3 things to know about XQ, the Laurene Powell Jobs-backed group set to help create new schools in NYC

XQ is coming to New York City.

The organization — which has offered big grants to help start novel high schools across the country — will give New York City $10 million to support 10 new or restructured district high schools.

It’s a high-profile bet by XQ, which is backed by the Emerson Collective, the philanthropic arm of Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. (Emerson is a funder of Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.) The organization has branched out from backing individual schools to partnering to directly with governments, including in Rhode Island and Tulsa, Oklahoma. New York City is its latest and biggest such bid.

Chalkbeat has reported extensively on XQ. Here are some key things to know about the group.

1. It’s already spent millions trying to “reinvent” schools across the country, though it’s hard to say how successful those schools have been — and some have faced major setbacks.

The XQ Initiative launched in September 2015 with a call for applications from teams with ideas for innovative new high schools. A year later, it named 10 teams as winners of $10 million each. Since then, additional teams have been added, and XQ has promised $136 million to 19 winning teams.

Some of those teams have faced significant setbacks. Three have not opened or expanded their schools as planned; a fourth closed down earlier this year. The reasons run the gamut from performance issues to local school board opposition. (XQ has formally severed ties with two winning teams, meaning 17 remain in the cohort.)

More recently, at Crosstown High School in Memphis, students staged a walkout and the principal left, the second leader to depart in two years.

At the same time, a number of school leaders say the XQ has provided crucial support as they launched high schools taking a novel approach, and XQ says even some of the losing teams have continued working to open new schools.

“Clearly not all the investments they made turned out,” said Scott Bess, who runs Purdue Polytechnic, an XQ school in Indianapolis. “They didn’t want to be safe and wanted to stretch a little bit, and when you do that, not everything works.”

2. It has tried to avoid the school reform wars.

XQ, which is led by former Obama education official Russlynn Ali, has awarded grants to a mix of charter and district schools across the country. It’s also said little about the specific kinds of innovation it looks for from applying teams. 

One thing XQ clearly is a fan of is “competency-based” learning, in which students progress once they’ve mastered specific material. A policy document with recommendations for improving high schools released by XQ includes increasing expectations for earning a high school diploma and bolstering teacher training. 

But XQ has largely avoided the most polarizing aspects of the current school reform debate, like arguments about the value of charter schools. 

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, attended the TV special live and has promoted XQ on Twitter. Some of XQ’s ideas have also appealed to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has visited Purdue Polytechnic multiple times and hosted an innovation roundtable featuring two XQ school leaders. In 2017, DeVos met with Powell Jobs and Ali, according to her calendar.

“They’re definitely trying to stay on this level of supporting innovation but not claiming a side in what have become perhaps overly ossified division in education politics,” Sarah Reckhow, who studies education philanthropy at Michigan State, told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

Still, XQ has faced criticism from some common critics of charter schools and private spending in education, including Diane Ravitch, the education historian and activist.

Notably, XQ’s investment in New York City will focus on district schools. (One of its existing 17 schools is a New York City charter school, Brooklyn Lab.)

3. XQ has a great deal of money, and has used it not just on schools but also to drum up support for its ideas — with mixed success.

Powell Jobs’ fortune is estimated to be approximately $20 billion, according to the Washington Post. The Emerson Collective, Jobs’ philanthropic arm, supports XQ.

Emerson is organized as a limited liability company, rather than a traditional philanthropy, so it does not have to disclose its financial resources or giving. But XQ, a nonprofit, does.

Tax filings show that XQ has spent millions on its program to reinvent schools, while also mounting a public relations campaign to drum up interest in their competition and support for its ideas. In 2016, XQ spent $38 million on “movement building and public awareness,” including a national bus tour.

In 2017, XQ produced a glitzy national television special, featuring celebrities like Tom Hanks and Justin Timberlake. XQ reported $27 million in spending on movement building, including the special, in 2017.

XQ says the special attracted 25 million views and garnered energy around its vision, including 300,000 combined social media and text subscribers. But Chalkbeat previously reported that internally, some at XQ were disappointed that the special didn’t get as much attention as they hoped. Others who attended the special weren’t totally clear what the point was.

“I think it was hard to discern the takeaway and wished there was more guidance about what to do as an action step,” said Nick Melvoin, a Los Angeles school board member.