Teaching Profession Opinion

Book Review: What School Could Be

By Nancy Flanagan — August 15, 2018 5 min read
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It has taken me a long time to finish Ted Dintersmith’sWhat School Could Be: Insights and Inspirations from Teachers Across America”--over a month, in fact. While it’s true that I have been swamped with extra work and musical obligations, I really think that the book is best read the way I’ve been reading it--in small chunks, with ample time to digest and weigh Dintersmith’s commentary and conclusions against the conventional wisdom of school reform in 2018.

The book reads like a journey of discovery--which it very much is. Ted Dintersmith decided to visit schools in every state in the union and report on the state of public education, based on visits to real classrooms. He must have been taking copious notes and writing preliminary text sketches early on--because the book grows stronger, his insights and convictions more assured, evidence-supported and broad-based, as his year rolls on.

Other books--notably David B. Cohen’s “Capturing the Spark"--have aptly described accomplished and innovative teaching practice across a school, subject area or state (which Dintersmith’s subtitle leads us to believe we’ll also be seeing in his book). Cohen knew what he was looking for and could readily identify and describe markers of excellent pedagogy and strong content application--and use the examples he collected as proof that superb, creative teaching is alive and well, serving a diverse range of students across California.

With Dintersmith, his take on what’s going on in American schools seems to evolve throughout the narrative, built on daily experience through the lens of a non-educator-- going into school after school, meeting teachers, ‘thought leaders’ and honchos, then filtering their pitches, schticks and Big Ideas through his own Midwestern sensibilities. Is this real? he asks. Could this work everywhere? Should it?

The weakest section of the book is the beginning, where he describes the film he made with self-proclaimed 21st Century innovation guru Tony Wagner (partially set at High Tech High, in San Diego County). Dintersmith makes the predictable, conventional proclamation about Our Outmoded Schools and then describes ‘Ted’s Excellent Adventure'--his plan to visit schools in all 50 states, showing the film along the way.

But then, gradually, the book gets better--deeper and richer and more thoughtful. Dintersmith describes the school everyone thinks they want--the high-achieving, cutthroat comprehensive suburban monolith--then explains why these ‘model’ schools aren’t serving any of our students well. He deftly destroys our hyper-competitive testing culture and labels it for what it is: make-work for testing companies that serves no genuine purpose in preparing real kids for what lies ahead.

Many of the shared examples from across the country--what Dintersmith calls teacher insights--are around what might be labeled ‘place-based curriculum.’ That is, teaching kids in a unique local context what they need to know to improve their personal life prospects.

This custom-tailored learning is not at all predictable and tends to center around caring teachers and school leaders who have established niche programs--the un-standardization of public education, precisely the opposite of what federal and state policy has applauded and mandated in the last two decades.

Dintersmith is no fan of the Common Core with its aligned standards, curricula and tests and provides examples of how our national love affair with sameness has yielded few benefits and a great deal of harm.

But he also touches on the pointless college-for-all admissions race that drives so much bad practice in high schools--and references a range of unproductive proclamations and decisions (like positioning calculus as the gateway to future success) made by Big Names in education. He pokes at states and programs often held up as examples of what the rest of us should aspire to. He debunks the myth of choice, using Milwaukee as poster child.

The beating heart of the book is found in the chapters on social inequity and human potential. It was here where I was won over, and began to see what value the book might provide in re-opening the national conversation on school reform: We live in a country where our Supreme Court debates whether it’s appropriate to bend admissions rules, but skips over whether these are the right rules.

I should say that I went into ‘What School Could Be’ convinced I wouldn’t like it. I bought my own copy when I decided to tackle the book everyone was talking about--because I had read vaguely negative things about the author (not so much the book, but the guy who wrote it). I ran across a couple of on-line discussions where Dintersmith’s perspectives on education were trashed by rank-and-file educators, in spite of his reaching out for discussion and declaring transparency. I thought I should decide for myself.

Dintersmith is a venture capitalist, after all. On the surface, anything he produces is likely to be market-focused and slick, the Next Big Thing to fix our failing public education system--at a price. Teachers have had it with Billionaire Boys who dabble in education policy. They’re right to be suspicious of anyone who writes about ‘transforming’ what their own hard-won experience and judgment built. But the book turns out to be the antithesis of what a tenacious public education advocate like me might expect from a venture capitalist.

I found myself dog-earing, highlighting and underlining quotes--things I never do when reading books by non-educators. It was shockingly refreshing to read a book based on teachers’ professional

work and ideas, seeing these as legitimate pathways to improving public schools. It was gratifying to see a life-long capitalist punch holes in fallacious assumptions about how the market will magically get us a viable education system. Dintersmith places blame for monotonous curriculum and test-prep pedagogy squarely where it belongs--on bad policy and corporate avarice-- and holds out hope that the system can be improved by those who know it best.

I am cynical enough to recognize that any book seeking to capture the national imagination around our public schools or have an impact on education policy will not be written by a classroom teacher. This is a book for the general public--the folks who have spent the past twenty years wondering when raising the standards bar, weakening teacher unions and closing inner-city schools will generate ‘results,’ making our schools great again.

Buckminster Fuller famously said: You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. The book feels like an invitation to teachers and school leaders--rather than ‘experts’ and corporations--to reshape our nation’s schools.

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