By Ted Dintersmith
Once in a blue moon, our nation focuses a modest amount of attention on our schools, and their purpose. Last year, William Deresiewicz’ excellently titled book “Excellent Sheep” triggered a flurry of discussion, as he argued that education should help students in “building a soul” after “teaching kids to think.” The Obama administration’s recent College Scorecard included information on the financial success of graduates, sparking a discussion among folks who don’t think college is about getting a big paycheck.
With a presidential election looming, we might have expected a bit of national discussion on the topic of education. But, in the first few debates, our array of potential next presidents hardly no time on the topic of our schools, well behind Syria, the Keystone pipeline, or the candidates’ biggest weaknesses.
The purpose of school did manage to creep onto the national radar screen when The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the Sundance-selection “Most Likely To Succeed” film, positing that the ultimate goal of school is to erect “cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom . . . based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy.” And once again, we saw passionate views ranging from the incoherent to the eloquent about what our schools should be doing for our kids.
A decade ago, I hadn’t given any of this much thought. I finished my formal education in 1981, which included degrees from a public high school and a state college. My family was poor, but education back then was cheap. I finished school debt-free with solid credentials, and set out on a successful career in innovation — six years with a semiconductor start-up and two decades in venture capital. During those years, if someone had asked me about education’s purpose, my response would have been superficial. The system worked for me, and I assumed it was on solid footing.
As my career progressed, I became increasingly concerned with issues beyond my portfolio of start-ups. Immersed in innovation, I worked with driven entrepreneurs who aspired to do amazing things, and often did. But their breakthroughs were systematically eliminating jobs, and reshaping the skills needed to plug into society. I realized that our country’s big challenges — the shrinking middle class, stagnant median wages, and rampant malemployment for our graduates — are the by-product of this economic disruption.
Something else nagged at me over my career. As a senior partner with a top-tier venture firm, I was approached frequently by people seeking career advice or position. Unable to field all requests, I gravitated toward those with exceptional academic backgrounds, which seemed like the right priority. They had stellar resumes, early career success (often in consulting, investment banking, or corporate America), and were driven to succeed. Yet such patently qualified people often proved hopeless in the world of innovation, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. Fortunately for my investing track record, I hired very few of them.
Those concerns weren’t life-changing for me, just perplexing. After retiring at an early age, I planned to travel, get good at golf, and be an involved parent with my young children. Two seemingly inconsequential experiences, though, changed my plans.
Early Wake-Up Call: When my son was in third grade, his science class was studying simple machines. With twenty bucks and a quick trip to Home Depot, we got everything needed to set up shop in the basement, and started playing around with boards, screws, and pulleys. One evening, we set out to design something that would let him lift a cinder block with his little finger. We came up with an approach that, I remarked in passing, he could use to lift his 250 lb. basketball coach. We laughed.
The next week, he came home from school discouraged: “I guess I’m not good at science.” He showed me his simple-machine test, which had blobs of red ink over the question “What simple machine would you use to lift a grown man?” His response was “a six-pulley system,” and included a sketch with pulleys, rope, and stick figures of a man and a child. While the design looked sound, there was a big red X across his answer with the terse note: “ -17. LEVER ! ! ”
After putting my Tiger Dad response behind me, I approached the teacher with a constructive suggestion: “Instead of asking which simple machine to use, why not ask students to come up with as many designs as possible?” The answer floored me. “Throughout school, these kids will need to take standardized tests. We need to prepare them properly. Open-ended questions can confuse them.”
Decisive Wake-Up Call: When my kids were in middle school, parents received a brief e-mail inviting us to a brown-bag lunch about a “new initiative to teach your kids life skills.” In anticipation, I began jotting down ideas I thought they might cover: essential skills (e.g., inventive problem solving, teamwork, communication, figuring out complicated things), character traits (determined, resourceful, resilient, bold), and important capabilities (learning how to learn, making good decisions, setting and accomplishing ambitious goals, learning how to make your world better). With list in hand, I came to the session prepared.
Well, it didn’t go as I expected. The transformational initiative? A mandatory monthly session with gym teachers showing young teens gruesome images to scare them away from the vice of the month. For example, to dissuade kids from smoking cigarettes, show them an assortment of tar-ridden lungs and cancer-ravaged mouths. I doubt if this initiative had permanent impact on the students, but it did on me.
As I drove home, I found myself locked in. What is the purpose of school? How does school prepare kids for life? When the question refused to go away, I developed a plan. Historically, I focused on how my kids were doing in school, and how hard they were working. Now, I would start tracking what my kids were doing, and what skills they were developing. I ditched my golf clubs (a relief), and started reading books, watching documentaries, interviewing experts, and meeting teachers and students across all demographics and geographies. In an attempt to be systematic, I decided to categorize what I observed in schools. One column for things that helped prepare kids for life. And one column for things that were irrelevant. I expected both columns to fill up quickly.
Irrelevant: The “Irrelevant” column filled within days, spilling onto additional pages. You will immediately associate these entries with school — factoring polynomials, memorizing the definition of mitosis, past participles, conjugating French verbs, facts about the Mesopotamians. And on and on. Things important in school, but never used in life. To prepare for exams, students had to cram bucketfuls of this easily-tested material into short-term memory. The “better” the school or the faster the track, the more to be memorized. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t connect any of this with something important in life.
Preparing Kids for Life: For sure, students have many experiences during their school years that prepare them for life. Grades K-6 help kids learn to read, write, and perform core math operations — all of vital import. But in higher grades, only an occasional school assignment — such as writing an essay — helps build an important life skill. For the most part, life preparation occurs through experiences outside the classroom. Kids learn social skills by being around other kids. They develop passions and competencies through an after-school club or program. They learn the value of teamwork and dedication through athletics. Or they get encouragement from an adult who believes in them, and elevates their aspirations. But in the context of curriculum, the “Preparing Kids for Life” column was close to empty.
So mountains of irrelevance and molehills of consequence. But that wasn’t the worst of it. I had to add a third column.
Impairing Life Prospects: To my surprise, I observed a lot in school that I knew would hurt their prospects in a world of innovation. A form of anti-preparation, if you will. From my 30-year career, I was clear about what young adults will need in the 21st Century. Yet, I kept seeing variants of that darn 3rd grade simple-machines lesson. Creative expansive thinking turning into narrow, prescriptive “right answers,”. Inquisitiveness shriveling up into “Will this be on the test?” A joy for learning worn down into time-efficient hoop-jumping. A willingness to take intellectual risks morphing into formulaic responses without risk of embarrassment. Making your world better becoming a dreary requirement to pick up trash.
And then it hit me, full force. The most innovative country on the planet is blowing it. As we move full swing into an era of innovation, the United States should be educating to our creative strengths, but instead we’re eroding the very characteristics that will enable our kids to thrive. We’re setting kids up for a life without passion, purpose, or meaningful employment. Absent profound change, our country is a decade away from having 50 million chronically-unemployed young adults, adrift in life and awash in debt.
I was now fully consumed with this cause. I stepped up my pace, criss-crossing the country to visit schools and gain perspective. I was in hot pursuit of the right answer to the question: “What is the purpose of school?” Everywhere I looked — mission statements, meetings with school leaders, websites — I’d find sensible, even inspiring, purposes:
- teach students cognitive and social skills
- teach students to think
- build character and soul
- help students in a process of self-discovery
- prepare students to be responsible, contributing citizens
- inspire students through the study of humanity’s great works
- prepare students for productive careers
I probed educators on these alternatives, trying to determine the purpose of school, as though answering an SAT question. But I gradually came to realize that this choice was poorly framed. For starters, each of these goals have merit. If some classrooms prepare students for productive careers, and others prioritize on character development, that’s a good thing. And shouldn’t we celebrate an educator who accomplishes one of these goals — not snipe over whether an alternative purpose is superior?
But what came across loud and clear in my journeys is that schools don’t have the luxury of striving for any meaningful purpose. We’ve somehow imposed a system on our educators that requires them to:
- cover volumes of bureaucratically-prescribed content
- boost scores on increasingly-pervasive standardized tests
- get kids through this year’s vacuous hoops to prepare for next year’s vacuous hoops
- produce acceptable graduation rates and college placements
- deal with parents who are either obsessive micro-managers or missing in action.
How did we get here? A deep dive into the history of education helped me appreciate that our school model was brilliantly designed. Over a century ago. In 1893, Charles Eliot of Harvard and the Committee of Ten anticipated a surge of manufacturing jobs as our country moved beyond agriculture. They re-imagined the U.S. education model, ushering in a factory school model to replace the one-room school house. This path-breaking system of universal public education trained students to perform rote tasks rapidly without errors or creative variation — perfect for assembly-line jobs. The system worked spectacularly, a robust middle class emerged, and America became the world’s most powerful country.
Somewhat incredibly, we still utilize this covered-wagon-era education model. Warning signs about its faltering effectiveness go back for decades. In 1983, the blue-ribbon report titled “A Nation At Risk” concluded that if our education system had been imposed on us by a foreign country, we’d declare it an act of war. Yet instead of reinventing the model (as the Committee of Ten did in 1893), we chose to muddle along with short-term, often counter-productive, tweaks. Teachers and students described to me endless additions to content, baffling new standards, and relentless high-stakes standardized tests of low-level cognitive skills. Our nation is hellbent on catching Singapore and South Korea on test scores — a goal those very countries have concluded is nonsensical. We’re betting millions of futures on No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top — our twin orbiting black holes of education — with annual reports on par with the season run-down for the Washington Generals.
And how much are our kids really learning? If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that they’re not learning. Practically anything.
In my travels, I visited the Lawrenceville School, rated as one of the very best high schools in the United States. To its credit, Lawrenceville conducted a fascinating experiment a decade ago. After summer vacation, returning students retook the final exams they had completed in June for their science courses. Actually, they retook simplified versions of these exams, after faculty removed low-level “forgettable” questions The results were stunning. The average grade in June was a B+ (87 percent). When the simplified test was taken in September, the average grade plummeted to an F (58 percent). Not one student retained mastery of all key concepts they appear to have learned in June. The obvious question: if what was “learned” vanishes so quickly, was anything learned in the first place?
The holy grail in our high schools is the Advanced Placement (AP) track. Pioneered 50 years ago by elite private schools to demonstrate the superior student progress, AP courses now pervade mainstream public schools. Over and over, well-intentioned people call for improving U.S. education by getting more of our kids — especially in poor communities — into AP courses. But do our kids learn in AP courses? In an experiment conducted by Dartmouth College, entering students with a 5 on their AP Psychology exam took the final exam from the college’s introductory Psych course. A pitiful 10 percent passed. Worse, when the AP superstars did enroll in intro Psych, they performed no better than classmates with no prior coursework in the subject area. It’s as though the AP students had learned nothing about psychology. And that’s the point.
Along the way, I met Eric Mazur, Area Dean for Applied Physics at Harvard University, and was surprised to discover that many of our country’s most innovative ideas about education come from this one physics professor. Over a decade ago, Eric realized that even his top students (800 on SAT’s, 5 on AP Physics, A in first-year Physics at Harvard) were learning almost no real science. When asked simple questions about how the world works (e.g., what’s the flight path of a pallet of bricks dropped from the cargo hatch of a plane flying overhead?), their responses were little better than guessing. He abandoned his traditional course format (centered on memorizing formulas and definitions), and re-invented his classroom experience. His students debate each other in engaged Socratic discussion, collaborate and critique, and develop real insights into their physical universe. While his results are superb, almost all other U.S. high-school and college science classes, even at top-rated institutions, remain locked into a broken pedagogy whose main purpose is weeding kids out of these career paths..
Systematic studies, such as the findings of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s groundbreaking book “Academically Adrift,” reach similar conclusions about how little our students are learning, even at the college level. They report that “gains in student performance are disturbingly low; a pattern of limited learning is prevalent on contemporary college campuses.” Richard Keeling and Richard Hersh, in “We’re Losing Our Minds,” conclude that far too many college graduates can’t “think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently and clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers.”
The debate about the purpose of education ignores the elephant in the classroom. We have wrapped up our schools in rote memorization, low-level testing, and misguided accountability — preventing them from achieving any real purpose. It’s a fool’s errand to debate whether students are better off memorizing and forgetting Plato’s categorization of the three parts of a human’s soul, the quadratic equation, or the definition of the Cost of Goods Sold. If classroom “learning” is a mirage, it doesn’t matter whether it’s based on “The Odyssey,” a biology textbook, AP History flashcards, or a phone book.
At this point, a part of me felt like declaring education to be our domestic equivalent of Iraq. Maybe I’d be better off going back to my original travel-and-bad-golf plan. But, actually, I was inspired. Why? I was finding the most amazing rays of hope — schools offering powerful learning experiences. I realized moving our schools forward can happen, since we know what to do. Greatness is happening daily across our country, often in schools with scant financial resources. Our challenge is that these innovations are isolated, when they need to be ubiquitous.
The United States now has more than 500 “Deeper Learning” schools, most in our nation’s poorest communities. Clustered into a dozen networks, these schools aren’t “cookie-cutter” replicas of each other. But in their own creative ways, they deliver exceptional learning based on shared principles:
- self-directed learning
- a sense of purpose and authenticity in student experiences
- trust in teachers to teach to their passions and expertise
- a focus on essential skills (collaboration, communication, creativity, critical analysis)
- teachers as coaches, mentors, and advisers, not as lecturers
- lots of project-based challenges and learning
- public display of meaningful student work
Many focus on project-based learning (PBL), a bland phrase for a powerful approach to learning. One PBL leader, High Tech High in San Diego, now includes a dozen schools spanning K through 12, and offers its own graduate school of education. Curiously, out of 1,400 schools of education in our country training our next generation of K12 teachers, only two are integral to a K=12 school. In walking the halls of HTH (and they get more than 3,000 visitors each year), I observed a school experience that doesn’t look anything like what’s taking place today in most U.S. grade 7-16 classrooms. I felt real urgency in helping more people see the power of this pedagogy.
When it comes to PBL, two school networks are scaling rapidly with exceptional results — the New Tech Network and Expeditionary Learning. Both provide training for teachers along with a vetted curriculum, and cost-effectively transform schools or entire districts. With proven results in hundreds of schools across the country, these capable organizations can help any school advance a century in just one school year.
A recent poll conducted by Gallup and Purdue found that a powerful predictor of life success is access to meaningful internship opportunities while in high school. Sadly, such internships are rare. Big Picture Learning, which has grown to 65 schools in more than a dozen states, has cracked the code when it comes to internships. They work with our most at-risk students, helping prepare them for life by connecting the classroom with real world opportunities. Best of all, the BPL model relies on having students drive the process to secure a meaningful internship aligned with their interests, rather than just slotting students into make-work roles.
When it came to understanding the relationship between purpose and education, my compelling insights came from The Future Project (TFP), a 4-year-old non-profit already transforming 50 of our nation’s most challenged inner-city high schools. There’s lots of eduspeak chatter about “flipping the classroom” — kids watch boring lectures at home at night, and do low-level multiple-choice questions at school. Hardly a breakthrough, although resources like Khan Academy enable — but on their own don’t constitute — profound change. TFP’s strategy centers on a far more fundamental “flip.” They start by helping students define projects or, in their vernacular, dreams. Motivated by an ambitious personal goal, students are motivated to learn the skills, content, and character traits required to complete their self-directed initiatives. The shift in student engagement is stunning. Given a reason to learn, students bring energy to classroom assignments, and commit “free” time (including coming in on snow days!) to improve their writing, public speaking, project management, collaboration, and math skills. They connect the dots between school and their own purpose, gaining newfound respect for teachers trying to help them. They develop a conviction that they can make their world better through their passions, talents, drive, and ability to learn. Pure genius.
So back to that purpose question. Maybe, in the end, the purpose of school is to help our kids find their own sense of purpose. To prepare them for a life where they can set, and achieve, their own goals, not grind away to meet the needs of some bureaucrat or college admissions officer. Given decades of damage from our testing and accountability strategy, maybe it’s time to place our bets on a strategy that puts its weight behind engaging and inspiring our kids . . . and teachers. Imagine what our country is capable of if we figure out how to launch millions of purpose-driven kids into society prepared and energized to their world better through their talents, passions, developing skills, and ability to learn. Kids that are, truly, prepared for life.
Oh, and as for me, I’ve come full circle. As I reflect back on my past, I was pretty much a hoop jumper. Now, I wake up each morning with conviction. I’m trying things I never would have tried, learning about areas I never paid attention to, making more mistakes in a week than I used to make in a year, and risking failure in a visible way. I’m working much harder than I ever did as a venture capitalist, watching my bank account shrink, traveling non-stop, and not even pausing to ask whether it’s fun or not. In searching for the purpose of school, I found my own.