The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beyond the scandal: The damage done by our obsession with prestigious college credentials

(Princeton University Press/Ted Dintersmith)

Several years ago, I wrote about a successful venture capitalist and father of two in a post under this headline: “Not Bill Gates: Meet Ted Dintersmith, an education philanthropist with a different agenda."

He did not embrace the school “reform” approach of people such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who was a prime mover behind the Common Core State Standards, competition and initiatives to assess teachers by student standardized test scores.

Dintersmith spent two years traveling to every state in the country and visited schools to see what works and what doesn’t. What he found and wrote about it in his book “What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration From Teachers Across America” has very little to do with what Gates and others with that same data-driven mind-set have advocated.

Dintersmith says schools need to, among other things, overhaul curriculum and create cross-disciplinary programs that allow children the freedom to develop core competencies through project-based learning.

In this post, Dintersmith looks at the recent college admissions bribery scandal and what it says about how America educates children. Following the post is an excerpt from his book.

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

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.’

By Ted Dintersmith

The recently revealed college admissions bribery scandal has been described as the “tip of the iceberg” — but, to be fair, that does a disservice to the inherent beauty of icebergs. But as the details behind the charges of some 50 people in Operation Varsity Blues surface, we need to go deeper and understand the full extent of the damage done by our obsession with prestigious college credentials.

For certain, this scandal’s detritus is gripping. Wealthy, desperate parents charged with trampling laws in a tragic effort to advantage their child. Coaches at elite colleges charged with taking bribes. A deeply flawed standardized testing system heaping further advantage to the affluent. Celebrities. Bizarre, brazen tactics. The myriad legal ways the rich are gaming the system. Voilá! Scintillating front-page news.

But let’s look below the surface, starting with basic math. Across highly selective colleges, a few thousand admissions spots go undeservedly to the rich each year. Yes, that’s appalling. But for context, some 4 million teenagers leave our K-12 schools annually.

While the “purchased” admissions spots shake our confidence in what has become America’s modern-day caste system, these spots affect just a tiny percentage of kids. The real damage? We’ve let our college-acceptance feeding frenzy define the lives of our K-12 children: what they study, what skills they develop and how they view their worth. This threatens to impair their futures.

Lest we think college obsession is normal, it’s not a defining force in many parts of the world. In countries with outstanding education systems (Finland, for example), college is just one option a teenager considers that is on equal footing with paths leading directly to the workforce, military, community service or adventurous exploration.

But in the United States, college isn’t just expensive instruction for the academically inclined. College is a person’s brand, signaling their worth. A child’s college outcome is the mark of parenting success. College credentials shape children’s lives and stratify adult society. It’s an addiction America needs to address.

In my travels all across the United States, I’ve seen how K-12 schools revolve around the college outcomes they “produce.” It’s how private schools justify their (often exorbitant) tuition. It’s how charter schools tout success. It defines the competitive landscape for public schools. College pennants and posters fill K-12 hallways, telling kids that their value is their college outcome. High schools celebrate acceptances — the more selective the college, the louder the celebration.

Yet you’ll find precious few high schools that celebrate a kid who creates a fulfilling path forward that doesn’t involve college. All of this is despite scant evidence that most college students don’t learn all that much and ample evidence that college costs are past the breaking point for most families.

Having fully embraced the “college for all” mentality, our K-12 kids march to the drum of college admissions. Children spend endless hours on SAT and ACT test prep, an utter waste of time apart from rearranging placement in the admissions queue. They race through content-sprawling Advanced Placement courses, prep for exams with hours of flashcard drills and lose all sense of creative, joyful learning. They’re pushed into the extracurricular activities that appeal to admissions officers, not to them.

Heaven forbid if a kid takes on a real job that lacks the applications “glitter” of, say, raising money for a needy cause. For America’s children, the priorities of anonymous college admissions officers win out over giving children time to explore, play, create and develop at a sensible pace.

College obsession defines our K-12 curriculum. No time for anything applied or practical; shop class long ago went by the boards. It’s 24/7 college-ready curriculum, laid down by PhDs who think every child needs to love Chaucer and cherish valence electrons.

We pack school days with iambic pentameter, the quadratic equation, Newton’s laws, state capitals, gerunds, Avogadro’s number, and on and on. Kids memorizing and forgetting academic content they’ll never use as adults. Achievement based on the ability to memorize material, replicate low-level procedures and follow instructions — the narrow skills done perfectly by the machine intelligence that defines our world.

Apart from the occasional career technical education school or career academy, K-12 kids have no time to develop proficiencies of interest to them and prospective employers. They leave high school with just two options — more years of costly formal instruction or a lousy minimum-wage job. College or a fast-food restaurant.

How is this college-ready obsession working out? Well, using rough numbers, about 20 percent of our kids never finish high school, putting them at a lifetime disadvantage. Another 20 percent end their education with a high school diploma but lack skills to secure a decent-paying job. Another 20 percent start down the path of college but drop out, almost always with debt and grim job prospects. Another 20 percent graduate college but end up in a low-paying job; they too struggle to keep up with living expenses and loan payments.

The winners? About 20 percent graduate college and get a job associated with a college degree — but many are burdened with student loan debt, unfulfilling careers, or mental health challenges resulting from years of striving for hollow, academic perfection.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Over the past decade, I’ve immersed myself in education across the United States. My recent book, “What School Could Be,” profiles remarkable, innovative educators bringing powerful learning experiences to their students. In these schools, kids learn joyfully as they get good at identifying problems and opportunities, creating bold initiatives and persevering to make a positive, tangible contribution.

Kids act with agency and learn how to learn. They develop essential competencies that open up life paths and career opportunities. Kids bring a real sense of purpose to their learning, rather than chasing the stuff of the Common Application. America is blessed with educators showing us each school day how to equip our children with skills and character traits that empower young adults to lead fulfilling lives — irrespective of college outcome.

“What School Could Be” describes a different college-admissions universe. It highlights nascent initiatives seeking to align high school transcripts and college admissions with what matters in life, not empty numbers. Students who are valued for creative and distinctive work, not for jumping through standardized hoops. Assessment frameworks that prioritize competency and performance on authentic challenges, not seat time and bubble-test scores. They all underscore that the transformation we need in college admission is what gets valued, more than who gets in.

As the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste. This scandal might simply entertain us for a while as deranged people are tried and deservedly convicted.

But maybe the crisis plays a bigger role in the future of our schools and children. I love the saying, “Change happens slowly right up until it happens quickly.” Maybe this scandal delivers a gigantic wake-up call, shouting “We’ve completely lost our way in how we raise and educate our children.”

To use some SAT words, maybe this turpitude vivifies the pernicious impact of a specious college admissions process. Maybe it illuminates the pervasive, insidious impact of college ready. Maybe it accosts us with our apotheosis of vacuous college credentials.

But in understandable terms, perhaps this ugly scandal motivates us to take on the aspirational goal of preparing our children for fulfilling lives, not for hollow college applications. Maybe, just maybe, it gives us the courage and vision to reimagine what school could be.

Here is an excerpt from “What School Could Be” by Ted Dintersmith.”

(Excerpted from WHAT SCHOOL COULD BE: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America by Ted Dintersmith. Copyright © 2018 by Ted Dintersmith. Published by Princeton University Press. [Reprinted by permission.])