New York Magazine

Classroom: Lisa Miller

Can $100 Million Reboot American High School? Laurene Powell Jobs is giving it a shot.
Laurene Powell Jobs with Russlynn Ali at Summit Everest High School, an exemplary charter school.

SINCE 2001, about $15 billion has been spent by taxpayers and philanthropists trying to boost academic achievement in American public schools. These efforts have largely failed—especially in high school. For the average 17-year-old, reading and math scores have not budged since 1971. On standardized tests, white 17-year-olds still outscore black 17-year-olds by 20 points or more—a stubborn gap, unchanged for 30 years.

Laurene Powell Jobs is undaunted by these facts. To her, the cause of the failure is clear: High schools don’t properly serve American kids because they were designed a hundred years ago for an industrial society that has ceased to exist. “You can pull all the disaggregated data that you want and get depressed about it,” she told me in June, as we sat drinking wine in the lobby of a downtown Chicago hotel—but what high school needs is a “completely changed design in 25,000 places.” Powell Jobs, who is the widow of Steve Jobs and worth about $18 billion, proposes the overhaul of all high schools neutrally, as though she were suggesting something ordinary like cleaning up the garage. “That’s what we need to do.”

“We should have the best education system in the world!,” she continues. “We should! We shouldn’t just have the best military. We shouldn’t just have the best economy. We should have the best education system. Of course we should! Every single person would agree to that!” It is perhaps not surprising that Powell Jobs holds a version of her husband’s disregard for Establishment institutions. Whereas the myth of Jobs portrays him as an enfant terrible, his widow is the opposite: low-key, disciplined, self-contained. At about six feet tall, she looks like a Valkyrie and comports herself like a queen. It’s her insistent optimism, even in the face of dire realities, such as the failure of school reformers to achieve substantive gains, that betrays her defiance.

Last month, Powell Jobs announced the details of a $100 million investment in American high school through a contest she helped

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