A Blueprint for Meaningful Educational Reform

Words are inadequate to describe my excitement when I discovered XQ Institute, an organization “dedicated to rethinking high school” (xqsuperschool.org)! I’ve been poring through their material, and they promote everything I believe about how to redesign schools.

XQ Institute was co-founded by board chair Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president of Emerson Collective, and Russlynn Ali, XQ’s CEO and former U.S. assistant secretary of education for civil rights. XQ’s board of directors also includes Geoffrey Canada, Marc Eckō, Jimmy Iovine, Michael Klein, and Yo-Yo Ma.

XQ Institute maintains that a school that bases its rethinking on this set of design principles “fully realizes its potential to achieve a bold, holistic, student-centered school design”:

  • Strong mission and culture
  • Meaningful, engaged learning
  • Caring, trusting relationships
  • Youth voice and choice
  • Community partnerships
  • Smart use of time, space, and tech (xqsuperschool.org)

These principles encourage shared values to drive change, interdisciplinary and engaged learning strategies, effective personal connections, student-centered learning with some level of autonomy, and the expansion of non-traditional approaches and flexible use of technology tools. What’s not to like?!!

I believe this framework effectively incorporates best practices that could transform schools and leads naturally to the XQ Learner Outcomes:

  • Masters of all fundamental literacies
  • Holders of foundational knowledge
  • Original thinkers for an uncertain world
  • Generous collaborators for tough problems
  • Learners for life (xqsuperschool.org2)

XQ Institute offers this ultimate goal: “students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for all that the future has to o­ffer” (xqsuperschool.org3). Doesn’t this description fit the needs of students, schools, and the country?

This set of outcomes reminds me of the Glenbard Essential Qualities I’ve written about previously. In the 1990s, they were knowledgeable person, critical thinker, effective communicator, quality producer, collaborative worker, responsible individual, and socially responsible citizen. They’ve evolved in important ways, and now include the following:

  • Practices responsible decision-making and considers impact on others
  • Creates, monitors and reflects upon ambitious and realistic goals 
  • Builds and sustains strong, healthy relationships 
  • Advocates for self and others in a socially responsible, empathetic manner
  • Employs a growth mindset that includes self-regulation, motivation, and resiliency
  • Communicates
  • Thinks Critically
  • Embraces Diversity
  • Creates
  • Collaborates (glenbard87.org)

The shift to verbs instead of nouns makes the qualities more proactive, and the new list seems even more aligned with my values as an educator and with the XQ Framework I admire.

The XQ Institute provides specific tools and materials to help schools undertake a serious self-evaluation and work toward change. Just imagine how a school might evolve to serve its students and community better if it shapes its curriculum and pedagogical design around these principles!

Change is hard, and school systems suffer from inertia. Visionary leadership from a thoughtful organization, accompanied by materials to lead schools through self-exploration, offers a real opportunity to transform schools to meet the needs of today’s students and the world. I would love to see school systems embrace the XQ Institute Approach. Our students, our schools, and our country badly need – and deserve – these changes.

Happier News for a Change

When so much of the news is distressing, here’s a break with some good news about education:

  • The American Exchange Project helps students build bridges across the American divide. Co-founded by 29-year-old David McCullough III, grandson of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, it pays to for youth to spend a week in the summer after senior year “in an American town that is politically and socio-economically and culturally very different from the one that they’re growing up in,” McCullough said. Participants report bonding with others very different from themselves and seeing shades of gray in a world that used to be more black-and-white. (cbsnews.com)
  • Boston has opened high school reengagement centers that “offer a proven, scalable way to help more students find a path to a diploma and a better life.” Dozens of volunteers visit the home of students living well below the poverty line who have had poor attendance to encourage them to stay in school. Bostons’ four-year graduation rate went from 59% in 2006 to 81% in 2022. The five-year rate jumped from 65% to 84%.  Other districts could certainly duplicate this effort. (nextcity.org)
  • Indiana already had some work-based programs to prepare students for chosen careers, including those that do not require college. Now their Career Scholarship Accounts are available to every student as a sophomore in high school. “Students participating in qualifying programs can apply for $5,000 each year to pay for career training courses, enroll in earn-and-learn opportunities and cover the costs of items like transportation to and from work sites, uniforms, tools and certification exams.” (the74million.org)
  • Education Reimagined is developing partnerships with educators, communities, and researchers to shift the current model of schooling to “one built on community-based ecosystems of learning that offer deeply personalized opportunities to all students.”  For example, the brand-new City View Community High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, uses the local Chamber of Commerce as students’ home base and creates personalized learning activities, connected to standards, and community-based projects and problem solving. (the74million.org2)
  • Michael Hayes, a male fifth-grade language arts teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary school, started “Men Count” to ensure that Charlotte students see more men of color in the school so that many can see themselves. Male volunteers from all over Charlotte participate, providing role models children can relate to. (charlotteobserver.com)
  • Hope Chicago is taking a two-generation approach to attacking poverty by working with five Chicago schools to provide scholarships for both students and a parent of those students. As long as the student stays in school, the parent does, too. An April 2023 report by “Belfield, a City University scholar, found that college enrollment rates averaged 74% — a 17% increase — in the organization’s first year partnering with the five schools.” Chicago Hope plans to expand the program. (the74million.org3)
  • Ed tech nonprofit UPchieve offers free, individualized, on-demand academic support. This 24-hour online tutoring service relies on 20,000 volunteer tutors to offer free, on-demand academic and college application support to any U.S. middle or high school student attending a Title I school or living in a low-income neighborhood. (the74million.org4)
  • Two years ago, some students at a 60% white school in East Ridge, Minnesota, met to brainstorm what they could do to make students of color feel less isolated. They founded the Close the Gap club, which offers free tutoring by students for students. 40-50 teens participate and appreciate the support, finding it easier to get help from peers than teachers. (startribune.com)
  • Last spring Aleksander Simeunovic, a high school student in Batavia, Illinois, created Fox Valley Coding Buddies to promote online safety and digital literacy for elementary and middle school students. The group has already hosted 46 workshops across eight suburban school districts for students in grades 3-8 with 1,550 student participants, using 76 trained volunteers and eight executive board members. They tailor each workshop to the specific schools’ needs. (www.shawlocal.com)
  • New Jersey is the first state in the country to require public schools to teach media literacy to K-12 students. They believe that “students will become better citizens as adults by learning how to conduct research, analyze information, determine credible sources and ask questions to better reach their own conclusions.” (dailygazette.com)
  • Last month St. Charles, Illinois, offered a parent program entitled “Make Kindness Go Viral: Addressing Cyberbullying at Home.” A presenter from the Cyberbullying
    Research Center provided information on how kids use the Internet and their devices first and then examined cyberbullying, sexting, and unwise social media use along with practical strategies for identification, prevention, and response. (district303.org)
  • Two college students in Tulsa, Oklahoma, live in a senior community for free in exchange for performing music concerts and practices and engaging with residents. Although the financial benefits attracted them, both they and the residents say the bonding has been wonderful. The students bring joy and life to the facility, and the residents provide encouragement and advice. (kjrh.com)
  • A first grader in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, has been working on improving her reading by going door to door in her community and practicing by reading to seniors. Not only has Maggie’s reading improved as the seniors support her and help with difficult words, but they really enjoy the company! (kare11.com) In my own hometown retired adults work in the elementary schools as volunteers and report the cross-generational experiences are truly fulfilling. Perhaps we can expand opportunities like this across the nation.

It’s easy to feel discouraged about education given the strains schools are facing and the impact of the pandemic on learners. News items like these can remind us that good work continues around the country. We should support it and urge expansion of the best initiatives.

“Let the Children Lead the Way”

Whitney Houston was right when she sang, “I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

At a time when political polarization continues to fracture families and communities, we hear voices of reason among our youth. An opinion piece in The Washington Post this week proves that once again.

Eli Tillemann, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, described a divisive issue in his school that led to further polarization among adults (washingtonpost.com). This top-rated magnet school saw its selective admissions process overhauled by the Fairfax County School Board in an effort to improve diversity. No longer would applicants have to pay a $100 application fee or undergo standardized testing. Sadly, the infighting that followed nearly ended the Parent Teacher Association and a lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court.

Tillemann shows more maturity than most of us when he writes, “Over the past two years, many of my classmates and I have learned a valuable lesson from this factional squabbling: It doesn’t work. When a society separates into warring camps, no one is left to have a meaningful conversation about fixing the underlying issues.” Instead of taking sides, he and many classmates decided to write their own curriculum, to learn to debate constructively and “to build a program that prepares students to navigate our increasingly tribal cognitive ecosystem.” With help from Niels Rosenquist, a psychiatrist and an interdisciplinary researcher at Harvard Medical School, and digital media executive Stuart Schulzke, they created “Dialectic,” a program now being looked at in states like California, Utah, and Massachusetts.

As president of both the Democrats and Republicans at his school, Tillemann has brought them together to host lectures on “the science around communication in the digital age, the neurobiology of tribalism and, perhaps most important, how to disagree.” He writes that more than 70 students attended the kickoff lecture, and that he and his classmates really want to learn how to disagree better, how to avoid the tribalism so apparent in the adults around them.

These students seek to tackle controversial problems, working together to generate better solutions. He writes, “This is not just civility for civility’s sake. The best outcomes in policy, business and life usually emerge from a competition of ideas and a compromise on solutions.”

These young people recognize that their solutions may not be adopted, but they hope to change the acrid environment surrounding the debate about the issue. They recognize that the well-intended changes to the admissions process are still flawed, and they are suggesting options to avoid some of the problems. I am impressed!

But Tillemann is right that we need more work like this around the nation. He says it far more effectively than I could: “Americans must level up the caliber of our discourse by relearning the benefits of practical debate. Constructive, respectful disagreement is vital to a functioning democracy. It is time for both sides to embrace a new strategy for resolving our differences.”

Out of the mouths of babes…