Democracy Dies in Darkness

Answer Sheet | Perspective

Venture capitalist visits 200 schools in 50 states and says DeVos is wrong: ‘If choice and competition improve schools, I found no sign of it.’

March 15, 2018 at 2:05 PM

Venture capitalist and education advocate Ted Dintersmith. (Eric Lusher/)

Ted Dintersmith is a successful venture capitalist and father of two who has spent years devoting most of his time, energy and millions of dollars of his personal fortune to learning about — and advocating for — public education and how it can be made better for all children.

Dintersmith has taken a dramatically different path from other wealthy Americans who have become involved in education issues, departing from the approach of people such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who was a prime mover behind the Common Core State Standards and initiatives to assess teachers by student standardized test scores.

Dintersmith traveled to every state to visit schools and see what works and what doesn’t — and his prescription for the future of American education has very little to do with what Gates and others with that same data-driven mind-set have advocated.

Related: [Not Bill Gates: Meet Ted Dintersmith, an education philanthropist with a different agenda]

He thinks the U.S. education system needs to be reimagined into cross-disciplinary programs that allow kids the freedom to develop core competencies through project-based learning.

He discussed his vision in a book he co-authored, “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Age,” and he funded and produced a compelling documentary called “Most Likely to Succeed,” which goes into High Tech High school in San Diego, where the project-based educational future he wants is already there.

He has a new book being published in April, “What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration From Teachers Across America,” about what he learned during his travels and school visits.

In this post, he writes about what he saw and offers advice to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who recently said on “60 Minutes” that she had never “intentionally” visited an underperforming school.

By Ted Dintersmith

In her recent “60 Minutes” interview, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated that perhaps she should visit more schools. Yes.  She needs to get out of her bubble and visit schools across America.  I did, and there’s much to be learned.

Related: [Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stumbles during pointed ‘60 Minutes’ interview]

For context, I spent the entire 2015-2016 school year immersed in education across America.  In a trip that rivaled de Toqueville’s, I traveled to all 50 states, visited 200 schools of all types and talked to thousands of people about school.

Questioning my sanity, friends asked, “Why take such a grueling trip?”  But as a career venture capitalist, I know that ever-advancing technology is gutting the economy of jobs and reshaping what’s needed for career and citizenship.  These disruptions have profound implications for the future of our children and our democracy.  I wanted to see how schools might take on this challenge.

First, America’s teachers are dedicated, passionate and committed — across all types of schools.  They care.  Many are distressed, even in tears. Like troops fighting an unwinnable war, our teachers know they’re being held accountable to tests that don’t reflect real learning, nor lead to important competencies. We are demoralizing our teaching force, driving our best to early retirement and dissuading young adults from the profession that will shape our nation’s future.

Second, I was blown away by the many inspiring examples of great innovation I encountered — in classrooms, schools, districts and states.  In these classrooms, teachers help kids develop essential skill sets and mindsets. Instead of checking off endless content boxes (AP U.S. History, for example, covers five centuries, allowing a whopping 30 minutes for the U.S. Constitution), students master what they learn, apply it and teach others.  Much of the learning is hands-on, tied to real-world projects.  Students have voice in creating initiatives and in defining their path forward. Teachers are trusted, and students approach schoolwork with a sense of purpose.

Third, I didn’t find charter schools to be, on balance, more innovative than public schools. Some of the most remarkable innovations I observed were in the very public schools that choice advocates dismiss — in places such as Charlotte, Newark, Coachella and Waipahu.  And while some charter schools are deeply innovative, many grind away on test scores, with innovation limited to cute test-prep jingles. Free of regulation, you might think private schools would lead the way in innovation, but most are focused on the college application process, a serious impediment to innovation.

Fourth, we fail to appreciate the heavy price our students and our teachers pay when we insist, “We have to be able to measure it.”

In the early grades, I admired places that made thoughtful, diagnostic use of standardized tests to ensure young kids develop core learning skills.

But in U.S. education, the higher the grade, the higher the testing stakes, with myriad adverse consequences. These bulk tests — SAT’s, ACT’s, AP exams, and especially state-mandated tests — are packed with questions tied to content retention, low-level procedures and formulaic thinking. In contrast, the better-designed OECD PISA tests comprise thought-provoking questions.  So while U.S. kids lead the world in test prep, our testing regimen values the exact skills automation excels at, rather than teaching kids to think.

Fifth, I met thousands of children during my trip.  Not one showed any enthusiasm for test prep.  But I met many parents, especially the affluent, who relentlessly push test prep on their child, drawing on tutors, pricey devices and manipulative bribes.  This difference helps explain why in-poverty kids lag affluent cohorts in test-score “achievement.”  To a large extent, test-score performance reflects the motivation and resources of the parent, not the child.

Sixth, I was encouraged to visit districts, and even states, that are transforming their schools — all of their schools.  Their leaders bring a compelling message about the urgency of change and lay out aspirational possibilities.  They prioritize essential competencies, not state-mandated tests and obsolete curriculum.  They trust teachers to lead the way, both in managing classrooms and designing next-generation assessments. They energize their community, enlisting support in the aspirational goal of helping schools rise to 21st-century challenges. These leaders inspire confidence and exude competence.

Seventh, DeVos might be surprised at my conclusions about “the very powerful forces allied against change” she alludes to.

In U.S. education, nonexperts tell experts what to do.  Priorities are set by legislators, billionaires, textbook and testing executives, college admissions officers and education bureaucrats.  These forces, perhaps unintentionally, impede real change in our schools.  They push kids to study what’s easy to measure, not what’s important to learn. No worries that a steady diet of memorizing content and drilling on low-level procedures produces young adults who are sitting ducks in the innovation economy.  Put all the chips on college-ready, discounting the importance of hands-on learning and discouraging those with non-academic proficiencies.  Channel kids down the same standardized path, impairing their ability to leave school able to create and develop their own path forward — arguably the most important competence young adults need in a world where careers come and go.

Finally, business principles aren’t the key to improving U.S. education.  If choice and competition improve schools, I found no sign of it. Pitting schools against each other in a test-score “Hunger Games” drags everyone down. I saw no sign of union status affecting a teacher’s dedication or effectiveness.

There is, though, one business principle that applies to education.  If you want insight, spend time with those in the trenches.  Our teachers know how to engage our children, to inspire them to race ahead, to prepare them for adult life.

With the futures of millions of children at stake, we need to listen to our innovative teachers and trust them to be the powerful forces for informed, aspirational change in our schools.

Read more:

Related: [A venture capitalist searches for the purpose of school. Here is what he found.]


Valerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.

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