but practicable in implementation. The discussions were “incredibly intense,” says Macke Raymond, a school-data scientist at Stanford. Particularly challenging, ed-tech entrepreneur Larry Berger told me earlier, would be the question of how to weigh the applications of enthusiastic and possibly visionary laypeople against those of reform-movement veterans, well known and with decades of experience writing grants.

In the end, Powell Jobs agreed to support ten “superschools” at $10 million each. Winners include a proposed school for homeless kids in L.A.; a D.C. charter school that aims to develop virtual-reality chemistry labs; and a large school in Houston experimenting with non-punitive discipline in a community beset by gang violence. There’s a school that will be built on a barge in coastal Louisiana, and a school installed in a natural-history museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Six of the winners are charter schools, and four of them are district schools. But for all the populist marketing, XQ was, in the end, a much more conventional grant-giving effort, with many of the winners already established darlings of the reform movement: One proposal was submitted by a former advisor to Arne Duncan, another by a Teach for America team, a third by a well-funded West Coast chain of charter schools. “You know what they say about any deal,” reflects Raymond. “The best deal is where everyone gets some of what they want but not everything they want.” But as a cohort, however, the XQ winners may, in fact, indicate a new direction for reform: a concession that great schools can come in all different shapes and sizes, and that the people who know best how to lead them are already working there.

One morning in September, I met Alec Resnick for breakfast in New York. Resnick is an XQ winner from Somerville, Massachusetts; he plans to open Powderhouse Studios in the fall of 2018. A skinny, bearded, 30-year-old mathematician who went to MIT, Resnick grew up in Florida and spent his college summers working at day camps. What he loved about camps, he told me, was that the experience for kids is unclouded by the anxiety of grown-ups. At camp, a kid can become engaged — immersed — in learning without administrators and parents fretting about results, or how to position those results as a shield against some super-urgent, undefined future. So in 2009, he founded Sprout, an arts and sciences after-school program, and became a counselor full time, guiding and coaching kids as they made cool things they dreamed up themselves. “The most pernicious word in education is ‘scale,’ ” Resnick told me. “The most sacred thing to us is attention, where adults can be present for young people, and where kids can do work that matters to them and is hard for them.”

Two hundred kids will eventually be enrolled at Powderhouse, 80 percent of whom will qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school’s mission, above all, is to cultivate creativity, and to that end, the pedagogical approach is entirely “project based” — the very antithesis of test prep. Students choose interest areas and within them, they think up projects, which they execute themselves. So, for example, in “Signs of Life,” one kid might choose to learn about embryonic development and stage an abortion debate. Another might study the philosophy of science and write a one-act play about a Frankenstein monster. Another might learn “evolutionary design,” a cutting-edge approach to coding. At Powderhouse, kids can work individually or in groups. Teachers don’t teach, exactly, but function instead as social workers or rabbis, guiding kids over hurdles and toward the completion of their projects. Younger kids work on shorter time frames; older kids get more independence.

To pull this off, Resnick has had to blow up high school as it’s traditionally conceived. At Powderhouse, school happens all year because Resnick believes that true creativity can’t be achieved in five-day weeks divided into 50-minute segments. The day starts at ten, ends at five, and is segmented into three periods called “morning,” “lunch,” and “afternoon.” There is no homework. Nor are there AP courses or grades. Teachers monitor what the kids are learning and retrospectively map that onto state standards, directing them toward more challenging work and helping them identify future projects that will teach them the things they don’t already know. (The students will have to take the tests Massachusetts requires for graduation, and those who want to can also prepare the PSAT and SAT. Resnick calculates that about 8 percent of the school year will be devoted to preparing for and taking tests and applying to college.)

Resnick casts a rather jaded eye on inflated rhetoric of the reformers. Over breakfast, I had been complaining about the pseudoscientific jargon one finds among education wonks, a maddening vocabulary of acronyms and data-based certitudes that seem intentionally designed to elide the subject’s intrinsic messiness. “There’s not even an acknowledgment that it’s hard,” Resnick said. “There’s not even an acknowledgment that we’re tackling open questions.” Res­nick’s revolution is rooted in a very simple and old-fashioned idea: that a school is, at its heart, about relationships — “a roomful of people trying to learn something” — and that when schools fail, it’s because those on the inside haven’t had the time or space to talk and listen to one another.

The most discomfiting aspect of XQ is its super-staged self, the distance between what it is, in reality — which is to say another school-reform effort by a big-name philanthropist — and what it rather grandiosely claims to be. Early on in my reporting, XQ publicists began whispering in my ear. XQ was not just a competition, they said — though, yes, it was that. It was also, more important, a “movement,” a grassroots groundswell of interest in rethinking high school catching fire in every hamlet throughout the land. In my email in-box, I began to receive XQ newsletters titled “Earning the Movement,” which said things like “We’ve seen an entire nation ignited with possibility.” XQ has fewer than 10,000 followers on Twitter, but its tweets are similarly self-regarding.

Last April, in order to facilitate the movement, XQ’s ad agency outfitted an old yellow school bus for a nationwide tour. Its exterior was painted with the XQ slogan — #rethinkhighschool — and its interior gutted and renovated, with a wall of screens showing faces of kids talking about what they wished high school could be. The bus is a moving billboard, in other words, but with a twist: It’s a recording studio, too. It has its own staff, and its own advance team, and has traveled since its maiden voyage to 18 locations. At many stops, there’s celebrity entertainment — a comedian, a rapper, a spoken-word artist — and guests are invited to board the bus, take a look around. If so moved, they can step into the recording booth and articulate their hopes and dreams for the high school of the future.

I caught up with the XQ bus in Chicago, in Grant Park. Twenty-five yards away, under a canopy, Yo-Yo Ma played cello while the opera singer Renée Fleming sang. Then the rapper Common showed up, and, for an audience of specially invited high-school kids, began riffing on the importance of education. “You all the purest and most beautiful things that God created,” Common said. “Don’t think that adults know everything cause we don’t.” The kids seemed pleased. XQ staff bopped awkwardly, and a documentary team hired by XQ crouched and craned with boom mikes and cameras in order to capture footage to be edited later. In the background, the bus shone like a prop from Children’s Television Workshop.

Darcy Palder was there that day. She is a senior at Jones College Prep, a selective public high school, and she hopes to go to Georgetown or UPenn. XQ had gathered a bunch of high-school students together before the party by the bus, and Darcy had spoken achingly about the pressure she and her peers were under to perform on tests, and the feeling she had that all the grown-ups wanted to put them in boxes according to metrics, that there was not enough time in the day for creativity or screwing up and no one at school knew how to accommodate the emotional weather systems that went along with being 17. When well-meaning adults enter their lives trying to do good, Darcy said, too often they “take their picture, tweet it, and then they’re gone.”

Darcy said she loved the XQ focus group because the kids talked for two hours about how they felt about school and the grown-ups — including Russlynn Ali, Yo-Yo Ma, and Common — just sat there and listened. “I was so surprised. None of them said anything. I was impressed. I applauded them for that.”

But Darcy is skeptical about the “movement” aspect of XQ. “They act like it’s revolutionary, but it’s just not,” she says. Darcy and her friends visited the bus in Grant Park. “I looked at the pictures and then I left. My friends and I were like” — sarcastically — “Okaay. I wonder how many youth said, ‘Let’s make a bus! Let’s put videos in!’ Is this a youth movement led by youth? Or is this a youth movement led by adults? I think it’s a nice attempt, and obviously there’s flaws in every plan, but this is like adults planning for kids.”

She did talk to Yo-Yo Ma, which was “incredible,” she says. And then she and a friend spent a minute talking to Powell Jobs. “My friend said, ‘I’m so sorry about your husband. I admired him very much,’ and then I got to take a picture with her. I feel bad sometimes that I’ve grown up in a generation where taking pictures is the end goal.” Still, Darcy, muses. “She’s giving away $100 million. That’s substantial. That’s not fake.”

*A version of this article appears in the October 17, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.