XQ Is Taking Over TV To Make the Case That High School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years. But Is That True? (Matt Barnum)

“Matt Barnum is Chalkbeat’s national reporter covering education policy and research. Previously he was a staff writer at The 74, the policy director for Educators for Excellence – New York, and a middle school language arts teacher in Colorado.” This article appeared September 6, 2017

Here is a classic example of how the debate over reforming schools confuses policymakers, donors, practitioners, and parents. What does the word “change” mean? The concept of “change” is the fuel that drives school reform policies past and present. But policymakers and donors seldom ask: what kind of “change” do we want? Incremental? Fundamental? Nor do these well-intentioned but ill-informed decision-makers ask the essential question:   change toward what ends? 


Education policy rarely makes national television. But on Friday night, a special focused on redesigning America’s high schools — and featuring Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, and Common — will be taking over the airwaves of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

The broadcast, “XQ Super School Live,” is an extension of XQ, a project of the Emerson Collective, the organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs…. In the last year, XQ has awarded $100 million to innovative schools across the country, including some with a heavy emphasis on technology.

The goal: to call attention to how high school “has remained frozen in time” and to support promising alternatives.

“For the past 100 years America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged, yet the world around us has transformed dramatically,” intones the familiar voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a video promoting the TV event.

It’s a view U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shares. “Far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different,” DeVos recently said while visiting a Florida charter school.

But is it true? Is it really the case that high schools haven’t seen major change over the last century?

Chalkbeat asked several education historians for their take. They said no, schools have changed — in some respects significantly — over the last several decades.

However, XQ has a point in saying that the basic setup of schooling has remained largely intact, they said.

“The ‘grammar’ of high schooling has stayed fairly static,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Kids take seven or eight subjects, the major subjects have stayed fairly static, [students] move from room to room, school begins around 7 or 8 and ends around 3.”

“I can understand why in a lot of ways, in terms of structure, it feels like high schools haven’t changed,” said Ansley Erickson, an assistant professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College. But, she said, there has been a massive transformation of high school from an institution for a chosen few into a mass institution for virtually all teenagers in the country.

“To say that high school hasn’t changed might potentially miss that major transformation,” Erickson said.

Zimmerman largely agreed.

“If by this claim [XQ] is asserting that high schools today share some fundamental elements with high schools 100 years ago, I’m with them,” he said. “But that’s very different from saying nothing has changed.”

Like Erickson, he pointed to the “birth of mass high school” as a major change. “It’s not until the 1930 that the majority of adolescents attended high schools, and it’s not until the 1950s that the majority graduate from one,” Zimmerman said.

He also pointed to several ways the content and structure of American high school has changed, and sometimes changed back: the development and decline of vocational tracks; an increased emphasis on “life skills” followed by a greater focus on academics post-Sputnik; the diversification of high school offerings (into what some have called the ”shopping mall” high school) followed by the rise of small high schools.

Jack Schneider, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, was more scathing in his assessment of XQ’s assertion.

“Ahistorical claims about outmoded schools are designed to persuade us that public education is run by incompetents,” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “If that’s the case, maybe disruption is the cost we need to bear in pursuit of progress. But the truth is that the schools have been constantly evolving over time, in ways large and small.”

In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Schneider elaborated on what has changed:

“A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.”

In recent years, America’s graduation rates have been rising and dropout rates have been falling. National test scores have generally been flat, overall, for high schoolers. (There remains significant debate about the causes of those trends, including the impact of changing student demographics and graduation standards.)

History aside, the key policy question today is whether high schools would benefit from the kind of dramatic rethinking XQ is encouraging.

The underlying assumption of XQ is that the relatively static nature of some aspects of high school suggests the answer is yes. But the fact that these methods have been persistent could also mean just the opposite.

“There are other moments when people have said we need to reconceptualize high school,” said Erickson. “This is not the first one of these.”


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

12 responses to “XQ Is Taking Over TV To Make the Case That High School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years. But Is That True? (Matt Barnum)

  1. Alice in PA

    Such a timely column because I am about to have a meeting where the point is to convince us that schools have never changed and that we need to become “modern teachers,” however that is defined by this group of consultants

  2. Larry

    Nothing really new here. Every time a ‘celebrity’ or ‘tech mogol’ with more cash than brains decides they are an expert in everything decides its time to ‘fix education’ they throw huge chunks of cash and then expect real educators to do what they want. Bill Gate, just one example. For what appear to have been good intentions, the school district and college executive administrators were drooling at the prospect of Gate’s millions flowing to their accounts, and they didn’t have a cogent plan of what to do. So Gates, doing what leaders do, told them what he thought…..after they skimmed their cut off the top, did what Gates suggested and….it always failed. But this article is correct. Things have changed, but its just not flashy and doesn’t make the news sound bites, then any time there is a concern about ill conceived metrics showing results most people don’t understand, its always the teachers! XQ needs to go back to doing what they do best….building and administrative empire that’s toothless. Has anyone looked at their executive staff, or ‘team’ as they refer to them. Thirty six people…led by no less than a former out of work government appointee waiting for their next taxpayer funded gig. And if that doesn’t tell you what this gang is, Betsy DeVos and HollowWood celebrity Samuel Jackson agree. Ms. Jobs is to be commended for her contributions….though she could afford to contribute much more considering the mega billions she has….but her contributions could be better placed than XQ or a myriad of other bottomless pits where the bulk of the money goes to executive compensation rather than the real educators in the field.

  3. I really seems odd to me that so many people equate change with a heavy use of technology in the classroom. I am not quite sure why. Evidence through recent history has shown that technology does cause change but it is a very slow and happens in very small increments. Look at the graphing calculator, the TI in particular. I attended high school in the pre-TI era, I teach in the post-TI era. The approach to math is a bit (but not hugely) different but the curriculum is basically the same. If the TI were to vanish the adjustment back to hand methods would not hinder what I teach greatly. It would slow things down a bit but overall I could succeed in teaching math. Look at the overhead projector, the copy machine (or mimeograph machine for the old timers), film strip projector and so on. Did they revolutionize how we teach? They changed the presentation mode for the “sage on the stage” and in some cases made it easier for the teacher but does that equate as “change”?
    There are schools out there that have made big changes but from everything I have read they are really not scaleable. Looking at the commitment in money, professional development and time these schools have made is enormous. Totally unreachable for the average school with a standard tax based budget and normal students.
    Even the supposed “simple” things like going to a year-round schedule are hot potatoes.
    All these big proponents of change need to look at the resources and limitations of typical schools before they start talking about making “changes”. Politics, teachers unions, limited budgets, teaching loads, student capabilities, the school building itself and so on all limit what can be done to make these revolutionary “changes”. It would be advantageous to make some changes but they have to be affordable. The present system for funding education just will not support the changes many of these good idea fairies are coming up with.

  4. Laura H. Chapman

    The question is whether the advocates of change are competent or just doing a thing that works in the tech industry and in shark tank environments where investors want a piece of the action. I know one of the winners of the XQ competitions. The winning high school charter school failed for reasons of low enrollment and a co-founder who wanted to make money by setting up an LLC to provide services to the school. And XQ wanted oversight from the get go, with return on investments a big deal.
    You rightly ask the important question: “change toward what ends?”
    I am not sure that the would-be decision makers favoring “change” are well-intentioned. Many are clearly uninformed. Almost every discussion about change today is coupled with a lot of talk about “unleashing” innovation, “fueling” entrepreneurship, choice and competition, and that includes education.
    This is to say that the civic purposes of education and school structures supporting those purposes are being over whelmed by language and thought about education as a market and in the customer service of business. Here is a relevant paper of this issue https://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-public-school

  5. Pingback: Larry Cuban: Is XQ Right About High Schools Never Changing? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  6. Well, considering the XQ Super School Project’s big 10×14 “Guide for State Policymakers” states on the first page after the inside front cover that “99% [encircled for emphasis] of the jobs created during the economic recovery went to workers with post-secondary education or training” why would I believe anything they have to say? Really, I mean really?? Where do they come up with such a lie?

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