Ted Dintersmith is not here to save neighborhood schools!

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.

Dienne on Dintersmith

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.

High Tech High Foundation Gates

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.

Charles River Ventures


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.

Dintersmith Getting Smart 2015

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.

School Retool

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.ImBlaze Dintersmith

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.

Dintersmith Big Picture

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?





6 thoughts on “Ted Dintersmith is not here to save neighborhood schools!

  1. Ted Dintersmith says:

    I just re-read this and am so sorry that you think these things about me. I don’t represent any interest other than giving our children the best possible prospects in life, in as equitable a way as possible. I have spent enormous amounts of time traveling, visiting schools, and meeting — and learning from — teachers. I write about the need to trust them, and let them lead. And that’s 100% sincere. Maybe it would help to be totally transparent about the initiatives I’ve supported, almost all of which are grants I made. Films include Most Likely to Succeed, She Started It (young women starting companies, School in the Cloud (Sugata Mitra in rural India), The Hunting Ground (rape and sexual assault on campuses), They Call Us Monsters (incarcerated youth with stunning potential), and CodeGirl. The non-profits I have backed include Big Picture Learning (as you note, and I do love their work), School Retool (Stanford d.school), The Future Project, EdLeader21, National Teachers Hall of Fame, New Tech Network, North Dakota United (long story, but I spend a lot of time doing my best to help all school in North Dakota and Hawai’i), the UN Foundation’s Model UN initiative, LearnFresh (helping young kids master math through an in-school board game based on basketball), and Wishbone Foundation. I may have left some out, but not intentionally or to hide anything. The two for-profit education-related investments I have made are the Flatiron School (acquired by WeWork, offering three-month immersives in coding) and MissionU, a one-year alternative to higher education. I am a big believer in the liberal arts, and write and talk about how they equip kids with essential competencies. I do believe, though, that we can’t keep sending kids through K12, onto higher ed, and see so many drop out with not much to show for it other than lots of debt. I fear for a future when machine intelligence wipes out every routine job in the economy, and every adult needs a distinctive proficiency to make a go of it. I have no board seats, no hidden agenda beyond giving kids a fighting chance (and seeing with my own eyes the passion and dedication of our teachers, and the decimation wrought by our testing and accountability policies). And if I’m wrong about these issues, or missing an opportunities to help, I by all means want to know what else I could be doing. If you want to talk by phone, or organize a conference call with a group that feels I’m not doing the most positive things, I’d love to do that. But in the past three years, I’ve been on the road about 275 days a year, I never charge for what I do, donate a fair amount to initiatives I believe in, and am dedicated to helping our country realize the promise of affording our young kids with the opportunities I deserve.

    And if you don’t like my book, I am so sorry. I did my best to capture what’s right about our schools, and to celebrate teachers who were leading the way. I don’t think the typical business person offers these views, but I believe they need to be heard.

    I will note that many businesspeople wail on educators without really doing any homework, and I apologize on their behalf. I believe, though, that if you do your homework on me, you might reconsider the comments you’ve made about my work. I sure hope so.

  2. wrenchinthegears says:

    Mr. Dintersmith,
    I would be very interested in your take on:
    Learning ecosystems
    Seat Time Waivers / Credit Flexibility
    Credit Bearing ELOs (Extended/Expanded Enriched Learning Opportunities)
    Ethics of Private Funding of Community and Work-Based Learning Programs / Especially Social Impact Programs
    Appropriateness of Education Savings Accounts
    Use of Pay for Success / Social Impact Bonds in Financing Pre-K, K-12 or Workforce Training
    Role of Interoperable Student Data Systems / Blockchain Student Portfolio and Payment Systems
    Tracking of Social Emotional “Soft” Skills and Competencies
    Ethics of Big Data and Predictive Analytics in Schools
    Ethics of Algorithmic Adaptive Learning Platforms
    Appropriateness of Using Public Education as a Workforce Pipeline
    Thanks in advance.

  3. Larry Lawrence says:

    I viewed “Most Likely to Succeed” a couple of years ago at a San Diego Charter School (not Hi Tech High) and came to the same conclusions you have.

  4. Jerald Truesdell says:

    Dintersmith is a smooth salesman, and nothing more. He is not even close with STEM education, despite having a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford.

    For one, calculus is important for understanding basic Newtonian science, which is a gateway to upward mobility in engineering and tech. It always has been, and always will be, if ABET continues to influence engineering science programs in higher ed. The folks at private school Basis Silicon Valley agree with me 100%. Got to know boring old arithmetic and boring old algebra to learn calculus. As Henri Poincaire once said, “There is a certain amount of drudgery required to be god at anything.” This is true about any human endeavor.

    It would be nice if our children could always come home happy and unstressed and everyone could pursue their passion and get paid well for it, and not learn any difficult math, but that is not the way the world works.

    And yes, I have mentored hundreds of children from middle school through graduate school, having spend 17 years teaching algebra to 8th graders in a parochial school, gratis. I dealt with real students who fit into real careers in the real world. They are all great at algebra, great at word problems (even the train problems), and it served them well through out higher ed.

    True, most of my students don’t use very much of the math they learned in engineering school, but that is not the point. The numerical competency these students develop in various STEM programs is unparalleled outside of engineering/science/tech, and my students make their way into important positions where they routinely make important decisions that can either save or cost their place of employment millions. It is called competence. The only way to develop it is to plow through arithmetic, algebra, calculus, calc based physics, engineering mechanics, and a plethora of other calculus based engineering courses. A lot has to go right for this to all fall into place, and this is not part of Dintersmith’s agenda.

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