Ted Dintersmith traveled the country to raise awareness about re-imagining education—but instead, America’s teachers taught him a valuable lesson.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Chronicling an unprecedented road trip, What School Could Be is a new book by Ted Dintersmith, one of the nation’s leading voices on innovation and education, and it was recently released by Princeton University Press. 

During the 2015-2016 school year, Ted visited 200 schools across all 50 states to discover inspiring educators who courageously break from what he argues is an obsolete education model. 

From Atlanta to Anchorage, from Baltimore to Boise, from Concord to Cedar Rapids, What School Could Be presents stories of teachers in ordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things in elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges, and places not often thought of as “school.” 

“Across America, most children are in schools that train them for a world that no longer exists,” says Ted. “Absent profound change, adults will keep piling up on life’s sidelines, jeopardizing the survival of civil society,” he says. “Our country is at a crossroads. We can continue to tinker around the edges of school and churn out millions of young adults prepared to fail. Or we can draw on the insights of our most innovative teachers and help all schools prepare students for the future.”

“We can continue to tinker around the edges of school and churn out millions of young adults prepared to fail. Or we can draw on the insights of our most innovative teachers and help all schools prepare students for the future.”

The book builds on his earlier works; he organized the acclaimed documentary Most Likely to Succeed, an official selection of Sundance and two-dozen other major film festivals. And with Tony Wagner he co-authored the book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era.

In conjunction with the release of his What School Could Be book, Ted is visiting communities across the country for public forums to showcase ways that parents, teachers, business leaders and school officials can initiate change to create PEAK classrooms throughout their community.

His four-decade career spans technology, business, public policy, and education philanthropy. In the fall of 2012, Ted served as part of the delegation representing the United States at the United Nations General Assembly, where he focused on global education and entrepreneurship. 

Ted is a Partner Emeritus with Charles River Ventures, a leading early-stage venture capital firm. He served on the Board of the National Venture Capital Association, chairing its Public Policy Committee. Independent industry analysts ranked Ted as the top-performing venture capitalist in the U.S. for the 1995-99 period.

Prior to venture capital, he was a senior executive at Analog Devices, and worked for two years on Capitol Hill on science and technology policy. Ted earned a Ph.D. in Engineering from Stanford University, and his undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary, where he earned High Honors in Physics and English.

I did have some questions for you. I don’t think I sent you any in advance—

I didn’t see it if you did, but that’s okay. I’m fine with unanticipated, interesting questions.

Well, I saw an early copy of your book, “What School Could Be.” I know it’s not quite published yet—or is it?

I think officially; with Amazon it’s difficult to tell what it means to be published or not—but our official launch was a couple days ago.

Congratulations on that! What I really like about it isn’t just the intriguing and attractive title, but your on-the-ground approach. You traveled to all 50 states, visited over 200 schools. It reminded me a little of an old book from a long time ago, Studs Terkel’s “Working.”

Right, right, right.

The idea being, if you really want to hear from the people, then go out and talk to them. And that’s what you did.

There’s a lot of discussion about schools, reform, and change.

I’d like to focus on what you learned that is “edtech relevant”—which may dovetail into reform or innovation.

There are a lot of different things we can talk about, but I just want to make sure from the outset that we’re definitely addressing those issues because, after all, we’re EdTech Digest.

I was going to say, that would be a surprise if that didn’t come up in the conversation.

I start with, it’s sort of the Dickens “best of times, worst of times,” so let’s start with the worst, which is—and I talk about some of these places where you just sort of unload the iPads and have kids replace paper flashcards with electronic flashcards or have kids toiling away on low-level math procedures.

The iPad itself does perfectly instantly, but kids will drill on those ad infinitum.

Where I feel like it’s really not an advance, where it’s just tinker around the edges or the metaphor I use in the book is “speeding up the covered wagon,” and then you see different places where these kids unleashed.

These kids are sponges at early ages.

My second chapter, which is really the heart and soul of innovative things I observed as a blue-collar community in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the teacher decides he wants to let his kids do 3D printing and design robots.

People say, “You don’t have any equipment. How are you going to get that?”

He has his kids go fundraise for it and they do.

Then they say, “Well, how are you going to teach ’em? Do you know anything about it?”

He says, “I don’t know anything about it, but I bet we can learn together, and these kids soar.”

You see the opportunities, particularly at younger ages when these kids just soak it up like crazy.

If that could be built on, if kids could be using technology to essentially avoid the low-level mechanics that they don’t really need to master and learn to actually create, invent, produce with an advantage coming from technology, that’s the best of times.

You see those stark contrasts because sometimes people don’t really think that hard about, or don’t question, whether a curriculum that was designed 125 years ago still makes sense.

You’re talking about Chapter Two, “Real Gold and Fool’s Gold”? In Fort Wayne, Indiana, there was the guy, Jared Knipper?

Jared Knipper, yep.

That’s interesting, because it leads to a point of, “All right, well, there’s technology and then there’s people.” There’s the human spirit. Sounds more like human spirit; he took the bull by the horns, went ahead, and his innovation really led things.

But is there a case where there’s really cool technology that’s helping, or scalable— that you saw? Or, is it usually a person with a really good idea who’s leading his class forward and, “Oh, by the way, they use some technology,” as well?

Well, I mean, I purposely profile—so, you kept going in that chapter.

It’s interesting.

Some people would say I’m too technology career-focused.

Other people will say I’m not enough focused, so you must be doing something right if you have people on both sides of that.

But then I think the very next one is this poor area of West Virginia where they actually equip and train their third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders to be technology ambassadors.

They’re essentially their school’s IT support function.

What I’m trying to do in the book, and I hope I’ve accomplished it, is to show not that it’s every kid doing the same thing, but kids using, embracing, leveraging technology in very different ways to accomplish a higher set of goals.

“I’m trying … to show not that it’s every kid doing the same thing, but kids using, embracing, leveraging technology in very different ways to accomplish a higher set of goals.”

I am on the spectrum of standardized versus whatever the opposite of standardized is, anti-standardized.

I’m an advocate for anti-standardized, for helping kids develop their own distinctive set of proficiencies, their own blend of great talents and competencies, but to recognize that, for many kids, technology can make them a lot more productive and effective.

Now, I also saw great learning experiences with no technology.

So I’m not one of these people that says, “It has to be done everywhere.”

But I am one of these people that says, “It makes no sense to me to have a kid memorize a periodic table on an iPad with a digital app when the iPad will tell you where lithium is every single time.”

It makes no sense to me to have kids drilling on an iPad or a laptop to get faster at factoring polynomials or doing closed-form integrals in calculus.

There’s a perfect example: nine months of high school calculus done on a laptop when those low-level mechanics are done perfectly instantly by Wolfram Alpha or Photomath.

I use a driver training metaphor:

We don’t think of driver training schools in the DMV being a bastion of innovation, but when I got my driver’s license, we had to demonstrate we could use a stick shift.

Now, most cars are automatic transmission.

Nobody worries about a stick shift anymore because that’s all been automated away in most cars. Nobody learns how to crank start a Model T because that’s been automated away.

But in a lot of our curriculum, kids are still essentially doing the equivalent of driving a stick shift or crank starting a Model T.

To what end?

That’s what I really question.

How did you get around the country?

Somewhere I describe—I definitely didn’t fly with an entourage in my own jet. I mean, I used Delta Airlines. I stayed in a lot of Hampton Inns.

I traveled pretty much every single day of the school year, so I was on the road—I have the number: it was 248 hotel nights during that school year, but I was mostly, I mean, my wife was with me maybe a third of the time. The rest, it was me.

The thing I did that really helped—it’ll sound a little bit crazy, but the film I did, “Most Likely To Succeed,” the director was this amazing guy, Greg Whiteley. He had done a film on Mitt Romney. He said, “If you’re really planning that kind of a nine-month trip, you ought to talk to the guys that did all of the advanced planning for Romney. They’re really good at this.”

It’s really what made the trip so interesting; instead of just fumbling around in places, I had a team of people making sure from 7:00 in the morning until 10:30 at night every minute for those school days, which is a lot of school days, was cram-jammed with interesting things, and went from governors to legislators, to commissioners of education, but lots and lots of school visits and teachers and parent forums and things like that.

Wow—that’s really amazing. Are you running for anything yourself?

No. I think that would be a mistake for me and the country, although right now, I feel like we could pick a name out of the hat, put him in the White House, then we’d all be better off.

The experience that you had is just so rich. With EdTech Digest, we’re examining education and technology—and how technology is helping to transform education, or to at least force discussions that begin to change education in a more positive direction. What sorts of stories or anecdotes really stand out? Any really resonate?

Well, I’ll give you an example.

This will sort of make start what I think is on the line here.

Two days ago, the new round of always, always flat and disappointing NAEP scores came out. We’re now 15 years into the performance agenda when we said:

“The single most important thing for our schools is to increase test scores. So what if we make the school day dreadful for most kids, particularly kids in less resourced schools? So what if we demoralize our teachers? The overarching goal of improving test scores by a few percentage points swamps every other potential consideration.”

And then, of course, you get a new round of scores and they’re flat, and so wrong goal, mediocre, failed result.

You look at that and then you look at—if you look at the index in Albuquerque, you’ll see these kids. These were kids, 15-year-old, primarily Hispanic, really poor, tough family circumstances, thrown out or failed out of their normal high school, probably wouldn’t get a high school degree under normal circumstances because they couldn’t pass Algebra.

I’m a critic of that as criteria to graduate from high school.

What I say is, nobody’s ever been able to show that the majority of adults use Algebra.

In fact, when we look at it, it’s like 15% of adults use even basic aspects of Algebra. Why would you deprive a kid of a college degree over Algebra?

They end up at this place, Siembra Leadership Academy.

They connect learning in the school to problems in the community.

The Albuquerque Sol semi-pro soccer team says, “We need help with social media optimization. Do you have any 15-year-old Hispanic kids that can design and implement a social media campaign for us?”

It’s uber technology-intensive. It’s applied math-intensive. It values language arts. It values the aesthetics of great graphics.

You look at these kids, they’re like, “Boy, we can’t wait,” so block them from a high school degree because of Algebra?

Let ’em get really good at social media optimization.

It’s really not that big of a deal for a team to say, “This looks like an interesting campaign. Here’s 250 bucks. Try it out and show us what you can do.”

When you look at that and then you say—and I have the specific economics in that chapter on what a young adult can earn as a social media campaign planner with a reference account. Let’s say I did this campaign for the Albuquerque Sol. I can design one for you. The barest, I mean the lowest wage you could find on Upwork for that kind of expertise is 30 bucks an hour.

You say, “Can these kids escape poverty at 30 bucks an hour?”

Absolutely.

If they choose to go to college with a part-time and summer job, they cannot only pay for college, but save some money.

But then the point I make is that of 200 schools, this was the only one doing the applied math and optimizing social media budget allocations. It is technology. It is math. It is STEM, arguably, but it’s a direct ramp to a great and interesting career.

Instead, take a look at it:

Grades 7-12 math, unless you happen to take statistics or take a more applied computer programming course, a lot of the computer science stuff, AP Computer Science probably isn’t going to give you a career path. But we put kids through six years of middle and high school math that all it really does is boost your chances to get into a college.

Do you think you really learned some big lessons here, things you hadn’t seen before you started out on your trip?

Well, I mean one is—and I’m a business guy. I’ve got a lot of, not a lot, but there are a fair number of business people that have turned their attention onto education and I always feel like I’ve got to make up for them because they often do the dumbest things.

“There are a fair number of business people that have turned their attention onto education and I always feel like I’ve got to make up for them because they often do the dumbest things.”

I mean, I hate to be blunt, but they’ll say, for instance, I hear this a lot:

“We’ll never make progress in our schools unless we get rid of these teachers’ unions.”

Well, I got to 200 schools. I didn’t find any sign of less dedication of the teaching staff in public versus private versus charter. They’re dedicated. They want to do great things for their kids.

You’ll see—what’s another one? A bunch of people who dropped out of college will decide every kid in America needs to put the entirety of their education on a college-ready path and, I think, undersell anything applied, anything hands-on. That, to me, is tragic.

I came away with a lot of faith in our teaching force broadly, a lot of really great insights from our innovative teachers.

It’s not as though we need to invent or create new ways to teach kids and engage them and help them develop competencies that matter.

There, I write a book.

I mean, this is happening all over the country.

It’s just happening—I kind of use the phrase “everywhere and nowhere,”—and it’s happening when that teacher, in some ways, has to fight a bit to make it happen.

It’s not the accepted normal thing.

They all point to getting support from their principal or their superintendent—which is a big important factor in this—but it shouldn’t be work for teachers to do these kinds of things in their classrooms. We should be cheering it instead of questioning it.

“It shouldn’t be work for teachers to do these kinds of things in their classrooms. We should be cheering it instead of questioning it.”

There’s a lot of technology that could assist with that efficiency process?

Well, I’ll give you an example. There are so many, but I’ll give you two.

If you look at Fargo, North Dakota, I talk about kids in an eighth-grade history class.

Honestly, most history classes I observed, the kids aren’t very interested.

Most kids I ask about what they learned in history will tell me they never want to—they learned that they don’t want to take another history class again.

In Fargo, they say to the kids—they trusted their kids and teachers to come up with something they thought would be interesting.

These kids say, “Let us capture the story of the historic buildings in Fargo,” which is a really interesting. I’ve been to Fargo a lot. I’m there tomorrow. It’s an interesting place and the kids say, “Could we capture the story of historic downtown buildings?”

Then, one thing leads to another.

They say, “Well, we could write essays. We have to do the research, so we’ll go to the library. We’ll interview people, do the research. Could have wrote essays. Yeah, we could do photo collage. That’s interesting. We could do documentaries.”

They decide, “We’ll do mini-documentaries.”

Then another kid says, “Well, we could do signs on each of these buildings.”

Then another kids says, “Well, we could do QR links to these mini-documentaries and put them on a website.”

That’s what the kids did.

They made a big public exhibition.

They invited the mayor, the town council, all sorts of parents, the people in those buildings.

The next year, they submitted a film to Fargo Film Festival.

You realize that it’s a history class, right?

These kids are, on the history front, getting excited about history and learning how to think like historians.

“You realize that it’s a history class, right? These kids are, on the history front, getting excited about history and learning how to think like historians.”

If you used a college metaphor, the major is history, but the minor is really relevant and applicable STEM, so designing websites, linking to QR codes, doing great video capture of things.

You realize, and this is one of the points I make, we think of the world as either/or.

You’re either a STEM person or you’re one of these parents discouraging you from being a liberal arts person.

Why is it either/or?

It’s largely either/or because we cram-jam a lot of these things with irrelevant college-ready material that really isn’t important.

Look at the number of colleges that require calculus as a prerequisite for business. I mean, it’s just ludicrous. I mean, you can quote me on that in spades.

It is preposterously stupid to make calculus a prerequisite even, and people will say, “You’re crazy,” even for engineering.

The reality is you can get rid of nine months of calculus just by learning how to use Photomath or Wolfram Alpha.

Then people will say, “Oh, well that’s just the mechanics. They won’t learn how to apply it.”

Guess what?

I interview a lot of kids who’ve taken calculus and I say, “Do you have any idea how you’d apply this?”

“No. No idea. We didn’t get to that.”

You look at the AP Calculus online practice exam. The only thing they have that has anything to do with the real world is problems that are basically middle school ratios where they then ask you to sort of kind of reverse-engineer what a derivative is, but that’s not what the high school calculus is. It’s a chain rule. It’s integration by parts. It’s hyperbolic cosine transformations.

That’s all cool stuff.

I have a Ph.D. in math modeling from Stanford, but it’s irrelevant cool stuff.

I spent three years trying to find a professional in America who does integrals and derivatives by hand and none do.

Why?

You realize if we just started pulling away from the curriculum, these useless things that are used as weeder-outers, suddenly, you have a lot of room to let kids major and minor or dual focus or whatever.

I write about in Vermont, a young girl not a path to graduate, bored with school, but a really great art student, and the school not only goes with that as a strength, but her minor is website design. How many kids are told, “Give up. You’re never going to make a living as an artist. That’s hopeless”? But if you just appended to their art passion something that’s STEM-related, that’s not a full-time thing … You can learn how to design websites.

It doesn’t take that long and you can get good at it if you’re really good— the artistic side of the website’s actually more important than learning how to use Squarespace.

You just start to look at this thing and say, “We could be taking kids with passions across a whole distinctive set of areas and including in their K through 12 education aspects for how they can leverage technology, make a living with this,” and then suddenly, as an 18-year-old, they have multiple open doors to them. They could go to college but pay for most or all of it with part-time and summer jobs. They could work for a year or two before they go to college, or they could just create a great career path right away.

That’s one of the points that I really believe if somebody reads my book they’ll say, “Maybe, just maybe, he’s right.”

Because when I say if we do K through 12 right, most of our K through 12 graduates will be ahead of most college graduates today, people say, “No. That can’t be true,” but it is true.

You just sort of look at this.

If you actually did this thoughtfully and didn’t have so much time spent on iambic pentameter and ibid. and op.cit. and factoring polynomials and memorizing biology concepts that you never use and balancing chemical—a whole bunch of stuff that I call “just in case learning.”

You memorize a bunch of stuff in high school just in case five, 10 years from now, you’re a chemist, just in case you remember it.

Really?

I mean, that makes no sense.

Sounds like you really thoughtfully approached a lot of these different issues. Your book is just full of anecdotes and stories, really rich; makes for great reading. “What School Could Be” is more of an invitation to explore human potential for the reader than it is having the Jetsons futuristic image of school, and then trying to populate that with different snippets from the present. Is that right?

Yeah, and I really didn’t want to say—I mean, obviously, I didn’t just stumble into the title.

It’s not my job to tell somebody what it should be.

What I try to do is to capture stories of teachers that, together, show what it could be and then respect any reader’s ability to decide whether this is something they want their child to be, their students to be, experiencing or not, but to try to show—because the common denominators to these places are, I mean, the kids are so enthused, and the teacher feels trusted and respected and is supported to engage and inspire their kids.

Really, I do think it comes down to this trade-off.

Do we insist on precise measurements as kids plod through stuff that they have no interest in, are unlikely to retain, and even if they do retain it, are unlikely to ever use as adults?

I mean, that is national education policy, many-state education policy:

“Do all the stuff we’ve decided you should do that we know you’re not going to remember and even if you do, we can’t ever explain when you would use it, but because it’s so baked into the textbook and tests, we can measure it.”

It’s really, “Our biggest goal was to be able to measure your progress on inconsequential schoolwork.”

I just look at that, and I say, “That is all wrong.” That is selling the future of these kids down the river because, as I say in my book, nobody’s going to get a career lift. Nobody’s going to escape poverty because they can do a closed-form integral—but those kids in New Mexico that can actually design and implement social media, the kid in Vermont that can design websites—it doesn’t have to be either practical or your passion; it could be both.

But we don’t have enough room, enough hours to say: 

“Go with your passions.

“Learn something really practical that lets you be a self-sufficient young adult doing something interesting each day.

And, third:

“Satisfy the requirements of the test companies, and the college admissions officers, and the bureaucrats that drive state policy.”

I mean, you can’t do all three of those.

So you’ve got to make a trade-off.

And I’m squarely, totally on the side of, “Let’s start doing more of what New Hampshire [is doing] with authentic assessments and real work” and stop saying, for instance, that saving an admissions officer three to five minutes on each application review should be our highest priority in life and ruin the futures of millions of kids in K-12.

All right, well Ted, this has been really good talking to you. We could go on and I’m thinking we should do a radio show or podcast style talk; I can even take audio clips of this and share them.

Yeah, any time. Have you seen our “The Future of Work” bit? The other thing on the tech front that is really—if you haven’t seen our “Future of Work” video, I can send you that link or if you just Google “The Future of Work YouTube, Are We Preparing our Kids?,” you’ll find it.

It’s just a three-minute video, but it shows all the automated advances that are going to eliminate millions of jobs and reshape the jobs that are left. It’s really that technology intersection with schools, that understanding what’s going away, what the opportunities are—that I think should color how we think about our kids.

As I say, I think people would read my book and say most of my examples have some technology in them. That’s on purpose because if, in fact, artificial intelligence or robotics can do more and more routine things—you can either ignore that, compete against it, (which we do a lot of in schools, “Let’s see if you can be just as fast as your smart phone in low-level math procedures,”)—or leverage it.

That’s where the really great thinking comes in:

“How do we leverage this so that kids are dramatically more productive?”

That largely gets lost in the discussion about education.

I mean, read my chapter on California with Khan Academy. Sal is a friend of mine and I try to be gentle in the way I discuss it, but sitting in front of your laptop and moving at your own pace through math you’re not going to retain or ever use doesn’t seem like a great advance. Using your laptop to do Khan Academy SAT test prep or AP test prep seems like an unfortunate set of priorities.

Then I contrast it with this guy at Coachella, second poorest district in the country, who’s bringing technology to his kids so they can create and produce. He was a musician before he got into education and he’s trying to help his kids escape from poverty, whereas I think a lot of this is try to just give you a slightly better chance at a certain college.

That, to me, is what the trade-off is.

Do we help kids be far more productive leveraging great technology?

Or, do we use technology to have them do a bunch of low-level things a little bit more productively that really only mattered in life to the college admissions people—but won’t really do anything of consequence to them going forward?

You’ll definitely have to send me that link because there were quite a few different things on the future of work. I want to get to the one that you’re specifically referring to. And I see you have some TED Talks as well. I’d love to interview you again!

Yeah, I’d be all over it. You ask great questions. If you don’t mind, can I just grab your email and I’ll send you the follow up? I’ll send that as soon as I—you caught me at a perfect time because I’m in a hotel room and I mistakenly signed up for the crappy Wi-Fi, but I tried to make—you’d be the one who could fix this. I won’t belabor it, but then trying to forget that network and get on the “for pay” better Wi-Fi has been not my easiest challenge of the day! As soon as I get that sorted out, I’ll send it to you.

No problem. Where are you, by the way?

I’m in Chicago right now.

Chicago today, then Fargo and Bismarck tomorrow. I’m just going everywhere, then San Diego, Phoenix, Seattle.

I travel a lot.

The tour continues! It’s now the actual book tour instead of the gather-info-for-the-book tour.

Yeah, it’s the book tour. That’s what I’m up to.

All right. Great.

It’s fun. It’s important, I think.

Absolutely. Well, I really appreciate this! We’ll do more.

Yeah, anytime. No. I’d love to. Thanks for all you’re doing.

All right. Well, good chatting, Ted, and we’ll be back in touch shortly!

Great. Thank you and take care. 

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Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com