Rethinking High School (and Accountability, Choice, and Philanthropy): Russlynn Ali of XQ Institute

By Benjamin Herold — December 06, 2017 6 min read
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As the CEO of the XQ Institute, Russlynn Ali oversees the ‘Super School Project,’ a high-profile, $100+ million competition aimed at spurring the “reinvention” of U.S. high schools.

As managing director of education at the private “impact investing” entity known as the Emerson Collective, she’s also on the frontline of some tectonic shifts in the world of education philanthropy.

And as a former assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, Ali has plenty of thoughts about the direction of the federal education department under President Donald Trump’s appointee Betsy DeVos.

Following are five highlights from Ali’s on-the-record conversation with Hechinger Report editor-in-chief Liz Willen and about 45 education reporters from across the country, held here Tuesday at an event hosted by the Education Writers Association.

1. From personalized learning to project-based learning, there’s a lot of enthusiasm around how to remake high schools, Ali said.

There continues to be a heavy focus on early learning (as well as plenty of ongoing arguing and finger-pointing on other hot-button reform issues) in K-12 circles, Ali told the crowd at Tuesday’s event.

But high schools also need a “laser-sharp focus on transformation,” she argued, because the secondary experience hasn’t changed to reflect new developments in neuroscience, to take advantage of new technological developments, or to align itself with rapidly changing workforce and citizenship demands placed on today’s young people.

That’s why XQ has awarded more than $100 million in grants to 18 schools across 16 states.

The hope, Ali said, is that those schools will provide tangible examples of what new, more personalized, more project-based high school learning environments—in which students advance when they show what they know and can do, rather than based on traditional Carnegie units—can look like.

“Just sitting in seat will no longer be a proxy for whether [students] learn something,” Ali said. “In a truly equitable system, kids will learn at different paces and at different times, and a personalized, competency-based environment can really meet young people where they are and get them where they need to be.”

2. When it comes to assessment and accountability for these new high school models, there’s a lot still TBD.

Ali acknowledged that the kinds of nontraditional, experiential, “deeper” learning that XQ hopes to promote can be hard to define, let alone to measure. But exciting work is being done on that front, she said.

“Accountability is up for grabs,” Ali said. “States are wrestling with how they’re redefining accountability systems under [the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act]....We are, too.”

XQ is developing “performance frameworks” and “learner outcomes” to articulate the type of learning it wants to see in its schools. The SAT and its related suite of tools are one indicator of progress they’ll focus on. And social and emotional learning will also be a focus, she said.

“One of the core fundamentals you’ll see across the XQ schools is this notion of broad definitions of student success,” Ali said. “Absolutely, that is about mastering the fundamental literacies that get academically college and career ready. But it’s also about what has been known heretofore as the ‘softer skills.’”

XQ’s accountability frameworks will be made publicly available beginning in 2018, Ali said.

3. ‘Rethinking school’ clearly means different things to different people.

Ali and XQ aren’t the only ones who have been talking about redesigning high schools. During a recent six-state ‘Rethink School’ tour, DeVos used much of the same language—but in service of the Trump administration’s education policy priorities, which are in many cases directly at odds with the work that Ali supported during her tenure in Washington.

Ali said the apprenticeship models that DeVos has been touting are a “good and important example” of creating meaningful new educational pathways for young people.

But that was about as far as she’d go.

‘Rethink’ is just “a word in the dictionary,” Ali said. “Nobody gets to own the word.”

4. Ali thinks the school-choice conversation has taken a wrong turn.

Ali suggested that the way the Trump administration is focusing on school choice is counterproductive.

“Charter schools are public schools,” she said, but “the way that the civic and political conversation is pushing [charters] in the same category as vouchers for private and religious schools is unfortunate.”

Ali also lamented potential impacts on traditional public schools from the Republican tax plan currently making its way through Congress. A proposal in both the House and the Senate’s version of the bill, for example, would allow families to use tax-free 529 savings (currently reserved for higher-education expenses) to help offset K-12 private school tuition.

“The way that plays out....certainly helps middle-class folks that have their kids in private schools,” Ali said. But she believes it doesn’t take into account “the consequences or context of how that sits in the schematic of public education.”

5. Talking the talk, but not walking the walk, on transparency.

Ali made a point of emphasizing that the lessons learned—good and bad—from the XQ schools will be “open-sourced,” so the field at large can learn from them.

But XQ is funded by and closely affiliated with the Emerson Collective, the philanthropy-and-investment vehicle of Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Job. Ali heads Emerson’s education efforts (and her old boss, former EdSec Arne Duncan, is a managing partner at the group.)

And unlike a traditional philanthropy, Emerson is structured as a limited-liability corporation. That means it can not only make charitable contributions, but also invest in for-profit companies, lobby, and make political donations, all with minimal public disclosure requirements. It’s a newer model of philanthropy, also being used by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, that critics say gives wealthy individuals broad new opportunities to reshape public policy without public transparency.

Some of the Emerson Collective’s investments and contributions have been made public. According to the website of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, for example, Emerson has over the past six years given a total of $4.3 million in political contributions, including money to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and education-related ballot initiatives in California, Colorado, and Maryland. And according to Crunchbase, Emerson has in recent years invested in ed-tech companies such as AltSchool, Ellevation, Freshgrade, Nearpod, and Panorama Education.

But other contributions and investments have likely not been made public. And that raises at least the potential for hidden conflicts of interest. For example, there’s nothing to stop Emerson from contributing to school board candidates in districts receiving XQ funds, where schools may also be considering using technologies in which Emerson has invested.

Asked whether Emerson would commit to publicly disclosing its political contributions and investments in education-related candidates, causes, and companies, Ali said she was “not prepared to answer that question here today.”

“Emerson is a hugely important vehicle that builds on lots of tools, whether that be investments or other ways of supporting great leaders and great ideas and great change that’s happening,” Ali said. “We certainly are following all of the applicable and important disclosure rules and requirements across all of our work.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.