MITili speaks with executive producer, writer, and former venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith about the future of education

Steve Nelson
Ted Casual

Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist, is the executive producer of Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary that focuses on a ninth-grade class in San Diego at High Tech High. He is also the author of recently published What School Could Be: Insights and Inspirations from Teachers Across America. Dintersmith has traveled to hundreds of schools across the country to find ways to make education more effective. His travels recently brought him to MIT. During his visit, MITili sat down with Dintersmith for a quick Q&A to find out what he’s learned.

You’ve written a book with an ambitious title, “What School Could Be.” What should the classroom of the future look like?

I traveled all around the country and dedicated all nine months of an entire school year, every single school day, to go to all 50 states, visiting 200 schools, and convening 1,000 meetings -- a pretty exhausting schedule. Most days ran from 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night.

I saw so many great things – places where kids learned deeply and joyfully.  But on the surface, no two looked alike. That's why I chose the somewhat inviting title of what school could be. It's not to say each classroom should be standardized to look exactly like thousands of others.  But it’s all about the creative, distinctive learning experiences that blossom when we support and trust teachers to meet the needs of their kids, to leverage their talents and expertise, and to connect classrooms to the surrounding community. When that happens, schools and classrooms are doing very different things, but in their own way are preparing kids for a world of innovation.

I didn't, at the beginning of the trip, intend to write a book. By the time I got to the end, I had heard so many great stories, I felt I needed to share those with people beyond my family and friends. So I wrote a book and in the process of writing it, I had to think “okay, what did these classrooms have in common? Are there underlying principles that they share?” And I came up with the acronym PEAK (Purpose, Essentials, Agency, and Knowledge).  When kids are learning to their full potential, they – and their teachers – feel a deep sense of purpose. They develop essential competencies.  These students and teachers have a high degree of agency.  And the knowledge students learn isn’t what they can cram into short-term memory for a test, but is deep and retained, as demonstrated by their ability to create and produce, to teach others, to inquire deeply. When those four elements are in place, kids are learning, and being prepared for their futures.

Why should educators trust a venture capitalist on what education should be?

I think they shouldn't. I understand why any educator is skeptical of someone coming from the world of business.  Most business people have made a mess of what they do in education. I dread it when somebody introduces me as an education expert, since I know that the real expertise is held by our classroom teachers.  So I understand their skepticism, because those of us with business backgrounds just need to do a much better job of understanding and influencing what goes on in our schools. 

There’s a somewhat dismal track record.

Yeah. I think dismal is accurate. But I’ve worked my tail off to get out in the field. I doubt too many other businesspeople turned education philanthropist have gone to all 50 states on their own nickel to understand, listen, and learn from teachers. I've been to rural areas. I've been to Western tribal villages. Indian reservations.  Urban.  Suburban.  You name it. And because I don't presume to have all the answers, I welcome hearing from educators about what's working, and about what kind of conditions empower them to do their best work. The book is really my retelling of the stories teachers so generously shared with me. This month, I went to Minneapolis to the annual conference of the NEA, the largest teacher's union in the country. They represent more than teachers and they have an annual Friend of Education Award. This year, they presented it to me.   So I think it’s noteworthy that I advocate for re-imagining school, and my message resonates with our classroom teachers.  They know what we need to do, and I think they appreciate hearing from a non-educator who advocates for extending more trust to our teachers, paying them a fair wage, moving to more sensible accountability approaches, and celebrating their remarkable innovations.

By the way, in 46 years, only one other person with any kind of a business background has received the NEA award and that was the person who started the Discovery Channel. Past recipients include Thurgood Marshall, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and a long list of people your readers have heard of.  But I’m encouraged that they chose this year to give their award to an anonymous former venture capitalist who is advocating for an innovation change model in education that stands in stark contrast to our top-down, central planning approach that, in seeking to leave no child behind, has done so much damage to millions in our schools – both kids and teachers. I think they felt like I had done my homework and I did a respectable job of sharing back the insights that teachers have in a way that has, I think, a degree of credibility because I'm objective, with no ax to grind.


I just wanted to write a book about amazing innovation of public schools, about when you trust teachers and students, they rise to that challenge and do incredible things. I write about the fact that we impose the most ludicrous accountability measures on teachers.

As somebody that understands jobs of the future and somebody that is delivering a message that isn't usual for business people, I hope it plays a constructive role in moving education forward.  But I do believe I have real insight into innovation, and I work hard to understand education. I'm not comfortable with being called an education expert and I write in the book "The expertise lies with our classroom teachers. We should be paying attention to them, trusting them, understanding what works."

One of the things that distinguishes my perspective is that I am, in many ways, the anti-data person. When you run a mega-foundation, you aren't spending time in the field or you've spent token amounts of time in the field.  So you want data. You have program managers that want data. So what happens? When you want data, they often say "Well, the data we have is the data we use" and so they end up dwelling on, even obsessing about, test score improvement because that's the data we have.  They prescribe policies that take all the joy out of learning, bore kids, and demoralize teachers.  And then they wonder why test scores don't improve. In a very real sense, I'm out there seeing it, observing it, talking to people.

The teachers are always so generous in sharing their stories, about how they teach but also, in many cases, the personal anguish they feel from having to teach to the test, the personal hardship from having to hold two jobs. One teacher I write about described to many aspiring young teachers in the local school of education that he looks in the mirror every day and says "Do I do what is best for my kids or do I do what the state of Michigan tells me I have to do?" He said, "I choose to do what's best for my kids and I encourage you to do the same thing.  They need you now more than ever.” That's a powerful story and it moved me and all of those in the room with him. I hope it moves my readers to realize that that's the bind we put our teachers in when we hold them to these dreadfully designed state-mandated tests.

Standardized testing can be awful.

The SAT is a bad test, but the state-mandated test are even worse. States don’t have much of a budget. These tests don’t provide teachers with feedback that helps them improve their practice. In a lot of cases, students have no incentive to perform well on these tests.  And teachers get no feedback from these tests about ways to meet the needs of individual students.  Honestly, these tests are an abomination, and policymakers who impose them on our schools need to understand the ramifications.

In regards to 200 plus schools you visited, what's your most memorable moment regarding student or teacher interaction?

I start my chapter on K12 schools in our country with a kindergarten teacher in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was new to the teaching force. He read what the state of Indiana said he should do with his kindergartners - tasks like 90-minute uninterrupted blocks of reading time.  He said to his principal, "Do the people who write these regulations realize what five year olds are like?"

And he has this bold idea. He goes to his principal and says "I want my kids to learn how to design robots and do 3D printing." And the principal says, "Do you have any of the equipment? We don't have this equipment at the school. Do you have it?" And he says “nope. But, I bet if I take five year olds out in the community and ask businesses to fund it, they'll get some support.”  And that’s what they did.  The principal then asks "Jared, how much do you know about robotics and 3D printing?" And he says "You know, I know nothing about it but I'm willing to stand in front of a class and say we're going to learn together." And what Jared found is what I saw across the country.  When kids are challenged to do incredible things, they can't wait to be in school. Even though Jared didn’t teach to any test, these kids did better than expected on reading and math, to a large extent because they wanted to learn.  They were enthusiastic about learning how to reach because they needed to read the instructions for a 3D printer.

When it comes to math, this Fort Wayne teacher challenges kids by doing things like putting 10 blocks at the end of a hallway and ask them to program their robot to go get four of them. He says "When kids are programming in Arduino, something like 10 minus four equals six just doesn't seem that hard to them." And so to me, that set the tone for my book because it talked about letting kids learn instead of someone standing in the front of the room teaching them, feeling they need to be the total expert. There’s enormous power and magic in giving kids challenges they welcome and embrace, connect their learning to the real world. And kids will respond – even really young kids, and particularly kids in less affluent circumstances. Fort Wayne has got its challenges, a very blue-collar hardscrabble place, and these kids do amazing things. Not every kid, but even the kids that don't do the world's best 3D printing or design fabulous robots are learning so much from it.

So what do you see as the role of learning research in education?

As I said, I’m not a data fan, and I'm not a data fan because I think the competencies, the mindsets that matter in the future are things you can assess, things you can observe. But if you try to measure these skills and mindsets, you corrode the experience.  When it comes to things like creative problem solving or collaboration, I don’t think it makes sense to try to precisely rank a kid in Cambridge to a kid in Toledo or to a kid in Sacramento.

When it comes to how I approach ‘research,’ someone described it as ‘ethnographic’ – when you study people in their own environment. I traveled a lot that school year, but I travel all of the time. I'm in a hotel room 275 nights a year. So I get to look at lots and lots of experiences, which helps surface patterns. In my book, I try to distill from these great learning experiences what the common elements are, and what education leaders can do to help these types of classrooms blossom at scale. How do you set the right conditions for those to blossom? Which is not a top-down central planning, demanding that everybody does the same thing – all too often something they don’t believe in.  It’s supporting teachers in the field, trusting them to design new accountability approaches that have appropriate checks and balances, supporting them with far better professional development in the field. 

Back to research, there is great work going on. There's great research on neuroscience. I absolutely appreciate the importance of early childhood education research. But, when it comes to K-12, we don’t need to send contingents to Finland or Singapore. Our innovative classroom teachers know what to do. It's how do you set the conditions, so as to let the best come out of our kids and our teachers in schools. Today, we have a whole set of conditions we impose on schools that actually impair the life prospects of kids, and demoralize our teachers.  This is something I see all across our country.  When school fails kids, we tend to blame our teachers.  But they are dedicated. They care beyond belief. They want great things for their kids.  But when they're held accountable to state-mandated tests; when parents are incredibly risk-averse, when there's just a grumpiness around doing anything new and different; when students might not even be that supportive of changes in pedagogy cases; when a bunch of different things weigh down on them, it makes it very, very difficult to do what they entered their profession to do – engage and inspire our children.

Our schools, our nation, can realize a huge amount of upside by understanding what conditions let teachers do their best work. To use a metaphor from track and field, there are teachers itching to sprint, so how do we let them sprint? Other teachers, when they see the sprinters aren't getting wailed on or punished for it, will want to run, so how do we help them run. Then there are teachers who might be up for jogging, at least a few times a week, and let’s encourage that.  And for those teachers who just don't want to change, who are convinced that the best approach to learning is for an adult to stand in front of the class lecturing at kids, well, some of those teachers may actually have an effective way of helping kids learn.   But my advice to principals and superintendents is not to insist that all teachers do things in a certain way, but to support and celebrate innovative practices that change the way kids engage in their learning, with their classmates, and with their teachers.  And if only some of a school’s teachers buy into this, so be it, and it may not be a bad thing for a kid to have a diversity of learning experiences.

I think once you get in the practice of saying everybody has to do it this way, you take the innovation, the creativity, the joy out of it.  All I hope for is that those sprinters and those runners and even those joggers, instead of feeling discouraged, instead of feeling like everyone around them is discouraging them, that they feel supported in transforming some of what school is about for their kids. Instead of dwelling on what isn't working, let’s showcase things that are really great and say these are the things that work really well.  Ask, how can we do more of it? That's what I've been doing in these two states: North Dakota and Hawaii.

It goes back to Peter Drucker, who notes that organizations and people tend to think that the best way to improve is to address our weaknesses. No, you need to find out what you do well and do more of it. I love that. Find out what you do well and do more of it. I think if we can do that in our schools with our kids, there's an enormous amount of a pent up potential out there.

If MIT could only focus on changing one aspect of today’s education system, what would be and why?



I’m not picking on MIT’s admissions but imagine if admissions in colleges said we're going to value high school kids who have a track record of creating and carrying out initiatives— ideally creative bold initiatives - that make the world better.  If that’s what college admissions valued, that's what K-12 schools would do. And if college admissions values SAT scores, AP scores, and check-the-box extracurriculars, well, that will define K12 education.  Also, while some admissions officers look far beyond the numbers, there is a bit of a disconnect between what admissions values and what a lot of parents and guidance counselors think they value.  In talking to lots and lots of parents, guidance counselors and schools, I can tell you that the world thinks admissions wants perfect grades, perfect SATs, lots of AP courses and a long list of formulaic extra-curricular activities designed to appeal to admissions. They think schools want the perfect college application and if child doesn’t produce that in high school, the child is somehow deficient, and the parents have fallen short in their parenting.


When colleges send that message, perhaps misunderstood to some extent, but when that's the message coming out to K-12 schools, the rich schools fall in line because those families are obsessed with getting their kids into the right colleges. The poor schools understandably want to be like the rich schools, and soon everybody will do lots of test prep, lots of AP courses, lots of check the boxes off type of stuff. I'm skeptical the kids actually learn and retain much from that. I actually think it damages their mindsets going forward. There’s too much just jumping through hoops, following the defined path, doing what somebody else thinks is important.

One thing you'd have to change in conjunction with an admissions process with different priorities is the way many colleges conduct introductory courses. I don't know how that works at MIT but at many colleges, Freshmen have to navigate many insidious weed-er outer courses whose only purpose really is to discourage, deflect, and marginalize kids from setting career goals. For example, many colleges required calculus as a prerequisite for majors like business and biology.  But I question how important it is for anyone, even engineering majors, to drill on doing integrals by hand, when these low-level tasks can be performed instantly and perfectly by your devices.  And anyone who claims that knowing how to do a hyperbolic cosine transformation provides great insight into how to apply calculus is, well, just fishing for a rationale to justify a low-level task that, today, is obsolete. It makes no sense. More generally, though, if an incoming student to a college has to take lots of lecture courses that require taking notes, memorizing material, and spitting it back on an exam, then we’re very likely to let bad college pedagogy place demands on our high-schools to train kids to survive bad high-school pedagogy, and that perverts the admissions process.  The real challenge, and opportunity, for our schools – K-12 and college – is to move away from an approach that is, far more often than not, a waste of time.

But if college admissions officers announced they will value authentic examples of student work, that would be a powerful signal.  If 100 top colleges said "This is what we care the most about: students that create and implement bold initiatives that, in a way they define and believe in, make their world better." We'd have a very different K-12 system in our country in two to three years.

If you could sit down with any student right now, any age, any grade, any city, what advice would you give them to be successful in the future?

Well, I try not to be overly prescriptive. I don't presume to tell people what to do, particularly when it comes to their children.  But I can offer some perspective on trade-offs. One of the choices a child and their family have is whether to play the game of school, or focus on having this child become a young adult who is motivated and equipped to solve important problems.  Those two goals are quite different.  I find over and over again— friends of mine, colleagues, people who meet me after events and talk to me—so many parents think that the low-risk path, the safe path, is to push and push and push their kid to do a bunch of things to look good to college admissions officers. So they go all out to make their kid play the game and play it hard.  They are on their child every step of the way to make sure they produce.  And, statistically, better educated and more affluent parents are inclined, and have the resources, to push their kids hard and effectively to produce the ‘right’ college application, grades, and test scores. 

But when a high-school graduate is the kid the parents think admissions officers want, there are no winners. Those kids are deeply unhappy. They are conditioned year in and year out to do what looks good to somebody else instead of finding ways they can make a difference. I ask parents to reflect on the type of relationship they want to have with their child. If you encourage your child to just be as interesting and as bold and as creative as they can be, to find ways you can make a difference in their world, you'll almost certainly have a much healthier parent-child relationship. You'll have a much happier kid who, even if they don’t get into MIT, will have a more fulfilling adult life.  That’s a trade-off that I, as a parent, would definitely take.  And then I tell parents that college admissions is a crapshoot. Depending on who happens to review their child’s application, what time of day it is, depending on what the last ten applications look like, the admissions officer might well prefer an interesting kid over one with perfect numbers, but lacking all spark, joy, or evidence of real determination and potential to make their world better. Your ‘perfect’ kid just might get rejected by an admissions officer who places more priority on kids who can create their own path, with the self-confidence to do what they believe is important.

So, I say to parents, would you rather have an interesting fulfilled kid or a kid you've grounded into submission? That's your call. There are risks with either approach. Don’t think of one as the risk-free, guaranteed path to the college you want your child to attend, and the other as highly risky.  Because that's just not true and you may be losing your child in a number of ways.