If you have paid attention to education reform at all in recent years, you know what Bill Gates, Eli Broad, various Waltons and other very wealthy philanthropists have done with their education grants: support charter schools, and/or Teach For America, and/or standardized test-based teacher evaluations, and/or school voucher programs, and/or other elements of corporate school reform. But now meet Ted Dintersmith, a different kind of education philanthropist with a different school reform agenda.
Dintersmith is a highly successful venture capitalist and father of two who is devoting most of his time, energy and millions of his personal fortune to education-related initiatives that call for a radical remaking of what and how students learn. Instead of classrooms in which kids passively take in facts and figures, he said the U.S. education system should be re-imagined into cross-disciplinary programs that allow kids the freedom to develop core competencies through cross-disciplinary, project-based learning.
He discussed his vision in a book he co-authored, titled, “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 a California school, High Tech High in San Diego, where the project-based educational future he wants to see is already here. You could call it the antithesis of “Waiting for Superman,” the Davis Guggenheim-directed documentary which presented an often misleading account of public education and how to improve it. In fact, Dintersmith said, “Waiting for Superman” inspired him to do something very different.
The documentary has already been met with enthusiasm at numerous film festivals and audiences around the country (you can see a schedule of screenings here), and some educators, including Pam Moran, the superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, are paying attention. At Albemarle High School, for example, Moran has started an interdisciplinary project-based program based on what she saw in the the film. Last month, at the private Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Va., faculty and administrators from private as well as public schools came to a screening of the film and a discussion about education reform.
Dintersmith, who was also executive producer of “The Hunting Ground” film about sexual assault on college campuses, is partner emeritus with Charles River Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm. He earned a PhD in engineering from Stanford University, and in 2012, was appointed by President Obama as an alternate representative of the United States to the Sixty-seventh Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where Dintersmith focused on global education and entrepreneurship.
He is now on a 50-state tour with “Most Likely to Succeed” to encourage communities to rethink how children are educated, and is funding a set of resources to provide to any school that wants to adopt the approach shown in the film. He said his aim is to develop grass-roots support — he has turned down traditional distribution deals — because that’s how he believes it can bring about real change, and, he said, he is getting more than 100 requests a week from schools that want to show the film.
Here’s a Q&A with Dintersmith about the film:
I saw your film, and it is a complete departure from, say, “Waiting for Superman,” the documentary that demonized teachers unions and glorified charter schools. Why did you want to make a different film? What do you want audiences to come away with?
Actually, “Waiting for Superman” (WFS) motivated me to make a new, and very different, film on education. I visit lots of schools, with dedicated and committed teachers. So I was troubled by the way “WFS” vilified our teachers. Also, while I’ve seen some great charter schools, I’ve seen lots of mediocre or even harmful charter schools. So the “WFS” message that all will be well in American education if more kids win these lotteries, and “escape” our mainstream public schools, reflects a lack of “doing your homework” on the part of the people who made the film. Sorry, Davis.
When I set out on this initiative I started by searching for the right documentarian to direct the film. Lots of directors can do a film that’s negative, mocking, or boring. But I found a film team, led by Greg Whiteley, that I believed could produce a compelling story that inspires and educates audiences. And that’s what they did. After 2½ years in production, the film premiered at Sundance in January, and has gotten amazing reception at film festivals, education conferences, and community screenings (www.mltsfilm.org). The film conveys the urgency of making progress in our schools, and conveys an uplifting view of what’s possible in schools that engage and inspire our students and teachers. Audiences love it, and tell us it’s the best film ever made on the subject of education.
When it comes to audiences, I want school communities to see the film as a group. I turned down offers from the usual online suspects who wanted to buy the film and dump it in their online library. My goal with this film isn’t to make money, but to to help all schools move forward. The real power of this film comes when a school community watches it, and engages in thoughtful and energized discussion about what their school’s future should be. The film raises important questions, but respects each school’s desire and ability to forge a creative path forward. I’m hoping to find change agents in schools, districts, and states across the country, and provide them with a powerful resource to help them have a positive impact on the futures of our children. And I’d love for people to go to our Web site www.thefutureofschool.us, and join us in helping all schools move forward.
What does the film show/tell us specifically about teaching and learning?
The film follows a ninth-grade class in San Diego, and right away you notice some unusual things about their school experience. The teachers don’t stand in front of students lecturing. In fact, one teacher makes the point on the first day of class that by the end of the semester, his goal is to be strictly an observer, with class discussion entirely driven by students. The teachers act as coaches, helping guide students who take on ambitious projects and learn (and retain) the relevant content and skills needed. The teachers make it clear that the students are the ones making the important decisions, and note “How can you expect students to learn how to make decisions if they never get an opportunity to make decisions?” Failure isn’t a stigma to be avoided at all costs, but part of the process of completing an ambitious mission. The key, for these students and teachers, is that they are motivated by an authentic sense of purpose around their work in school, and by an assessment process that relies heavily on peer feedback and a public exhibition of work. These students are developing skills that matter, not checking off a list of content to be covered superficially.
The film is careful to say that the experience that works at this particular school isn’t something other schools should replicate. In fact, the film tracks two different ninth-grade interdisciplinary classes (Physics and History) at the same school, and the classes are completely different. But you see teachers given the trust and autonomy to create challenges and experiences that engage and inspire their students, and leverage the teacher’s expertise and passion. It’s the antithesis of standardization. While some of what’s being filmed is unlikely to find its way to other schools, many of the principles can be integrated into any classroom almost immediately — students driving the discussion, teachers acting as coaches instead of content experts, authentic and complex assignments helping develop essential skills, and a public display of student achievement.
The film focuses on a charter school, and many business people believe charter schools are our best and only education hope. What do you think about this?
Ah, this is an important and complex question. When I talk to business people about education, their logic generally goes like this. “The free market is what made our economy and country great. Many public schools are failing. Public schools are unionized monopolies. From my business expertise, I know that unionized monopolies are cesspools of failure. Therefore, the key to fixing education is to unleash the principles of the free market. We need policies that support the creation of new charter schools (that can fire low-performing teachers). We need to give families a choice in where their kids go to school, breaking up monopolies. And we need to hold our students and teachers accountable for performance, and we’ll use our refined standardized tests to measure progress. The competitive dynamics of the free market will push schools to improve their results, and those that perform poorly will lose their “customers” and fail. Voila — instant education reform.”
The logic sounds compelling, and many of its proponents have billion-dollar checkbooks to push their agenda. They’ve had outsized influence on our education policy. And, almost without exception, their money and policies haven’t done squat to improve our schools.
The problem is that almost all of these core business assumptions don’t apply to our schools. Most teachers are motivated by a passion to transform the lives of our kids, not by money. Parents may be pretty good at identifying a really bad school situation for their child, but are largely uninformed about what constitutes a great learning environment. The more a school tried to boost its test scores, the less the students are learning. And the overall performance of our charter schools has been mixed at best, with lots that are mediocre or downright awful. Business people need to understand that not all phenomena in life conform to the free-market model.
Deeply innovative charter schools have an important contribution to make to U.S. education. Many are doing amazing things, and the film immerses itself in one inspiring example. The issue for U.S. education policy, though, is to figure out how to introduce innovation into our mainstream public schools. The futures of millions of our kids are at risk, and a few hundred new schools — even if they were all superb — are only drops in a very large bucket.
You say that a lot of what is in your film is unlikely to find its way to other schools. Why not?
The over-arching message of the film is that students and teachers should be given the latitude and trust to define their own approach to learning. So I hope other schools don’t just copy what they see in the film, but are inspired to come up with bold and innovative learning experiences that leverage the talents and passions of the students and teachers involved. That said, there are a few key principles you see in the film that are applicable to all schools and classrooms. Students have a large role in defining and managing their learning. Classrooms center around peer-interaction, not on a lecture model with the teacher doing most/all of the talking. Students are encouraged to make decisions, try bold approaches, experience failure, and given a chance to rebound. Students are assessed on the basis of a public display of achievement. Students provide feedback and constructive criticism of each other, and play a big role in the assessment process. These are the things I hope find their way into other schools.