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Leadership Insights

What School Could Be: A Conversation with Ted Dintersmith

By Jennifer Gunn July 10, 2018

As a venture capitalist for 25 years, Ted Dintersmith saw how education wasn’t changing as fast as the job market. He noticed that highly educated people in business lacked skills and qualities like flexibility, creativity, and collaboration. Upon retirement from the corporate world, he made education advocacy and philanthropy his mission.

Looking to the future, Dintersmith believes, and research suggests, that “automation is going to eliminate jobs in the economy faster and more ruthlessly than people can imagine.” After his documentary Most Likely to Succeed and its accompanying book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era came out a few years ago, Dintersmith got the attention of educators and business people, becoming a staple speaker at conferences and events around the world.

For his new book, What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, Dintersmith went to all fifty states in one busy school year on the road, visiting over 200 schools. He self-financed his trip across the country that began in 2016, and even hired a political campaign team to handle logistics, ensuring he met as many stakeholders, educators, and students as possible throughout the school year. As he traveled, he journaled the stories, innovations, and practices he witnessed, creating an invaluable snapshot of American education. It’s a field report told not through a political, journalistic, or business lens, but by someone who profoundly trusts educators to do their job.

“A lot of times, when you read a lot of news stories, their stories immediately jump to test scores as a signature of whether a school is good or bad. It’s a corrosive imitation of quality,” Dintersmith says. “I see a direct connection between innovation in education and the longevity of our democracy. People say ‘how did you get interested in education?’ I say, ‘I am interested in education, but I’m particularly interested in civil society.’”

Educators reading this book won’t necessarily be struck by new ideas, but will be inspired to learn just how subversively and persistently educators around the nation are working to push back against a system that isn’t serving kids well.

Our nation’s obsession with measurability

In his new book, Dintersmith recalls a meeting in Connecticut with veteran educator Doug Lyons who approached Dintersmith at an event and said, “February 6, 1992.” Confused, Dintersmith wasn’t sure what this date meant, and asked Lyons to elaborate. It turns out that this was the date The New York Times first published international test-score rankings. Comparatively, we didn’t do well, setting off a competitive call to action for American kids to do better. A push for more test preparation and an obsession with measurability was born.

Dintersmith notes that “we don’t hesitate to push children to produce higher standardized test scores, despite no evidence that they’re correlated to, let alone cause, anything consequential.” We’ve all seen how states have increasingly aligned curriculum to meet testing goals and application requirements — without much clear connection to what’s needed for our workforce, our students’ social-emotional development, or society.

Innovations in education are slow to happen because the changes teachers want to make are not easily measurable or transferable to a transcript or college application. Policymakers want data and proof of effectiveness. “Almost the entirety of the middle and upper grades are a bet on becoming college-ready,” Dintersmith says. “When you look at the curriculum and ask, ‘Will I use this as an adult?’ Probably not. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to use it. Or it’s so low level, you won’t remember. It’s all there because it’s baked into college admission, tests, and state-mandated exams.” Dintersmith believes that teachers are largely subjugated into teaching to tests and standards that are quickly becoming outdated for the work world of our future.

While visiting a low-income school in Albuquerque, he discovered students working with a local soccer team to design and implement social media campaigns, using applied math, language arts, and aesthetic design. Work like this teaches all kinds of “critical skills with tangible benefits,” he says. “In visiting 200 schools in a year, just one had kids learning applied social media.” The others, he notes, were teaching Pre-Calc and quadratic equations the same way they’ve always been taught — with no real-world application or connection.

Dintersmith scoffs that he has a PhD in Applied Math/Engineering from Stanford, saying that such things can now be done on a smartphone. But they’re testable and make for perfect SAT questions, unlike the social media project. “If [students] don’t have any sense of what they’ve learned and how it connects to the real world, it’s just symbolic formalism,” he says. This kind of learning “accelerates the decay of our democracy. Too many people are trusting that this makes sense. It’s time to change the high school transcript and change the college admission process.”

Trusting educators as innovators

In his book, Dintersmith recounts a visit to the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Kansas, which features an outdoor memorial to fallen educators like those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012. Dintersmith implores, “If we trust teachers with the lives of our children, shouldn’t we trust them with a lesson plan?”

Dintersmith’s work now includes grant-making and liaising with local governments and educators to put policymaking and education design into the hands of educators. “If we don’t make these changes, if we don’t empower teacher and students, and if we keep drilling to get better results on these metrics, I don’t think democracy will survive 7 or 8 years,” he says. It sounds scary and alarmist, but Dintersmith is optimistic. “This is the fight we have to fight. If we started trusting teachers to bulldoze through a lot of this [stuff] that holds schools and learning back, kids would be off to the races.”

To learn more about Ted Dintersmith you can visit: teddintersmith.com

Photo by Eric Lusher.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also cofounder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation, and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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