One week ago, the XQ Institute launched a $50 million education challenge called The Super School Project. With polished branding and leaders like Laurene Powell Jobs (wife to the late Steve Jobs), the initiative aims to change the future of American high school.

Can a contest do that? I recently watched the education documentary Most Likely to Succeed, which shadowed the teachers and students of a California charter school named High Tech High. Not surprisingly, the school was pretty high-tech.

In the documentary, students from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds worked on dynamic, team-based projects in tech-enriched environments where they had a high degree of control over pace, design and content. (*Deep breathe after overly descriptive sentence*) The film was well-made; the apparent learning of the students was compelling; and by the end, I was convinced that High Tech High was a Super School.

I was asked to speak on a panel after the documentary screening. From the front, I could tell that parents in the audience were unsettled. In comparison to High Tech High, their children’s schools looked antiquated.

“What choice do we have?” they asked the panel.

“What about standardized tests?”

“What if the school has no money?”

“My kid is already a junior. What can I do now?”

The other panel members–four young, Bay Area male professionals like myself (yay, diversity)–answered with vaguely positive suggestions about how parents could provide alternative extracurricular opportunities.

I tried to provide a few frank answers based on what I perceived as current realities (i.e., SAT scores are important; as a parent, just try to help your kid avoid student debt). As a non-educator with no children, I didn’t feel particularly qualified to tell these parents how they could change their schools from the inside-out.

Maybe that is the driving motivation for The Super School Project: if our schools can’t be changed from the inside-out, we must change them from the outside-in. All we need is a bit of disruptive innovation and strategic venture funding. Maybe?

Disruptive innovation is a term I feel conflicted about, and I will save that discussion for another post. Strategic funding is effective…at creating exceptions.

High Tech High is a Super Exception. The five Super Schools that the XQ Institute ultimately funds will also be viewed as Super Exceptions.

Why? Partly because few schools ever receive $10 million for “innovation.” Entire school districts seldom receive that amount. Even in the lucrative Race To The Top (RTTT) district grant competition, Houston Independent School District, the seventh largest district in the nation and one of RTTT’s highest-yielding recipients, won just over $103K per school. That amount pales in comparison to the $10 million per school offered by the XQ Institute, even if you were to adjust for district scaling efficiencies.

The other reason for the XQ Super Schools’ exceptionality will be their inception “outside of the system.” This makes them somewhat unrelatable to public educators, and perhaps perceived as dangerous. For public schools with long histories of unsuccessful top-down mandates, hype from an XQ Super School may seem like an innovation viper, striking without the cultural sensitivity necessary to achieve results across disparate communities.

As such, I doubt that these Super Exceptions will change our public high schools.

My skepticism is not an outright rejection of The Super School Project; I think the project has promising potential for new thought around how we envision high school. I simply believe that initiatives such as the XQ Institute’s do not address the deeper, more insidious obstacles to U.S.  school reform, like politics, poverty or systemic discrimination.

Photo credit: Mike Rastiello