What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America

What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America

by Ted Dintersmith


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691180618
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/10/2018
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 18,710
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ted Dintersmith is one of the nation's leading voices on innovation and education. His four-decade career spans technology, business, public policy, and education philanthropy. He was the executive producer of the acclaimed documentary Most Likely to Succeed, as well as the author, along with Tony Wagner, of the book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era (Scribner). When he's not visiting schools, he lives in rural Virginia.

Read an Excerpt


Conventional Schools and Their Contexts

I used to consider myself an education expert. I had, after all, spent years in school as a student. What more is needed? My former expert-self carried certain assumptions, perhaps ones you share. Schoolchildren master fundamentals as they progress through proven curriculum. Test scores and grades tell us how much they are learning. A school's average test scores measure its quality. Children need to perform to rigorous academic standards, since life prospects hinge on a college degree. The more elite the college, the better the life. All this seemed evident.

The very first school I visited on this trip was quite conventional — not surprising since most U.S. schools are. Like all schools, it straddles two contexts — its nineteenth-century education model and its twenty-first-century dynamic world. One pulls it back in time, the other pulls it forward. In U.S. education today, the past is winning this tug-of-war. This school happens to be a high-performing suburban public high school. It could just as easily be a charter or private school. For reasons that will become clear, I'm giving it a fictitious name — Eisenhower High.

This school excels on every conventional metric. In the eyes of many, including my former expert-self, this school is the gold standard for American education.

* * *

Any Affluent Suburb, USA — As you approach Eisenhower High, you immediately recognize it as a high school — a sprawling two-story red-brick building surrounded by parking lots and expansive athletic facilities. A main entrance marked by flagpoles. An entry foyer lined with glass cabinets for sports trophies. Locker-filled corridors that oscillate between forty-five minutes of eerie quiet and three minutes of bedlam.

Comprehensive suburban schools like Eisenhower educate about half of America's 16 million high school students. Another 4.5 million go to urban high schools, many labeled "dropout factories." Some 3.5 million attend rural schools. A half million go to private high schools, mostly religious; a comparable amount go to charter high schools. A few hundred thousand homeschool. At least another million would be categorized as dropouts, although the number's elusive since many disappear from the system after middle school.

Eisenhower's students work hard, posting test scores consistently at the top of their state. Class sizes are reasonable, and teachers are articulate and knowledgeable. The principal is committed to the school's success. Eisenhower offers two dozen Advanced Placement (AP) courses, along with myriad after-school programs. All Eisenhower students graduate on time and go on to college, many to the Ivy League. Sports teams are a source of school pride, and athletic facilities are enviable. No metal detectors as you enter. By all traditional measures, this is a high-performing school.

When observing classes, I saw teachers imparting their domain expertise as they cover material. Students diligently take notes. Every so often, teachers pose questions to students, who raise their hands with answers retrieved from handouts or texts. Class participation affects their grade, so students are on their toes. Occasionally, a student asks a question of their teacher — invariably something like, "Will this be on the test?"

Administrators here wanted me to see their innovative practices. I visited two classrooms with students sitting in small groups instead of in rows of desks, although class discussion was controlled by the teacher. In a chemistry class, students were memorizing the periodic table with a "cool" iPad app. Their new community service program requires students to log twenty hours each year, choosing from three faculty-defined options. Student infractions are punished by adding more hours of required service.

I was able to meet informally with a group of seniors, all quite busy with classes, extracurriculars, and college applications. I asked why they come to school — "We have to," "To get into a good college," "To play on the football team," "To hang with my friends." Daily schedules were traditional — two were taking the exact classes I took my senior year forty-seven years ago. Regarding their studies, I asked which topics they found exciting. Blank stares, as though I was speaking a foreign language. Speaking of which, a few were taking Spanish IV but were at a loss when asked, "¿Por qué es importante estudiar una lengua extranjera?" When I inquired about interests pursued in their free time, silence punctuated by a few nervous giggles. No signs of absorbing hobbies, internships, projects, or jobs.

At the end of the session, one student lingered. He explained that Eisenhower's students feel pressure to get into the "right college." He described Adderall-assisted all-nighters cramming for tests. Many have SAT or ACT tutors, and feel stressed about their scores. He likened school to "being one of those hamsters on a wheel. We keep running faster and faster, but it doesn't feel like we're getting anywhere." As he was leaving, he remarked, "We know school is just the game we have to play. But, hey, we don't make up the rules. You do."

He's right. So what are these rules, and where do they come from?

* * *

To understand what rules the day at Eisenhower, or any standard school, we need to go back in time. Way back. To 1893, when education leaders anticipated that the U.S. economy would shift from agrarian to industrial. Farsightedly, they formed a Committee of Ten and proceeded to transform education from one-room schoolhouses to a standardized factory model. Teach students the same subjects, in the same way. Train them to perform routine tasks time-efficiently, without error or creative deviation. Produce a uniform workforce ready for lifetimes on the assembly line. The model worked, spectacularly. Over the course of the twentieth century, real U.S. per capita GDP soared from $3,500 to $23,000. A robust middle class emerged. Our nation rose to the top of every international measure of power.

This 1893 factory model was so successful that it remains with us to this day. Over the decades, an education infrastructure has grown up around it. This system, with its myriad interlocking parts, provides context to schools across America. If you aspire to being an informed citizen, you need to understand this context, dry as it might be.

* * *

All Over, USA — Eisenhower operates in the context of governmental rules and regulations, governance bodies, financial constraints, and community expectations. And it sits amid a complicated web of other schools — the ones that feed it, the ones it competes with, and the colleges its seniors apply to. This context drives Eisenhower's daily regimen.

These graduating seniors have taken more standardized tests than any other students in their state's history. Annual state-mandated testing began in kindergarten. They've taken the PSAT, the SAT, and ACT (often multiple times), AP and SAT subject tests. Recently the PARCC assessment was added. Pick a few letters at random, and they probably took that test. Over their K–12 years, each student has taken more than one hundred standardized tests. The No Child Left Behind generation.

This school's community takes test scores seriously. They have no choice. The United States is a competitive society with a short attention span. Scores provide an efficient way to measure a person's aptitude, and a school's quality. So Eisenhower and its K–8 feeder schools train students to rip through questions like:

Math: Which of the following expressions is equivalent to 3*x2 + 6x - 24

a. 3*(x + 2)*(x - 4)


Some random poem About schedules and trains The kind of poem That dulls kids' brains

Dividing the poem into two stanzas allows the poet to:

a. compare the speaker's schedule with the train's schedule

b. ask questions to keep the reader guessing about what will happen

c. contrast the speaker's feeling about weekends and Mondays

d. incorporate reminders for the reader about where the action takes place

There's a recipe for excelling on these tests. Practice, practice, practice so you answer questions quickly, without thinking. Skip anything unfamiliar, rather than waste time trying to figure it out. Don't think creatively, since that costs time and points. Perform like a machine. While there's no evidence that these tests have consequential predictive value or equip students with useful skills, they are widely accepted as the measure of learning, intelligence, and worth. Not exactly uplifting, but the stuff of these tests has become the stuff of our schools.

Eisenhower prides itself on producing "college-ready" graduates. Students, teachers, local businesses, and especially parents care about college. Every student goes on to a four-year college, with counselors and consultants guiding the way. Parents fight fiercely to give their child every college advantage. They see it as the key to their child's future and the defining marker of their parenting success.

The school's principal reports to a district superintendent, who in turn reports to the local school board. Superintendents have clout. Some encourage their schools to innovate; others push for better numbers (e.g., test scores, graduation rates, attendance). School boards hire, oversee, and at times fire their superintendent. Boards manage facilities, negotiate with subchapters of the state teachers' union, oversee budgets, and adopt policies and curriculum. Serving on a school board can require five to fifteen hours each week, making it hard to attract qualified members. Boards can make or break the success of a district and its children. Pay attention. During my trip, I asked top superintendents about the key to turning around a broken district. To a person they said, "The right school board."

Schools and districts interact with their state's Department of Education and its commissioner. Commissioners set goals and strategy, monitor progress, ensure governance, and advocate to the legislature for resources. During this travel year, I met with twenty-three commissioners — evenly divided between those more focused on policing schools and those prioritizing supporting schools.

Governors influence schools in their state. The dozen I met care particularly about workforce development. State legislatures specify standard-of-learning testing policies, curriculum, and the courses needed to graduate (typically algebra, history, and a science class). State legislators generally aren't paid well (typically $35,000/year or less) and are required to be in the state capital during session (often several months a year), an enormous burden for those whose families and jobs are afar. I met some sixty of these legislators this year. They recognize that our education model isn't working, and some have supported legislation that encourages innovation. Few, though, have the time, staff, or passion to lead any charge.

Like all public schools in America, Eisenhower is funded by taxpayer dollars from federal, state, and local sources. Most federal dollars come from the U.S. Department of Education Title I program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "free and reduced lunch" program. While federal funds cover just 10% of national K–12 public school expenditures, they're deployed in ways to ensure compliance with federal regulations. A heavy stick.

The average school district in America gets 50% of its funds from its state, an amount trending down as budgets tighten. On average, 40% of funds come from local property taxes, with enormous variation. In most states, affluent districts have ample budgets ($20,000/student-year or more), while poor districts struggle ($10,000/student-year or less). Those who need the least get the most, and those who need the most get the least. Why? In the landmark 1953 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that education "is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." But a less-heralded 1973 Supreme Court decision, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, drives inequity. Demetrio Rodriguez's children attended a poor school in San Antonio, while rich kids in adjacent neighborhoods were getting a better deal. He brought suit, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision that states aren't obligated to provide equal funding to schools. While Brown v. Board of Education promised America's children an education on "equal terms," Rodriguez makes clear that America is fine with vast disparities in rich v. poor. This matters.

The federal government played no role in education until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty included the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to fund programs for low-income and disabled children, bilingual education, and libraries and curriculum. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the U.S. Department of Education, which has grown to 4,400 employees administering a $68 billion annual budget. The 1984 Vocational and Technical Education Act provides modest funding of about $25 per student annually for career and technical education (CTE) programs.

In 2002 with bipartisan support, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. It proclaimed that all U.S. children would be proficient by 2014, a patently ludicrous objective. Further, the act uses test scores as the sole measure of school "success." A school is a failure if even one child is left behind or if its students fail to post Adequate Yearly Progress on tests. Data hawks loved NCLB because it put testing at the center of education. Civil rights leaders loved it, believing that test scores would show that poor kids are getting shortchanged. Organizations selling tests, texts, curriculum, and test-prep materials salivated over prospects for more revenue — and unleashed their lobbyists to get this bill passed. The average citizen went along; who wants to leave a child behind? In 2009, the Obama administration doubled down on NCLB, offering waivers to states with subpar NCLB performance if they complied with Race to the Top (RTTT) accountability measures. Together, Bush and Obama made U.S. education the global leader in standardized testing.

In 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), shifting some education control back to the states. Annual testing for grades 3–8 is still mandated, but states have more responsibility for test design and accountability. Under ESSA, states can obtain waivers allowing local performance- and competency-based standards. Obama commented, "One thing Inever want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you're not learning about the world. ... All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that's not going to make education interesting. ... And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in. They're not going to do as well if it's boring." Truer words were never spoken, but they came late in his presidency.

Eisenhower High doesn't operate in a vacuum. No school does. It sits in a maze of local, state, and federal control, managed by officials often lacking classroom experience. Eisenhower is constantly compared to other schools on the basis of test scores, graduation rates, and college placements. A nearby expensive private school feeds its graduates into elite universities, pressuring Eisenhower. This state, like forty-two others, allows for charter schools. Here, charter schools focus on producing superior test scores, pushing Eisenhower to keep pace. It's generally agreed that this test-score competition is healthy. Schools in an adjacent low-income district emulate Eisenhower and its successful peers. As stakes rise for high schools, the community's K–8 schools are pressed to raise their game.

Eisenhower High reflects the reality and the aspirations of most of America's 130,000 schools — private, public, and charter. As Eisenhower High goes, so goes the nation.

* * *

A decade ago, I would have admired Eisenhower High. Their students excel on what our education system demands: committing content to short-term memory, sprinting from hoop to hoop, playing the game of school. We shouldn't criticize Eisenhower High's educators. They're conforming to the context imposed on them by an archaic system. This type of school made sense in the era of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Prepare young adults for an economy dominated by large, hierarchical organizations with employees performing to job descriptions. Equip students with citizenship skills suited to a democracy with trusted news sources informing us about civic-minded leaders. But Dwight D. Eisenhower died in 1969, taking a simpler era with him to his grave.


Excerpted from "What School Could Be"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Ted Dintersmith.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue xiii

Glossary of Abbreviations xxiii

1 Conventional Schools and Their Contexts 1

2 Real Gold amid Fool’s Gold 19

3 Prepared for What 44

4 The Ivory Tower 71

5 Letting Go 97

6 Social Equity 103

7 Human Potential 126

8 Doing (Obsolete) Things Better 148

9 Doing Better Things 168

10 It Takes a Village 192

Reflections 215

Acknowledgments 221

Notes 223

Index 225

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What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
KimberlyD24 More than 1 year ago
There's so much to appreciate about this book, but what I love most about it is its celebration of teachers. Teachers know how to inspire kids--but they have been utterly shackled to a testing mandate that not only stifles learning but reinforces a system that rewards students for rote memorization, a skill that is virtually obsolete in the marketplace. Dintersmith writes with passion about the urgency of reform, but he's not prescriptive. Rather, he identifies the conditions that lead to deep learning and the agency that will be required for a student to be a competent citizen and competitive in the machine age. And he highlight teachers doing this innovative work all across the country - in public, private and charter schools, with resources and without. What School Could Be is a must-read for any teacher, parent or administrator who feels the urgent need to reimagine the classroom for the 21st Century.
ShawnSorensen43 More than 1 year ago
I was a good writer in my K-12 years, decent in all subjects, and came from a home that values helping others. Yet I was a shy kid who wanted to be good and therefore was too adept at going with the flow - an “Invisible Boy”, as author Trudi Ludwig might call me. One of biggest themes What School Could Be is agency – students having choice in what they're learning, in how they learn it and if what they are doing makes difference in the lives of others or makes the world at large better. Dintersmith references a stat that says students learn ten times as fast when they are having fun. The book hammers away against teaching to the test (state and federal multiple choice tests, the ACT, the SAT, etc.) as not only taking away enjoyment and agency from students, but in favoring wealthy students who can afford tutors, whose schools offer more Advanced Placement courses, whose parents have much more likely to have been to Ivy League schools themselves. In many Ivy League schools, 50% of the student body is made up of the top 1%. A good education levels the playing field and helps everyone – success is due to merit and hard work, not the bank accounts or famous names of family members. Besides exacerbating inequality, testing doesn’t measure the very skills needed to make it in our Innovation Era – persistence, communication, collaboration and creativity. If students are given choice about projects they care about, are given opportunities to interface with local businesses, other classrooms, etc., they would have deeper knowledge about what they were working on, with teachers skillfully integrating other subject matter into the project to broaden learning. Students would also have more encouragement to be creative, fail, and try something else because of an overall goal that they chose, and would be making a difference in real-world settings. Many students learn the most through after school activities, where there aren’t any multiple choice tests to rank them. Yet the whole school day could offer these types of opportunities. In other words, the less educators teach to the test, the better students do on the test. The author backs it up with examples of classrooms and schools who succeed with alternative learning models. Yet there is a lot of resistance to more open-ended learning. Open-ended classrooms are often noisier and messier, learning gains don’t come in neat, year-by-year letter grades, and it’s different from how many parents remember learning – the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom, students being shepherded through field trips (if they have any) and learning to be a good kid by being quiet. What makes Dintersmith’s book stand out is its impassioned bluntness. He takes on politicians at all levels and of all parties who stress testing and learning outdated skills like Algebra and Calculus, a lot of which is now done by smartphones and Google. He says arguments shouldn’t be about whether a teacher is in a union or not, but whether a school has the leadership that will do anything it takes – including open-ended learning and wide-ranging connections between schools and local businesses – to give their students agency, purpose, deeper learning and hope for their future and their important place in it. He visited all sorts of schools in all 50 states, building proof to drive his points home and giving more resources, references and ideas for educators and would-be educators.