Ted Dintersmith: What 21st century school ought to be

Text Ikaika Hussey
Art Scot Allen
Thread School of the Future

Ted Dintersmith is a venture capitalist and father of two who has made it his mission to support education-related initiatives that call for a radical remaking of what and how students learn. He is the co-author of the book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Age, and he funded and produced the related documentary Most Likely to Succeed. Instead of classrooms in which kids simply memorize facts and figures, Dintersmith advocates for an education system in which cross-disciplinary programming allows kids the freedom to develop core competencies through project-based learning that they can use in the real world to establish successful careers and become contributing, successful members of society.

Summit (S): How did you get involved with theorizing ways to improve our education system?

Ted Dintersmith (TD): I have a Ph.D. from Stanford in engineering. I worked for seven years for a high-tech startup and spent 25 years as a venture capitalist. I was pretty good at it. After I retired from that, I figured I would just spend the rest of my time with my two kids. At the time they were young, and because I was spending a lot of time with them, I was able to be an observer of their school process. And, over a period of time, I went from trusting to questioning to being concerned to being flat-out alarmed with their schooling.

Because of time spent in business of innovation, I have a pretty good sense of what young adults need to be like in order to make their way forward in the world nowadays. And I was seeing every indication that those essential traits were being discouraged instead of encouraged through the education system. That led to my own personal education about education.

We have a 125-year-old school system that is ruthlessly efficient at preparing kids for the exact jobs that are going away. If we don’t do something about that—if schools don’t change in a really profound way—I’m not sure civil society, as we know it, will hold together. When I first started saying that six years ago, people thought I was crazy. I don’t get any pushback on that statement these days.

S: What are the problems with our education system; the solutions?

TD: The problem is that our solutions have been 180 degrees out of sync with what we need to be doing: we’re trying to measure everything through standardized test scores. We declare victory when those scores go up, and we panic when they go down. So we, as a nation, went all-in on test scores, which led to “No Child Left Behind” and “Race To The Top.” We feed into what I call, “the model of central planning from the Soviet Union.” What I mean by that is, we get some highly academic committee to prescribe what content every kid needs to cover. It’s the wrong goal, the wrong way of going about getting to that goal, and it just hasn’t worked. So what do we do that’s different? What is “better?”

Better is a model where creative and diverse—as opposed to standardized and homogenous—is encouraged. We live in a world where machine intelligence is getting better and better at a whole set of things. First it was low-level cognitive skills, now it’s mid-level, and the rate of advancement is on an exponential curve. When machine intelligence can beat the best chess player in the world, we should be making adjustments. The clock is ticking. We have to equip our kids with reasonable prospects of doing well in a world where machine intelligence is unbelievably capable.

In schools right now, we say “put your smart phones away.” Why wouldn’t we want to figure out a way to incorporate those tools into education; to teach our kids to leverage that technology and to be that much more productive? If kids were to be able to use smart phones on SATs, the college board would have to come up with far more interesting tests that would be much harder to grade and that would make them less cost-effective, and so we just settle for testing low-level procedures that any smart phone can already do perfectly. Why are we settling for a system where every college admissions officer can look at an application in six minutes or less?

Standardized tests are good for making sure a kid isn’t falling behind. If you’re in eighth grade and you’re reading at a second grade level, that’s a problem. There’s a role for that kind of testing in the early grades. But we increase the role of standardized testing in the upper grades when the stakes are higher, instead of phasing it out and preparing kids for the complexities of the 21st century, globalized economy. We’ve turned high school into an endless round of test prep. Our kids use flash cards to prep for advanced placement testing; all they’re doing is practicing content memory-retrieval. That’s a low-level procedure, and any smart-phone can do that for you with a swipe and a tap.

S: The economy will change completely as automation becomes ubiquitous. Our current job market will be forever replaced by machines. Is there an opportunity there?

TD: Yes. And it’s not only an opportunity; I think it’s also an obligation. Six-and-a-half million people in our country make their living driving vehicles. Regulations and insurance issues and taxi unions may try to slow it down in certain places but it is inevitable that, within 10 years, those six-and-a-half million jobs are going to become zero-point-zero million jobs. It’s a fact. What can we do to retrain people in the workforce?

There’s an enormous opportunity here, particularly for community colleges, to rethink our approach to education. Community colleges have more flexible faculty that are generally more plugged in to the world outside of academia and can, therefore, pivot effectively from being a two-year, distribution requirement-laden wannabe of a four-year college to real-world, skills-training hubs. Nobody that’s 45 years old with a family to support can take two years off to get an associates degree. But what can somebody learn in three months through immersion, through connecting the learning to real projects?

I don’t care if it’s coding or social media optimization or cyber security: there’s a broad spectrum of ways that somebody motivated—and with families to support, these folks are going to be motivated—can reinvent their career. The difference between two years of learning that doesn’t yield much by way of skills, and a three-month, immersive training program by which, with very little money spent, one can exit with a tangible, demonstrable skill that can change one’s entire life—that’s an enormous opportunity.

I was an investor in a school in New York called Flatiron School; it offers a three-month immersion in coding. Tuition was initially $5K; after acquisition, it’s now $15K. The reason? Its placement rate is 98 percent. Almost every single one of its graduates get great jobs with an average salary of $74,000 a year in New York. In one year, its graduates can pay off that tuition, as well as their credit card debt and they may even be able to start saving money for a home.

I’m an investor in another school called Mission University. Its first-year acceptance rate was 4 percent for a 12-month immersion in data analytics. The students there work within the industry through internships and, 12 months later, these kids are going to get great jobs. Tuition at Mission U is zero dollars. Instead, for their first three years in the workforce, provided they’re making $50K or more, the school asks that graduates pay back 15 percent of their salary, whatever that is. It’s a win-win.

Colleges, by and large, are far too expensive with far too small a delivery on earning and we, as a society, genuflect at the alter of a hollow credential. It’s not true for every college, but before you weigh in on college, read the book Academically Adrift. It’s a six-year longitudinal study on 24 colleges, 7,000 students, on measures of critical thinking—and it shows no real progress. The conclusion of the study is that students are learning very little in the classroom in colleges and spending far too much.

Consider the field of journalism: the weight on Grade Point Average (GPA) versus writing samples is much heavier on the latter. Do you have a blog? Do you have followers? Can you show that you can really dig into a story and get people interested in it? These are the questions an editor has for applicants. Would you rather have someone with a perfect GPA but no portfolio, or would you rather have somebody who maybe never even went to college but who has great clips—it’s authentic assessment. And good for the folks that do it that way. People should look at real work.

This is the math: at a typical four-year college, about half of the students will graduate in a reasonable time frame. Of that half, another half will get the kind of job they went to college to get in the first place. The rest either don’t get a job or get a menial job. So the chances of going to a four-year college and that experience becoming that door-opener that everyone thinks it is 100 percent of the time is, in actuality, only about a 25 percent chance.

S: What about at the primary and secondary education levels?

TD: Suppose we did K–12 in a way that kids came out of it with distinct proficiencies? I think kids that aren’t good at math or other traditional academic fields, but are great at art, should all have access to a course that gives them real-world experience designing websites. I bet three quarters of the organizations around these islands could use a better website. So here’s a kid who graduates with bad grades or doesn’t graduate at all, without any opportunity to connect his or her skill for art with real-world opportunities. That kid’s in desperate trouble. But give them a chance to leverage it and to understand how to make money off of it? That’s a kid who will be making two or three times or more than minimum wage.

To say that a kid who is interested in art is a dead-end kid is a perfect example of the system failing because, if they were trained right, that kid would actually have all these opportunities. Instead, we make them take and pass algebra. And if they don’t pass algebra, then they won’t get a high school degree. About 20 percent of adults use algebra in their careers, yet that is a barrier to getting a high school diploma. How do you justify that?

If you want to set a bar that is inline with real-world requirements, like financial literacy, I would not take issue with that; or basic communication skills, citizenship skills, critical analysis skills, being able to tell truth from fiction in the news. If we said those are the important requirements, I’d say “go for it.” Those are thoughtful, interesting, justifiable requirements. But making them pass a biology course that is largely definitions, when maybe 3 percent of adults use that in their careers? Why?

When you set a requirement, it has to have some alignment with the real world. And if you don’t and those kids aren’t getting a high school degree, then you share in the responsibility for those kids having dismal life prospects. In the United States today, except for a few highly entrepreneurial exceptions, if you don’t have a high school degree—game over. Allowing that to happen, in this day and age, because a child can’t pass a subject they’re never going to use anyway is, frankly, criminal. And some of those kids will end up in jail themselves because of a lack of a diploma; or desperately addicted to something. Life goes to pieces when you can’t find a way to support yourself.

I used to believe, naively, that the purpose of school is to develop human potential. I think most people would say, “Of course that’s the goal of school: it’s to help kids find their strengths, their talents; to help them grow; to help them understand how they can make a positive difference in their world and do it in a way that makes them feel fulfilled and that their life is meaningful; let them support themselves—of course that’s the purpose of school.” I don’t believe that anymore.

I think the goal of school today in America is to rank kids in a very artificial and inauthentic measure of aptitude that is really no better than crossword puzzles and Sudoku. The process of getting good at those aptitude measures leads to no useful skill in life whatsoever. Who’s going to hire a kid because she can do SAT math problems? Or because they know what “obstreperous” means. If I used the heart and soul of SAT vocabulary in my talks, people would leave the room. So why do we tell kids they need to get better at something if we can’t say how they will ever use it later?

Back to kids that are artistic having the opportunity to learn to design websites: I can say exactly why that would be useful and how it can lead to an incredibly rewarding, high-paying, useful and fulfilling job. I feel like we owe that, as a society, to our kids—particularly the kids growing up in poverty. We’re not doing that. We’re telling too many of these kids that they’re dumb because they can’t pass these tests; we’re shutting too many kids out from high school degrees because of poorly thought-out, obsolete requirements and we’re telling them all that if they don’t go to a four-year college, then they’re not successful or worthwhile. And then they borrow $60–70K to get that degree and they aren’t getting good jobs, or they borrow $30K and then they drop out. Those are the stakes. If we did this right, kids would have lots of great paths forward; instead, we keep doing it wrong and we are giving these kids truly dismal prospects.

S: Is there an emphasis on STEM versus liberal arts?

TD: Both are important. I’m actually a big believer in the liberal arts. A kid that is really good at communication, or a kid that is really good at critical analysis—which something like a philosophy course or English literature would be great for honing—could have just as much opportunity as a STEM-proficient kid.

When I was in venture capital, I avoided interviewing anyone who was a business school major, which a lot of people think makes no sense. But I felt like any kid who, at age 20, avoided any high-risk major and played it safe in business school was not going to be a kid who changed the world. I wanted the kid who said, “I don’t really care what the world thinks of my decision to major in philosophy. I find it really intellectually challenging, I’m getting really good at logical analysis, I have to write really clearly, I have to deal with complex arguments.” The problem with these kids is not what they major in, it’s not what they’re excited about; it’s their ability to connect the dots between that and making a case to an employer as to why they have relevant skills.

Think about journalism again. If somebody tells you they majored in philosophy, and this gives them a leg up in being a really inquisitive and creative journalist who can see through weak arguments and failed defenses; can dig beyond things; can really penetrate the most complex of situations—if they are good at explaining that, you’re going to say, “I want to hire this kid.”

S: Let’s talk about your new book.

TD: I spent the past year writing a book called What School Could Be. Princeton University Press is the publisher. It has an April 2018 release date. I traveled during the 2015–16 school year to all 50 states and had this total immersion: more than 200 school visits; I met a bunch of governors, I met about half the commissioners of education; I met students and parents and teachers. A lot of what I saw was same old, same old, but everywhere I went I could find something incredible. The subtitle is “Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America” and, truly, they just blew me away. All of the models I discuss are different, there’s no standardization; they teach kids from kindergarten all the way through graduate school. And it culminates with Hawai‘i.

The bright spots in Hawai‘i are incredibly bright. The best here is incredibly amazing. I write about Mid-Pacific—a private school that, if you did the list of traditional, high-quality, 19th-century private schools in the country, Mid-Pacific blows them away. But it’s the public schools too. Waipahu—blows them away. Charter schools; I visited SEEQS (School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability)—blows them away. It’s not really the school type that matters; it’s the leadership, the vision, the commitment to doing things that help your kids and to teaching what’s really going to serve them later on in life.

You have all these great existence-proofs in a culture that’s deeply collaborative; in a culture that seems very inclined to value a diverse set of skills and competencies instead of a narrow set; and in a state that is just resplendent in inspiring things like place-based education, ancestry-based education, all these different remarkable things.

One thing that deeply troubles me is when people say, “Our public schools can’t innovate.” We’ve tied them up in knots with “No Child Left Behind” for 20 years. Give them a chance to innovate. You see what they’re doing with the Digital Seariders program at Wai‘anae High School? I hope you hire some of those kids, because they are learning some of the most essential skills in communication. They’re getting good at editing, at copy-writing—and they love it. They’re engaged. We need to have that in more high schools here. And we can make every public school great like that. We just need to give them a boost. Which is why I made the film Most Likely To Succeed in the first place.

Since then I’ve kind of been back and forth between North Dakota and Hawai‘i because I’ve found that those are two states that are doing really amazing things. And if two states that are quite different can sprint ahead, that can be a wake up call for the rest of the country.

It all goes back to an innovation change model: you trust and empower those in the classroom—the teachers and the students—to invent and create their own paths to success, their own paths to meaningful learning. And you don’t obsess about having every kid memorize and subsequently forget the same material. We have to let go and trust that kids will learn in the best way that they can. And things won’t always go smoothly, but there’s learning in that as well. The important thing to ask when things go wrong is, “What can you do differently? Stick with it and make it better. Life rewards the people who stick with it and make their work great.”

I often ask rooms full of educators in the audience during my talks, “How many of you give your kids challenges where you ask them to come up with questions instead of give you answers? How many of you will include that as part of the assessment?” It’s generally less than 5 percent. I don’t care if it’s math or science or a history class or an English class. Give kids a scientific concept or a math procedure, an historical passage or a work of literature and tell them to come up with as many great questions as they can and then we’ll look at each other’s great questions.

Who do you want to hire? Do you want to hire people who give you answers, or do you want to hire people who ask great questions? Employers know they want the people who ask great questions. So why isn’t that part of education? Over and over again we teach our kids what’s easy to test instead of what is important to learn. And that’s not going to cut it any more.


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