Ted Dintersmith's new book, What School Could Be, profiles dozens of schools across the United States that are engaging students in rich, real-world learning, and contrasts their experiences with the vast majority of other schools. Dintersmith calls on schools to innovate in ways that closely parallel some of my own frustrations and desires for education in Kentucky and beyond. But unfortunately the vision of What Schools Could Be is wrapped up in a badly overstated diagnosis about what ails us. Dintersmith reinforces dangerous, false choices that all too commonly frame our debates about schooling and mostly obscure, rather than clarify, the path forward.
Dintersmith, an entrepreneur and former representative to the United Nations General Assembly under President Obama, is best known as co-author with Tony Wagner of Most Likely to Succeed and producer of the documentary film by the same name. Last year he was honored by the National Education Association with its Friend of Education Award, the group's highest recognition. What School Could Be extends the themes of Most Likely To Succeed, arguing that students are too often bored, that teachers focus too narrowly on annual test score increases, and that schools are failing to adequately prepare students for the economic and social realities of the 21st century. On all counts, I agree.
To look for alternatives, Dintersmith spent a year traveling to all 50 states, touring schools and conducting hundreds of interviews with students, teachers, parents, and education policy leaders. In every state he found exciting examples of schools taking students to a different place of learning, especially at the high school level, like the Big Picture Learning network of schools which focus on meaningful career preparation, the Albermarle schools in Virginia which are pioneering project-based learning as the focal point of the school experience, and the Eminence Independent Schools here in Kentucky, the state’s first officially recognized District of Innovation.
What unites these examples, according to Dintersmith, are a combination of factors he calls “PEAK principles:”
- Purpose - Student attack challenges they know to be important, that make their world better.
- Essentials - Students acquire the skill sets and mind-sets needed in an increasingly innovative world.
- Agency - Students own their learning, becoming self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults.
- Knowledge - What students learn is deep and retained, enabling them to create, to make, to teach others.
In addition to these PEAK principles, and the many school profiles he offers to illustrate them, Dintersmith makes some important points about how education in the U.S. has, in the recent past, over-emphasized the idea of college for all students with several detrimental effects, and suggests that popular, misguided policies like “free” college serve to reinforce those problems. In one short but potent chapter, Dintersmith also argues effectively that parents and schools have infantilized adolescence, babying our children in various ways and shielding them from the kinds of challenges and hard problem solving they will actually face in the real world. If nothing else, schooling should at least prepare students to be independent, self-sufficient citizens.
The arguments about college and creating more independent learners are valuable, if perhaps a little dated and argued more effectively elsewhere by other authors. The best part of the book, though, are the profiles of innovative schools, and had Dintersmith let that be his primary focus, What School Could Be would be a useful tool for practicing educators. Unfortunately, Dintersmith tries to make his book about education policy, seeking a bogeyman to blame for why schools aren’t what they could be and making an endless stream of poorly-supported claims and straw man arguments that distract immensely from the book’s usefulness.
Dintersmith wants to force educators and parents into a series of false choices, and framing the problems our schools face in these artificial binaries may actually undermine the long-term effectiveness of the innovations he longs to see enacted.
False Choice #1: Accountability versus Innovation
According to Dintersmith, the number one reason why schools aren’t what they could be is because of standardized testing. Such tests measure only a small portion of what schools seek to accomplish with their students, but because of accountability pressures teachers devote the vast majority of their time to low-level skills that, he claims, get the biggest test score increases, and neglect rich, engaging, real-world learning.
The author is not completely wrong here. The modern era of federally-mandated school accountability (which came into being with 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act) has caused an narrowing of curricular focus and a long-term neglect of the kinds of meaningful, whole school reform efforts that would make a sustainable difference in student achievement. But Dintersmith completely mischaracterizes the purpose of these accountability mechanisms and the long history of morally unacceptable achievement gaps.