What We Need Now Is a Whole Nation of Super Schools

A report from Emerson Collective is a call to state education policymakers to step up and ensure that high school students are ready for the future of work.

Published sep. 25, 2018

How do we prepare students for the future of work? The reports keep coming, and now there is one from Emerson Collective: High School and the Future of Work.

Here’s my perhaps contrarian view—there can’t be too many reports on how to prepare students for the future of work or too many solutions proposed. With all the serious attention, a consensus may emerge about how to make the seismic shift that’s required. If not, we’re in trouble. There’s already a consensus answer to the report’s opening question: “Are your high school students ready for the jobs of the future?” Most would answer: No.

Emerson Collective is among the “new” philanthropies often mentioned along with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Led by Laurene Powell Jobs, Emerson has high visibility and substantial resources to devote to its mission of “removing barriers to opportunity so people can live to their full potential.”

High School and the Future of Work addresses its solutions to one segment of the potential changemaker community—state policymakers—and one sector of the education system—high schools. In 2015, Emerson sponsored a competition called XQ: The Super School Project. Over 10,000 people from across all 50 states “answered the call,” according to the report. Emerson provided funding for 18 new high schools. These breakout XQ schools can now serve as a model for what a future-oriented high school can be.

Emerson’s ambition is to use these high schools to inspire state policymakers to put in place the policy set that would scale new models. The report gives examples of policies that encourage innovations like Super Schools and are already in place across the country. These include policies that encourage innovation, such as competitions in Virginia, expanded dual enrollment courses in Ohio, and Innovation Schools in  Massachusetts, where greater flexibility can improve teaching and learning. The report likewise advocates broadening the concept of a “course” to include learning beyond classroom time, as Rhode Island did.

Contrary to accepted wisdom, high school is not too late for a bump in learning.

Emerson also challenges the reader with ideas and resources that don’t appear in other reports. The collective argues that high schools have gotten too little attention in recent years, although they sit at a “fulcrum” point in the system between K-8 and higher education. This point can’t be emphasized enough—contrary to accepted wisdom, high school is not too late for a bump in learning.

Backed by neuroscience evidence, the report declares that teenage brains are primed to learn and provides accessible research on this. The report includes a primer on the Science of Adolescent Learning and thumbnails of the Super Schools for examples of design that promote the development of healthy teenage brains.

Teachers also get attention. The report portrays the challenges teachers face in choosing instructional materials, especially materials that use technology. Teacher-led state quality reviews, like the one underway in Louisiana, can tame the chaotic market for education materials and could be a model for other states.

For teacher preparation, the report points to the Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching developed by JFF and the Council of Chief State School Officers as a model. It also highlights microcredentialing as a way for teachers to earn credit for specific skills while learning in the same way students will in the near future—through combinations of online and practice-based experiences.

One newer strategy the report recommends to state leaders is “demand aggregation,” a way to provide high visibility and mobilization around collectively identified needs. For example, state leaders can use hackathons, challenges, prizes, and summits as a way to send signals to the private market about tools and resources that districts and high schools need. Project Unicorn is a powerful illustration of this strategy. It was developed by a group of educators who were frustrated by their inability to “securely compare and analyze data schools already collected” because their systems couldn’t connect or exchange information. Members pledge to only buy from vendors that make their systems interoperable.

The Super School designs are truly exciting. Reading about them will lead some to wish they could return to high school. We should be grateful to Emerson Collective for adding to the store of inspiring learning environments where teens thrive and prepare for the rapid change ahead.

The big question that remains is: How do we get to a national portfolio of schools that break the mold? Can 18 new schools prompt a redesign of the whole system? With 3.6 million young people expected to graduate from high school in 2019, how do state policymakers scale existing innovations to serve more than the small number of teens who are enrolled in Super Schools now?

Systems redesign is slow work. Policies alone don’t change real-world practices. Living examples on the ground—like Emerson Collective’s Super Schools—can help enormously. But scaling requires new human capital, new resources, and enormous public will. This report does not overpromise on magic solutions, but reinforces policies that already support innovation or could do so with the suggested revisions. Now, we need a single state to put in place the set of policies the Emerson Collective report calls out—in other words, an XQ state.