Ted Dintersmith is a venture capitalist and father of two who is now focused on education-related initiatives that call for a radical restructuring of what and how students learn. He organized, funded and produced the well-received documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” and co-authored a book titled “Most Likely to Succeed:  Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era.”

Now on a 50-state tour to encourage communities to rethink the purpose of school, Dintersmith stopped in Washington last month to attend the first White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools, which the Obama administration said would “highlight new actions by philanthropy, industry, school leaders, and others, who are committed to re-thinking the way that high school education is delivered in this country.”

To make a long story short, Dintersmith was not impressed with the summit. In the following post, he explains what he saw and heard and why he was so sorely disappointed about the experience. Because a focus of his discussion involves high school math, it is worth noting that Dintersmith majored in physics and English as an undergraduate, with research in physics that led to publication. He earned a master’s degree in applied physics and a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University, with a concentration on mathematical modeling. He also taught a math-intensive course at Stanford on microeconomics, and he has worked with many top scientists and engineers in a 30-year business career. So it’s safe to say that Dintersmith approaches a discussion of high school math with context.

By Ted Dintersmith

It pains me to write this article. It really does.

You see, I was all-in as a volunteer for Barack Obama in 2007-2008. On the National Finance Committee from the beginning. Donated and raised money for him, twisting every arm I could find. Walked door-to-door in Iowa for 10 snowy days before the caucuses. Was part of the 2009 transition process. And was selected by the president to represent the United States at the 2012 United Nations General Assembly, where I focused on global education issues.

The Obama administration is staffed by talented people with the best of intentions. I respect their 100-hour workweeks and accomplishments. But when it comes to education, this administration has done more damage than George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind. And that was very hard to do.   While NCLB amplified the role of standardized testing in U.S. education, Race To The Top took it to the next unfortunate level. It bribed states to link student test performance to an accountability system for teachers, making test prep the all-consuming focus of school. These policies failed at their stated goal of improving test scores, while disengaging students, demoralizing teachers, and driving meaningful and engaged learning from our classrooms.

With the recent announcement that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is stepping down, and the president’s subsequent statement that we’ve gone overboard on standardized testing, I had hoped things in D.C. had taken a turn for the better. So when I was invited to last month’s White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools, I was excited. By the end of the summit, though, it was the words of George Bernard Shaw, not something from the summit, that ran through my mind:

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”

The lead figures for the day were people with impressive titles and resources, but underwhelming ideas. The opening speaker described his powerful personal story, and then addressed the serious issue of the 19 percent of our kids who don’t graduate from high school. He pointed to the need to give more kids access to courses like Algebra II and chemistry. I struggled to visualize bored students suddenly fired up and ready to go to school so they can memorize the periodic table. Frequently using the phrase “false dichotomies,” he suggested we can stick with our model, yet re-imagine it. Sort of like saying we can still drive covered wagons, yet compete in the Indianapolis 500.

Next up were people with outsized impact on the futures of millions of our kids — senior White House officials and leading philanthropists.  An unlikely issue topped their list as a key to re-imagining our high schools — calculus. A White House staff member presented a map showing “No Calculus Counties” across America, speaking in tones that evoked historic human rights causes. Piling on the calculus gap, the summit’s centerpiece panel was headlined by an organization currently running a national campaign that includes expensive billboards with the message, “50% of American High Schools Don’t Offer Rigorous Courses Like Calculus.”

Reinforcing these points, the White House press release on this “first-ever” summit called for high schools “to better empower students to seize opportunities in today’s economy, and prepare students for success in college and career.” It continued, “And we must do more. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, only 50% of high schools in the U.S. offer Calculus,” and tacked on a laundry list of century-old subjects. The punch line — “We must ensure that all students have access to the full suite of courses that will prepare them for success in the innovation economy, and that begins with having access to rigorous coursework in high school.”

Now, calculus sounds essential to pre-eminence in science and engineering. It sounds like a gateway to the enticing “jobs of the future.” But here’s the reality. Other than high-school calculus teachers, adults no longer perform the low-level mechanics (months studying various integration techniques) that comprise high-school calculus. The tiny number of adults who do use Calculus in their careers compute integrals and derivatives . . . with computers.  Online resources like Wolfram|Alpha handle these tasks instantly – everywhere except in our classrooms. When it comes to calculus, a strong case can be made that we should do less.

Calculus reflects our true dichotomy in education. In a very different world where all of us have ready access to content and computational resource, we can have kids study things whose importance has faded or disappeared, or we can re-think what’s essential. To be specific, kids who take Calculus, generally forego statistics — a discipline that’s essential for citizenship and immensely valuable for careers. Organizations don’t need employees who can do integrals by hand using trig identities, but they’d love to hire young adults who can analyze data. With over 50 percent of recent college graduates under- or flat-out unemployed, prioritizing on irrelevance has real consequences.

Without any doubt, we do need to re-imagine a role for math in a 21st Century school. High school students can become powerful problem-solvers with expertise in online resources and consequential math — probability, statistics, computer programming, estimation techniques, financial literacy, analyzing large data sets, algorithm development, problem structuring, or digital fabrication. Or we can continue to insist that our kids drill away on the low-level procedures that prepare them for standardized or AP tests, but are inconsequential in life.   Immersed in a sea of math minutiae, students never quite get to math’s key concepts, applicability, or inherent beauty, explaining why so few adults use any math beyond the sixth grade level, and why so many would prefer to clean the bathroom than do a math problem.

By 11 a.m., I would have given a body part to hear someone say something inspiring, something like this: “Schools of the future will be about critical skills, not subjects. Mastery, not memorization. The world, not worksheets. Self-direction, not hoop navigation. Purpose, not placement. It’s urgent we re-invent our schools — not a few schools, but all schools. But to truly re-imagine school for the 21st Century, we can’t tie ourselves to 20th Century subjects, tests, and outcomes.” But that wasn’t to be. Instead, the “rock star” speakers delivered their remarks, took no questions, and dashed off to their next high-level meeting or photo-op, ignoring the combined insights and expertise of the education innovators sitting in front of them.

Our upper-echelon policy-makers have degrees from elite colleges, successful careers, and a locked-in view that school for our kids should be just like school was for them, only more intense. Why? The old model worked for them. It’s time, though, to hold them accountable for the efficacy of their policies. Imagine the outcry if our secretary of defense stated that military inductees need to be experts in loading and shooting muskets. Or if a press release about a Summit on Re-Inventing Next Generation Skyscrapers called for broader access to the tools used to build the great pyramids. Our kids deserve better.

And the world deserves better. Senior U.S. officials contributing to our defense and counter-terrorism policy all took “rigorous” math courses in school, studying arc secants, isosceles triangles, the quadratic equation, and integrals. On paper, their stellar educations prepared them to make world-shaping decisions. But I doubt they had a single open-ended, thought-provoking math assignment like:

  1. Assume there are N terrorists in the world on September 12, 2001. You declare that your goal is to track down and kill all N. Suppose that your approach will result in killing m innocent civilians for every terrorist you kill. Further assume that for every innocent civilian you kill, you will create on average r new terrorists. After fifteen years of war costing considerable blood and treasure, the number of terrorists will be:

a) 0

b) < N

c) N

d) > N

e) >> N

This is the kind of math our leaders and citizenry need. People don’t develop important competencies by plowing through the problems like “Factor (x2 – 6*x + 9). These micro-tasks are simply grist for a testing mill that uses Sudoku-level math to rank order and weed out our students.

After the big-footprint speakers departed from the summit, we heard from compelling teachers, students, school leaders, district superintendents, and non-profit heads. They brought vision and bold ideas to the White House, despite being allocated just 120 seconds to describe their life’s work. The irony of a rapid-fire sequence of “talk at you lectures” on the topic of re-imagined learning wasn’t lost on this crowd.

Much in the afternoon inspired me, reflective of what I’m seeing first-hand across our country. I travel relentlessly these days visiting schools, meeting educators, listening, and learning. Since September, I’ve been to 30 states with the Sundance-acclaimed film “Most Likely To Succeed,” and will visit all 50 states by May. Over and over, I’m blown away by the energy, vision, and pent-up innovation I find in our teachers, principals, superintendents, and state commissioners. From Newark to Fargo, from Reno to Concord, from Milwaukee to Fort Smith, from Providence to Cheyenne, there are sparks and embers of great learning in our schools. And there are people with the vision and passion to turn these sparks into a bonfire.

Consider the words of one public school teacher who spoke at the summit long after the press-worthy officials were off to more important commitments. She said, “We need to empower our teachers, engage our students, and deliver learning experiences that recognize, and capitalize on, the reality that our students will have digital devices at their fingertips for the rest of their lives.”

In her short time on the stage, she articulated a policy a century ahead of what we heard earlier in the day. Perhaps it’s time to flip our education model, and let our students and teachers lead the way. Maybe, just maybe, the real “calculus” that will transform our schools is the integrative ideas of many — not the dated ideas of a few.

(Correction: A typo changed the number of states Dintersmith is visiting. It is now fixed.)