How Can We Fix U.S. High Schools? Stop Using ‘Covered Wagon’ Model

Ted Dintersmith, executive producer of “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Ted Dintersmith spent most of his career as a venture capitalist, but became both fascinated and outraged by education when he watched what was happening to his own children in school.

“I felt it was almost as if school was designed to crush the creativity out of my kids,” said Dintersmith, who decided to devote his energy to fixing the many things he believes are wrong with U.S. education.

Dintersmith says he’s now on a mission to change schools that are “stuck in the 19th century.” Most recently, he became executive producer of the film “Most Likely to Succeed,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be shown this week at the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit.

Related: How can we fix U.S. high schools? We are going to find out

The film, directed by Greg Whiteley, focuses on the innovative High Tech High, part of a growing network of San Diego charter schools, first launched in 2007 by a coalition of business leaders and educators. It portrays our current education system as both outdated and obsolete, one that bores today’s students to tears via rote memorization and endless standardized tests, without teaching them what they need to know for the jobs of the future.

Related: Learning more outside the classroom than in

In contrast, “Most Likely to Succeed” showcases education as Dintersmith believes it should be: student driven, passionate and rigorous, guided by smart, well-trained teachers who know when to step in and when to step back. The film portrays deeply engaged students, who grapple with both success and failure while learning from one another and working on complex and purposeful projects, including a play. He says the film is designed to give “hope and optimism about what constitutes good education.”

The Hechinger Report spoke with Dintersmith about his quest to fix U.S. high schools. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: What led you to believe that so many of our high schools as they are designed now are not working?

Answer: We are having kids do low-level things instead of important things to help them do well in life. By and large they are in classes where teachers are talking almost all the time. When that happens, kids turn off. It’s just a boring lecture. Kids are bored to tears. Shouldn’t kids be learning things in school that are directly useful in life? What is the way to learn? How much do you get out of a school year with lecture classes and multiple-choice tests? We need wholesale improvement. Seriously, who feels like our schools are doing a great job right now? We would always be last in the Indy 500. Let’s get rid of the covered wagon. I spent my career in venture capital and two takeaways were that structured, routine jobs are disappearing, and academic superstars don’t do so well in the world of innovation.

Related: What if a high school diploma guaranteed a highly paid job?

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.

Q: It’s hard not to watch the joy kids in the movie get out of learning and wonder: Why can’t more high schools be like High Tech High? Could they be?

A: Could every school be like High Tech High? They couldn’t be. But if teachers could say, “I’d like to have more of my kids debating and learning from one another and making their own decisions and living with the consequences,” it would improve schools by an order of magnitude with just that change. Is it too much to ask to have a complete re-imagination of schools once every 125 years?

Q: How many of the problems (and the solutions) are about teaching?

A: Teachers don’t get the right preparation. There is a systems problem [in graduate schools of education]. Aspiring teachers are sitting in rows. We teach them the wrong way. Teachers are teaching in an environment where their performance is reflected in tests. We hope that when we show this film to a school community, things will change. This is a great push to move our kids forward. Why not let them [teachers] feel unleashed to do things that are different? Look, everyone is exasperated. They are angry, and they are revolting nonstop against standardized tests. Why not show [a high school] where kids are hooked and interested and learning at a rapid rate? It would have been super easy to do a documentary that was negative. It could have been a field day. Instead, we have a powerful film that shows us a general sense of conviction and excitement for designing a high school experience that gears kids up for jobs that won’t go away. It is showing kids doing things they care about and love, and running with them.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute.