Ted Dintersmith isn’t your typical philanthropist. The straight-talking venture capitalist and former Obama appointee to the 2012 U.N. General Assembly is also one of the nation’s foremost voices on education reform. Dintersmith has no problem calling out other education reformers, such as tech billionaire Bill Gates or Success Academy Charter Schools founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz, on what they’re doing wrong with their approach to improving public education.
“Eva Moskowitz gets called a hero by some, but would any of those people [who are] cutting big checks to her send their kids to those schools? Hell no!” says Dintersmith, adding that schools need to change their focus from test scores to more meaningful measurements of success. “So much of education’s decline is based on these eight words: ‘But we have to be able to measure.’ That’s false. We have to be able to assess.”
In his new book, What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, Dintersmith visits schools in all 50 states and discovers teachers doing extraordinary things with limited resources. Instead of reminding us that our public school system is broken, his message is one of hope. NationSwell sat down with Dintersmith to discuss his top four education innovations and solutions that he encountered while venturing across the country.
SOLUTION 1: REIMAGINE THE HIGH SCHOOL TRANSCRIPT
In 2009, New Hampshire — along with a handful of cities across the nation — adopted a competency-based approach to grading students, as opposed to the typical A-to-F letter grades.
Students tend to forget information after they take a test, especially if they cram for it. But with a competency-based approach, high school transcripts look more like scorecards, reflecting student comprehension of classroom topics rather than just a GPA based on letter grades.
“If we are going to hold kids and teachers accountable [for what they learn in school], we should look to New Hampshire, with kids demonstrating real competency of standards that are driven by design and based on real performance,” Dintersmith says. “And I think it is really encouraging because it shows what can be done at scale.” After a pilot program in 27 New Hampshire schools, the competency-based approach was introduced as a statewide initiative.
“Legislatures, school boards, commissioners — all trusted teachers to lead the way in how they could reinvent the high school transcript,” Dintersmith says. “They turned it into [something] confidence-based and performance-based, with kids demonstrating important accomplishments and skills instead of [focusing on] getting a 70 or higher on multiple-choice tests.”
SOLUTION 2: BE IN THE STUDENTS’ CHAIRS
In another competency-based curriculum, teachers in Iowa thought the best way to get students interested in learning was to have them tackle real-world business and community projects. The program came about after an educator-led experiment asked about 60 local business and community leaders to put themselves in the shoes of students for a day.
“They got movers and shakers from all over Cedar Rapids to come in for a full school day, to see what life is like as a student,” Dintersmith says. “And then at the end, the teachers asked [them], ‘Do you think we should just try to keep doing what we’ve always done, or should we be thinking big?’”
The resulting program, named Iowa BIG, pairs schools in Cedar Rapids with nonprofit, business and government agencies. Students solve for community needs, such as creating public data portals for local sports results that reporters can use and building robotic kayaks that use spectrometers to beam back data on water quality.
Dintersmith says he was blown away by the program. “Kids do just as well on standardized tests because they are really energized, and [teachers] tell me 98 percent get into first-choice colleges,” he says. “Kids are getting great summer jobs too.”
SOLUTION 3: CONNECT KIDS TO THE WORLD
Every spring, Coachella Valley, California, experiences a massive boom in population when it hosts its annual music-and-arts festivals. But whereas millions of dollars pour in over the course of just a month, Coachella Valley’s schools are some of the poorest in the nation.
“There are a lot of homeless kids, a lot of kids living in trailer parks — which is luxury housing for these families,” says Dintersmith, who visited the city during his tour. “These are kids desperately trying to escape poverty, but they’re under-resourced, which is the story of education in America.”
Coachella Valley’s school superintendent, Darryl Adams, recognized that one of the biggest challenges for students was access to technology. So Adams, a former musician-turned-music teacher, got a $45 million bond voted on by residents to focus schools on reducing the so-called digital divide, where poor students have less internet access than their wealthier counterparts. The money paid for an iPad for every one of the 18,000 students in the district. The grant also provided for WiFi on eight school buses that then parked outside of the city’s trailer parks, providing internet access for everyone in the neighborhood.
“Adams focused the schools on teaching students to create and invent [things like websites and robotics], and to use technology to show that you can make things that will impress other people, will be valued by other people, will make your world better, and will help you escape poverty,” Dintersmith says. “So really hard-hit kids suddenly have a reason to come to school and are getting good at something that will give them multiple career options going forward.”
SOLUTION 4: TRY OUT TRADE SKILLS
In Waipahu, a suburb of Honolulu, the poverty rate is 2 percent higher than the state average and disability rates are almost double. That translates into little funding for local schools — especially for the expensive hardware that much of technology requires.
“We all think of Hawaii being luxury hotels, but Hawaii has these acute pockets of poverty, especially in Waipahu, one of the poorest areas outside of Honolulu,” says Dintersmith, who was intrigued by one school’s approach to integrate design thinking into their curriculum.
The school asked technology companies to partner with its students. The idea was to mix applied learning with classroom instruction. Students learned how to create products and build out technology-driven solutions to help other members of the community.
“These kids were so impressive,” Dintersmith says. “They’re mixing the applied with the academic, and they’re getting these great career paths, but they take such pride in their school and their community. Again, it’s that really clear understanding that the applied is a great way to develop academic perspective.”
Dintersmith also found out about another school not far from Waipahu that was using a similar applied-learning approach, but with marketing and journalism instead of tech.
“If you simply relegate these kids to an academic-only environment, many kids find it’s not interesting, and when you get them in high school, you only have one option, which is college,” Dintersmith says. “As they come through school, we owe it to these kids to give them as many possible career options outside of a more formal education. Because, at the end, all they’ll do is keep their fingers crossed and hope they can find a career.”