Laurene Jobs Invests $50 Million in Redesigning American High Schools

Published sep. 17, 2015

JFF applauds Laurene Jobs’ $50 million investment to inspire new thinking, innovation, and action around redesigning the American high school. Our nation’s high schools have largely been impervious to decades of efforts to raise the educational achievement of all public school students. While student performance against standard measures like the National Assessment of Education Progress have shown some progress over the years at lower grade levels, it remains stubbornly low in our high schools. This is particularly so for schools serving large numbers of underserved youth.

One of the defining problems of the traditional high school is that it is not designed to help students get a firm footing in the future. These institutions are still very much a vestige of an era when a high school education was sufficient to succeed in the labor market for large numbers of graduates while smaller numbers of elites were prepared for college.  That is a model ill suited to today’s economy with jobs that increasingly reward employees who have postsecondary credentials and demand an increasing level of skill and knowledge.  

Any innovation in high school redesign—funded by Ms. Jobs’ challenge or otherwise—must address head on and fix this fundamental flaw of most secondary schooling.

It is no coincidence that exemplary, high-performing high schools are often designed to explicitly incorporate the future into students’ present learning, and that is why JFF has long promoted this kind of innovation. Students come to inherently understand, envision, and practice what it takes to succeed in college and careers, and this ability to see their future elevates their learning to become more relevant, engaging, and accelerated. 

Early college schools, for example, enable students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds to earn one to two years of college credit by high school graduation, and around 30 percent of those students graduate with an Associate’s degree along with a high school diploma. Linked Learning is a strategy connecting strong academics with real-world experience in a wide range of fields, helping students gain an advantage in high school, college, and career. Linked Leaning students in California are showing more engagement and success in college-preparatory coursework, completion of high school, and in their understanding of steps needed to advance in careers. Guided apprenticeships, mentoring programs and work-based learning opportunities are new and promising ways to positively change the high school experience and future outcomes for students.

Jobs for the Future is promoting such strategies in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education through our Pathways to Prosperity Network. The network advances systems of career pathways linking high school, work, and college to increase the number of youth who complete high school and attain a postsecondary credential with labor market value.

While Ms. Jobs’ new investment may spark much needed renewed interest and progress in redesigning high schools, it should also focus on why previously successful innovations have often fallen short: their inability to scale up to serve many more students and reach students who have fallen the furthest behind.  Ms. Jobs might look to address structure as well as the adjacent reasons that many out-of-the-box schools are not widely replicated—i.e., a lack of supportive district and state policies, rigid systems, and a lack of capacity for strengthening instruction. Any innovation funded by this high school redesign challenge ought to be accompanied by a theory of change and strategies for raising the educational attainment of every student while engaging district and state education systems to lay the groundwork for replication of successful efforts.