Americans tuning in to watch Big Brother on CBS, or maybe Masterchef on Fox, or their favorite shows on ABC or NBC, were probably a bit surprised on Friday to find something called XQ Super School Live airing instead. And what was this colorful, high energy, star-studded spectacle about?
Nothing less than transforming the American high school.
Project XQ is aimed at funding ideas to transform American high schools into dynamic, innovative places where students become "learners for life," "original thinkers for an uncertain world," and "masters of all fundamental literacies," among other things.
The problem—aside from likely irking lots of people hoping to catch their favorite show—was that the "how" of widescale transformation was essentially absent, other than the occasional note that it must be a public schooling thing, whether it was admonishing viewers to get active with their school boards, or when the voiceover of a dance number asked, "What if the community and its public high schools strengthened each other in learning together?"
Asking how to make education dynamic and innovative is the right question. But public schooling? That's the wrong answer.
It is, of course, understandable that people would focus on transforming public schools. They are what the vast majority of kids attend, and education for many people is synonymous with them. But government—and public schools absolutely are "government schools"—has never been good at dynamic, sustained, flexible innovation. By its very nature, it is rules bound, not to mention dominated by special interests that naturally never want to be swept away by change. It is inherently unsuited to the job.
Fortunately, we know what fuels innovation: freedom, which when it comes to providing goods and services we call the "free market." As former Cato Center for Educational Freedom Director Andrew Coulson explains in his documentary series School Inc.—a far more edifying use of your viewing time than XQ Super School Live—bringing innovation to the masses requires freedom for people to constantly try new things, and to be rewarded by the uncompromising standard of people willingly paying for them. That reward is called "profit," and the people who use the goods or services are called "customers." And what does that profit, sometimes very large, do besides reward the people who often take very big risks on cutting-edge ideas? It signals to others that they ought to do the same thing, which expands the supply, lowers the price, and takes innovation to affordable scale.
An outstanding example of this are smartphones, those supercomputers we all carry that take our calls, handle our email, play our music, empower our kids to watch seemingly endless Minecraft videos and play My Little Pony games, etc. The company most responsible for bringing these marvels to scale was Apple, maker of the iPhone. And herein lies the irony of the public school-centric XQ Super School.
One of the big backers of the XQ effort is Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. But Steve Jobs actually spoke quite forcefully about attaching money to kids and letting them choose among schools, including private institutions, as the key to transforming education. As he explained back in 1995:
I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for forty-four hundred dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students. Secondly, I think you'd see a lot of new schools starting…You could have twenty-five year old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they'd start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you'd see is I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise.
It is tremendous to see others catching up to what school choice advocates have lamented for years: Education is largely stuck in neutral while the world perpetually changes (largely for the better).
But the root problem is not the absence of super schools. It is education removed from a super system: the free market.
Neal McCluskey (@NealMcCluskey) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom and maintains Cato's Public Schooling Battle Map.
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