No, Ted Dintersmith is not coming to save our schools, because to him they’re obsolete. Last week Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post pitched Ted Dintersmith’s new book “What School Could Be,” and many ed-activists ate it up. I thought by now a “philanthropic” white male technocrat investor with absolutely no teaching experience coming on the scene to tell us how to fix our broken-on-purpose schools would be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Dintersmith might say what we want to hear. His pitch might validate our concerns about punitive high-stakes standardized testing and the psychological damage caused by developmentally inappropriate education standards. He may criticize AP classes and the College Board; but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Consider his quote from a recent EdSurge article “the focus should really be on funding schools that produce future entrepreneurial adults, instead of entrepreneurial adults today funding obsolete schools.”
Dintersmith’s is the face of Ed Reform 2.0. The new paradigm for education he envisions replacing our “obsolete” schools with is one where:
Competency or mastery-based education is the norm.
Skills are uploaded to online portfolios via apps.
Mindsets and habits of work are tracked.
Children teach one another.
Students are expected to be “in charge” of their learning.
Teachers become “mentors;” or are even replaced by volunteers.
Out of school internships are prioritized.
Instruction may be outsourced to community or work-based organizations.
Students are expected to have a passion and a pathway to the workforce.
With such a model, bricks and mortar schools and certified teachers could wither away and eventually disappear.
I had exchanges this week where I was told that everything in the Strauss piece sounded so good. It couldn’t be argued with, even though the person delivering the message hailed from one of the largest early-stage tech venture capital firms in the world. We should simply accept what he said at face value and be grateful that someone was saying it. I expect many teachers reading the article wanted to believe they would be the ones leading the project-based learning Dintersmith pitched; that one day they would be given back their autonomy and allowed to manage their classrooms again. If they had paused to consider the how the venture capital crowd is reimaging education, surely they would have seen realized those were unrealistic expectations. The Dintersmith version of “personalized” learning is about disempowering teachers. Those projects will happen “Out of School Time” and be run by cyber-education companies or gig-economy precarious labor in the learning ecosystems envisioned by Knowledgeworks.
Dintersmith knows good storytelling has the power to sway people’s opinions. He founded and funded the Catalyst Initiative with Sundance to match “forward-thinking financiers” with social justice film projects. He has the money to buy the best messaging. His first outing was “Most Likely To Succeed” a documentary screened nationally with the goal of initiating discussions about disruptive education. Many many ed-activists took the bait and screened the film not understanding it was a Trojan horse for Ed Reform 2.0. The blogger Edu-Shyster interviewed him at the time, and Diane Ravitch shared Berkshire’s post noting, “This is good news! A venture capitalist has seen the light.” At least one thoughtful commenter, Dienne, saw through the sham.
It is interesting that in her piece Strauss attempted to set up Dintersmith as a foil to Gates, a kind of “good philanthropist” “bad philanthropist” dynamic. In fact, they are both on the same team. Case in point: High Tech High, which was a focal point of Dintersmith’s film, is a charter school based in San Diego that was provided seed money in 2000 by the Gates Foundation to the tune of $9.3 million.
A recent feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education ran the headline “A Venture Capitalist Uses Philanthropy to Reimagine Education,” while a Forbes article from last November proclaimed “How A Former VC Wants to Disrupt American Education.” Are you seeing the red flags now? Dintersmith made his fortune at Charles River Ventures, where he is listed as partner emeritus. The company invests in technology startups. A few are education-related, like Udacity, but more involve AI, robotics, cloud-based computing, biotech, and automation. You can review the company’s extensive holdings in Crunchbase. CSV’s Boston office is located at One Broadway in Cambridge, a stone’s throw from MIT’s Sloan School of Management where Jean Hammond, founder of the Learn Launch ed-tech accelerator, sits on the board. They also have offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto.
Dintersmith likes to portray himself as just an average person who happens have the wherewithal to take two years off to tour, meeting with billionaires, politicians, teachers and students to reimagine public education. Though retired, he is cultivated as a thought leader in tech and innovation. The year he launched his film, Dintersmith met with Gates and Global Education Futures Forum affiliate Tom Vander Ark in Seattle to discuss impact investments in education.
The 2015 gathering, hosted by Vulcan Inc. included representatives from Digital Promise, the Clayton Christensen Institute, and Dreambox. Vulcan Inc. is the “engine behind Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen’s network of organizations and initiatives.” Mr. Allen has his hands in many enterprises. In addition to being an incubator for innovative technologies, the firm manages extensive real estate holdings, ownership of the Seattle Seahawks, and the Allen Brain Science Institute. A number of guests at the Vander Ark/Vulcan meet-up created videos to promote impact investing in education. This is Dintersmith’s clip.
That conference resulted in the 37-page report “25 Impact Opportunities in K12 U.S. Education.” It references Dintersmith’s film and can be read here. I have found no evidence that Charles River Ventures is directly involved in Pay for Success or Social Impact Bonds. They are, however, based in Cambridge, the epicenter of the innovative finance sector, and make investments in the types of technological “solutions” that will enable the data-collection and impact evaluation of outcomes-based contracts.
In November of 2015, Dintersmith was referenced in a White House press release detailing the launch of the Obama administration’s Next Generation High School initiative. The president’s call to action specified a more “personalized,” “real world” approach to learning that, of course, emphasized STEM. Dintersmith, along with Ed Reform 2.0 funders like the Nellie Mae, Grable, and Overdeck Foundations, teamed up with Hewlett Packard to create a MOOC that would promote a “deeper learning” approach to education to a thousand school leaders nationwide. Their “School ReTool” effort is housed within IDEO, a global design and innovation company focused on “social impact.” Among IDEO’s partners are the Gates, Rockefeller and Bezos Family Foundations. Richard Culatta, Director of Educational Technology under Obama, former Chief Innovation Office for the State of Rhode Island and now CEO of the International Society of Technology in Education, is currently a design resident for IDEO.
In recent years Mr. Dintersmith has invested some of his fortune in Big Picture Learning, a school model where students pursue work-based placements for much of their school week. The organization based in Rhode Island launched in 1995, and with considerable support from the Gates Foundation expanded to a network of 65 schools operating in the United States, Canada, Belize, the Netherlands, Italy, New Zealand and Australia. Work-based internships are a key element of their program, and Dintersmith put $100,000 towards Big Picture’s capacity to share the ImBlaze internship coordinator and data collection platform app created by Salesforce with other education service providers. The platform tracks academic and social-emotional competencies students demonstrate on the job.
Dintersmith also financially backed the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a collective of private schools and non-profit groups that hopes to replace traditional transcripts based on graded academic content with mastery-based learning standards and micro-credentials. The plan is to leverage the reputation of elite private schools to fundamentally restructure the college admissions process for all high school students.
Members of the Mastery Transcript Consortium’s Advisory Council include:
Andrew Calkins of Next Generation Learning Challenges
Auditi Chakravarty of the College Board
Virgel Hammonds of Knowledgeworks
Emmi Harward of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools
Mark Milliron of Civitas Learning
Kaleb Rashad of High Tech High
Todd Rose of the Mind, Brain and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
David Ruff of the Great Schools Partnership
Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks
Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart
Connie Yowell of Collective Shift (Cities of LRNG, formerly of MacArthur Foundation)
Knowing the background of these individuals it seems clear they are laying the groundwork for a system along the lines of Edublocks described in Institute for the Future’s video “Learning is Earning.” This is a must-watch if you have not yet seen it.
Competency-based education is a means by which reformers and investors intend to move instruction outside schools, away from certified teachers, and into cloud-based platforms and community and work-based learning programs. It’s about making education subservient to the needs of industry. It will erode the centrality of the student-teacher relationship and cement public education as a profit-center for the technology and social impact investors. That is what Mr. Dintersmith is selling. While I appreciate many teachers want to believe the best about people, I need for you all to start to be more skeptical and militant in pushing back against this transformation. He is giving you a sugar-coated poison pill. They know how to play you, and they are doing it. Let’s turn this around, shall we?