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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


A Review of 'What School Could Be'

A new book challenges the prevailing approach to school reform.

May 11, 2018

When it comes to education reform, we could perhaps consider Ted Dintersmith the anti-Gates.

Where Bill Gates puts his faith (and his money) behind top-down initiatives like the Common Core State Standards and is now on to algorithmic instruction via “personalized learning,”[1] Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration From Teachers Across America is focused at the community, school, and classroom level. Dintersmith recognizes education is a human process experienced by individuals working with and relating to each other. By doing this, he hopes to better prepare students for the coming “innovation era.”

I recently had a chance to not only read What School Could Be, but also attend a public screening of the Dintersmith-produced documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, (my second viewing), and the trifecta, sit down for a three-hour, free ranging conversation with the man himself.

Even attaching the word “reformer” to Dintersmith seems wrong, since school “reform” following 1983’s “No Child Left Behind” has been rooted in what Dintermith calls “doing (obsolete) things better,” doubling and tripling down on standardized testing and assessment which makes for bored and disengaged students who separate schooling from learning and prevents teachers from innovating in the classroom.

What School Could Be chronicles Dintersmith’s year-long travel to investigate on-the-ground work at hundreds of schools across the country. Unlike Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, Dintersmith has spent his time observing teachers, and he recognizes among them there are many who are indeed doing “better things.”

The list of things on which I agree with Dintersmith is long. He recognizes the importance of intrinsic motivation to learning and, like me, believes that breadth of content covered – which is likely to be forgotten anyway – is less important than depth of engagement.

He believes the AP exam is a lousy proxy for learning and should be dumped, as should the ACT and SAT. He thinks organizing school around a quest for college admission – which we must recognize is different from genuine college preparation – is a fundamentally unworthy and even damaging pursuit. He thinks teachers should be respected as the experts for what should be done in the classroom.

He is no fan of “no excuses” charters, and despite being an early political backer of Barack Obama, he does not hesitate to criticize Obama’s Department of Education and its first leader, Arne Duncan, for its counterproductive Race to the Top initiative.

Betsy DeVos? Fuhgetaboutit.

Perhaps most importantly, we both believe changes in schools should be collaborations among schools, teachers, students, and parents. Prior to the (free) showing of Most Likely to Succeed, Dintersmith related how he turned down an offer from Netflix because he believes the film should serve as a catalyst for communities to come together and discuss issues of education collectively, and these public screenings are a more effective medium for reaching that goal.

Dintersmith puts both his money and his time where his mouth is, still constantly traveling as a kind of evangelist for schools which put students and learning ahead of testing and assessment.

Through attacking AP courses and standardized admissions tests, Dintersmith even strikes a blow for improved equity, by urging the privileged to essentially unilaterally disarm by abandoning these mechanisms which reinforce systemic divides. He is a strong supporter of increased investment in Career Technical Education, including for students at elite institutions.

As we shall see, I have questions and qualms primarily rooted in my different perspective and experiences, but it is undeniable that Dintersmith is doing tremendous amounts of good.

There is a scene in Most Likely to Succeed which I hesitate to spoil, but I have now seen it twice and had the exact same response both times, so it seems unspoilable.

The film uses the 9th grade class at San Diego’s High Tech High, a “public charter” which utilizes unconventional curricular and teaching approaches focused around “project-based learning.” Rather than finishing the year with a big test, students work on large, collaborative projects synthesizing learning across multiple classes, which are publicly exhibited near the end of the year.

One of the focal students, Samantha, is shown on the first day to be a shy young woman hesitant to say anything in class, even as one can sense she has much to say.

Every teacher has known dozens of these students over the years. The ones who you hope will one day be unleashed on the world because once empowered, they will be impossible to stop.

Samantha’s group is putting on a play dramatizing modern day Pakistan through the lens of Greek tragedy. She is the play’s director. In a series of scenes, we see Samantha quite literally emerging from her shell, managing and instructing her cast, until right before the showcase performance when she clearly and calmly conducts a combination pep talk and relaxation exercise for the play’s cast members, expressing her belief in their hard work, her faith that they will do their best.

It is a demonstration of wisdom you would be lucky to experience from a fully-grown adult coming from a 9th grader.

I have managed to tear up yet again just recalling the scene. To see this young woman come into her own power, recognizing her worth and influence and using those things to influence others is suddenly emotionally overwhelming.

It is an amazing moment, and one can’t help but think that if education should anything, it should be this.

And it should be, and could be, though there are parts of Dintersmith’s argument which I find less persuasive or, as we say in academic circles, “problematic.”

He repeats what has become a popular history[2] of 1893’s Committee of Ten who it is said reformed the one-room schoolhouse into a “factory model” which has persisted to today. While there are resemblances between schools and factories, the notion that school was restructured in order to explicitly prepare students for life in an industrialized economy – factory work – is what Audrey Watters calls “an invented history” a narrative created as a kind of shorthand by which to condemn schools which conveys a truthiness but is not really true.

I believe contemporary education is better traced to “A Nation at Risk,” which launched the “failing schools” narrative and begat the testing and accountability era Dintersmith is seeking to undo. Even accepting the “factory model” as a previous explicit framework plays into the narrative of the kind of school reform both Dintersmith and I advocate against, suggesting that school needs an “upgrade,” (Watters’ term) rather than a “reorientation” (my term) around the values we association with learning.

For the purposes of his narrative, Dintersmith must make clear that college is not the be-all and end-all for students, (I agree), but in crafting this part of the argument, he paints with a broad brush which obscures the kind of nuance he brings to what’s happening in K-12 schools.

Higher ed is an “Ivory Tower,” a caricature which applies to a relatively small elite. Students are engaging in Animal House antics. (Perhaps, but nothing new.) After (properly) assailing standardized tests as bad proxies for learning in primary and secondary education, he cites Academically Adrift, which relies on (disputed) findings from a single standardized test, as dispositive proof students aren’t learning much in college. Similar to the “factory model” of schools, I believe this is a mistaken bit of gospel we need to move beyond to have a more substantive discussion about where to go with education, rooted in values. 

One school that is praised for innovation, Arizona State University, while becoming admirably open and accessible to students, is a leader at pursuing the kind of algorithmic instruction Dintersmith would blanch at if utilized in K-12 schools. ASU is also emblematic in the way it exploits its contingent workers. While ASU has pursued a strategy which may allow it to survive in a state which is more hostile to funding higher ed than the already dismal norm, not every college can be an ASU. It is a vision predicated on acquiring market share, and there are only so many students to go around.[3]

While I spend the vast majority of my time in this space criticizing our systems of higher education, there is actually significant innovation happening, particularly when it comes to studying learning. The way we talk about and teach writing has gone through several revolutions during my own career. The diversity of approaches in this one field is remarkable.

The Best Teachers Institute overseen by Ken Bain and James Lang brings faculty together to share “transformative learning experiences.” My Twitter feed is populated daily with dozens of higher education professionals are veritably obsessed with the problem of improving student learning.

Carl Wieman, Nobel Prize-winning Stanford physicist is among those working on project-based learning in the sciences. While the large impersonal lecture still exists, it is higher ed itself which is leading the way in seeking alternatives for learning.

I am also not convinced we should allow ourselves to go into the innovation era without a fight, without reclaiming some spaces (like education) designed to be sustainable, free, and organized around the public good. ASU with its technological solutions and corporate partnerships may be able to survive in an innovation era, but what happens to the public institutions who cannot?

Are they unworthy?

Dintersmith says he is “no fan” of tenure, believing that it is not necessary when schools have effective leaders and teachers are driven by their passions (as most teachers are). But I think it’s going to be difficult for teachers to help prepare students for the innovation era (or whatever else is coming) without the security, resources, and support necessary to do their best work, and protecting their labor cannot be left to good intentions. The recent actions of teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and elsewhere suggest that good old-fashioned labor solidarity has some utility in this fight.

In the end, the differences are likely rooted in different frameworks and philosophies.

Essentially, I see Dintersmith as trying to find a way to do an end run around some of the systemic problems facing education. Each individual school transformed is a victory.

I’m more focused on those systemic issues and believe we need to be attacking these problems at both the root and branch level in order to remake the ground on which these institutions rest.

To move forward, we may need some of both. We need to be talking about what school “could” be, and what it “should” be.

Without a doubt, following Dintersmith’s prescription – which is not so much a prescription, but a process which allows or schools and communities to choose something different for their schools – would do a tremendous amount of good. Students would be introduced to a world in which school can be engaging rather than alienating, intellectually and creatively stimulating, rather than stultifying.

But we should still keep arguing about these things. At least this is a much better argument than how we’re going to boost test scores.


[1] As part of his quest to provide all children with their own personal (digital) Yoda

[2] See Sir Ken Robinson’s very popular TED Talk on changing education paradigms for typical example. 

[3] In the book Dintersmith notes that some academics have labeled a future of ASU’s “terrifying” or “dystopian.” I believe that person was me. 


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