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A Creative Venture Capitalist With an Open Mind Discovers the Factory Model is a Failure

January 1, 2015

In early November Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss posted a lengthy article by Ted Dintersmith, “…a highly successful venture capitalist and father of two who is devoting most of his time, energy and part of of his personal fortune to education-related initiatives that call for a radical remaking of what and how students learn.” The article ran under the title “A Venture Capitalist Searches for the Purpose of School. Here’s What he Finds”. In the end he finds what those of us who oppose the test-and-punish “reform” movement already know: our schools are becoming less relevant to students and measuring skills that have no relationship to what is needed to succeed in the workplace or college.

I recently listened to Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz’ insightful book on how poorly our highly competitive high schools and colleges prepare students for life. The “excellent sheep” who progress through the best schools and colleges jump through hoops without questioning where the hoops lead and why the hoops exist. As noted in Dintersmith’s article, Deresiewicz ultimately concluded that instead of being a hierarchy of hoops defined by test scores “…education should help students in “building a soul” after “teaching kids to think.” Both Deresiewicz and Dintersmith conclude that education is falling short for our best and brightest children.

And how is schooling working for those born in poverty? I am now listening to Ta Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me which includes a section describing how school looked through the eyes of a West Baltimore African American student in the side 1980s. Coates describes an environment that valued compliance over creativity, an environment that stifled questions and rewarded students with sharpened #2 pencils, hall passes, and quiet demeanors.

After witnessing the passage of ESSA and reading editorials lamenting the low test scores and lack of preparedness on the part of high school graduates, it was refreshing to read about Mr. Dintersmith’s quest to define the purpose of education. Too many of his billionaire colleagues and the political leaders they and for elected office have decided that the purpose is simple: prepare for the workforce of today. Dintersmith understands that preparing for today’s workforce is a mindless pursuit: that innovative and creative thinking is needed far more than the narrow thinking that standardized tests measure or mastering a checklist of skills that an employer puts together based on the jobs they have available now. So what has Mr. Dintersmith concluded after spending several years seeking the purpose of education?

So back to that purpose question. Maybe, in the end, the purpose of school is to help our kids find their own sense of purpose. To prepare them for a life where they can set, and achieve, their own goals, not grind away to meet the needs of some bureaucrat or college admissions officer. Given decades of damage from our testing and accountability strategy, maybe it’s time to place our bets on a strategy that puts its weight behind engaging and inspiring our kids . . . and teachers. Imagine what our country is capable of if we figure out how to launch millions of purpose-driven kids into society prepared and energized to their world better through their talents, passions, developing skills, and ability to learn. Kids that are, truly, prepared for life. 

This was written two months ago… before the passage of ESSA. I imagine Mr. Dintersmith hoped for better from Congress, whose decision to continue with the test-and-punish mandate (albeit at a State level as opposed to a federal level) will ensure that students will continue to “…grind away to meet the needs of some bureaucrat or college admissions officer” instead of defining their own purpose.  Maybe his message will penetrate more than that of Bill Gates… but it will require someone in some Statehouse to adopt a different set of standards and a different set of tests.

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