How schools waste young lives

by Jeff Camp | October 10, 2021 | 1 Comment
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Ted Dintersmith

This post is about a troublemaker. The context matters, so let’s set the stage.

Ted Dintersmith made his fortune as an investor in innovative companies. Over the last decade, he has become a celebrated maverick of the education reform world, warning that the education system needs fundamental changes, but rejecting measurement-heavy approaches embraced by many other advocates with a business background. He’s serious about it. He has visited hundreds of schools, published books and made movies.

Ted was one of the speakers for the 2021 summer conference of the Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders, a free membership program for high school students with an interest in leadership. Most of them don’t come from wealthy communities, but they are kids with great expectations for their own reasons. They will go to college, and they are on the lookout for signs marked “this way up.”

One of the highest-rated sessions of the conference

The students live all over California, and obviously few have met in person. Some active members of the Academy connect with one another through the organization’s monthly online mixer events (“discussion sessions”) and a free members-only Discord server, where they can get advice from student leaders attending other schools.

Last June, hundreds of these students participated in the Ed100 Academy online summer conference. They attended for all kinds of reasons. Some, certainly, felt drawn to learn about leadership opportunities, and many were presented at the conference. Some were interested in the speakers. The opportunity to earn a certificate appealed to many students, too. Remember, these are ambitious kids. When the time comes to write a college essay, evidence of leadership can help them make their case for admission to an elite college.

At the conference, Dintersmith encouraged students to think for themselves about their future, and to challenge how the education system defines success. He appeared in conversation with the student host of the event, Zaid Fattah, who at the time was the student member of the California State Board of Education. In a follow-up survey, hundreds of students picked this conversation as one of the top sessions of the event.

Some of the main points of their conversation are summarized below, but you might want to just watch it for yourself! (42 minutes at 1x speed)

Making mischief

A core purpose of the education system is to prepare students for success in the world of adulthood. Dintersmith argues that schools are failing in this purpose because what the system is currently set up to teach is largely irrelevant — or soon will be, because technology is changing fast, but schools aren’t.

“I saw schools that rewarded students for memorizing material, replicating low-level procedures, writing formulaically and following instructions. That is the exact sweet spot for what machine intelligence does really well…”

“None of us can begin to imagine what AI [artificial intelligence] is going to be capable of in 10 years, but it's going to be vast. It's going to completely reshape everything we need in terms of career and citizenship skills… The careers you envision today will either be gone entirely in 10 years or totally reshaped.”

As specific examples of high-paying, highly-educated careers that he believes are in peril of being replaced, he cites radiology and big parts of the legal profession.

Change of this depth and speed carries risks, Dintersmith cautions.

“...if we set up lots and lots of people to fail in our society, that poses serious challenges to our democracy.”

So what should ambitious young people do? Dintersmith suggests looking for experiences that build flexible skills rather than narrow specialties.

“Careers come and go. They change overnight in some cases but certainly change meaningfully in a matter of two, three, four years. You are very likely to have many careers over your lifetime.”

No one knows what roles colleges will play in this upheaval. Dintersmith suggests that for students who are inclined to take risks and become self-starters, college is not the only path to a good life.

“You can actually make more money while in high school than most college graduates make. I'll just pick one example to bring it to life. If you're really good at designing a website and you know about Upwork and fiverr you can create a great summer job making 25, 30, 40 bucks an hour creating websites, or doing graphic design, or creating videos, or running social media campaigns, or doing email marketing campaigns, or even knowing how to work an Excel spreadsheet. These are all proficiencies you can learn on your own. You can use those leverage points to create career paths.”

“How much do successful adults remember from high school classes?”

Much of the academic content of school, he argues, is forgettable, dull and useless. It’s a kind of hazing process that's been normalized as how school is done. It's learning for the sake of a process, not for a good purpose.

“Ask adults how many of these [topics] do you use in your adult life? How much of this did you retain from high school or how much of it just kind of went in one ear and out the other? ...Most of what students spend time on in middle and high school is covering content they have no interest in, that they won't retain and even if they retain it they won't use it as an adult.”

For school systems, Dintersmith suggests that the road to redemption is to give educators more freedom to make their classes inspiring and relevant.

“When people pursue something they want to do they go to the ends of the earth to do a great job of it. When you tell them what they have to do they just go through the motions — and that's the reality of education in America.”

He comments extensively on standardized testing, and worries that many schools, including colleges, have evolved to define success in ways that are too prescriptive:

“The reality is fewer and fewer adult organizations want to hire young adults who are constantly needing direction and constantly craving the feedback that is the workplace equivalent of ‘am i getting an A?’”

He closed his remarks with the exhortation that students should be bold in advocating for big changes in their schools.

“This isn't a system that needs to be tinkered with. It's a system that needs to be rethought from the bottom up… Everything in my life that I've done that I'm proud of started with my saying ‘I don't buy it. I don't believe the way we've always done it is the best way.’”

What do you think?

Watch Zaid’s full interview with Ted Dintersmith, embedded above, to hear more about his provocative perspective. What do you think?

Questions & Comments

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Tim Buchanan October 13, 2021 at 12:25 pm
As a retired teacher of high school English I have to agree wholeheartedly with Dintersmith’s assessment of our education system. Though there are many teachers working outside the routine, too many are trapped by their implicit bias and that of an antiquated hierarchy. The leadership website sounds like a relevant support mechanism, which I will pass along to teacher and student friends.
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