Ted Dintersmith On The Future of School

Leadership, Learning, Mission-Driven Work, PreK-12

Former venture investor turned education advocate Ted Dintersmith is on mission to change our education system “so that it promotes, instead of vitiates, innovative kids.” He’s on a 50 state tour talking about the movie he produced, Most Likely to Succeed hoping it will spark important conversations with educators, community members and policy makers. We caught up with Ted on a holiday break to get some updates on the national tour.

What problem are you trying to solve?

The basic school model is over a century old, and obsolete. This is hardly a secret to most educators, but changing a system is hard. My goal is to change the mindset of those involved in our schools —parents, teachers, and students —to being far more supportive of innovative practices in our classrooms, and to organizing the school experience around helping our graduates be more innovative and creative. There is real urgency in changing school cultures, and many, many teachers who are so ready and anxious to change the way they engage with their students. The problem I hope to solve is to make innovation in our schools not only acceptable, but a priority.

What is the purpose of school?

I wrote an essay on the purpose of school that was featured by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet in November, and it got far more traction than I could ever have hoped for. There’s an irony in the way this question is framed. We somehow have managed to put a bunch of second- or third-order issues at the center of our school universe (e.g., test scores, college placement) when the real focus should be to help our kids find their own sense of purpose. Instead, most of education today — K12 and college — either ignores or hollows out any sense of purpose from our students. And from many of our dedicated teachers, for that matter.

What does good learning look like?

Someone bored will learn at a rate equivalent to 0-1 mph, while someone engaged can learn at speeds of 100 mph or more. We just blow past this in most of our education policy, which piles worksheet after worksheet in front of our kids and just expects them to bring passion and purpose to exercises that —all too often —can’t be justified as helping them develop any useful skill or character trait. I’d much rather any child learns boatloads about a topic she or he is interested in, than grinding away to memorize (and invariably forget) something that outside interests deem as a priority. It should be the starting point for our learning strategies —give our kids a reason to learn, and let them surprise us.

In September, I spent a day with Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland. He painted a vision of a future where report cards would be organized by essential skills, not subjects, and student “schedules” would be driven by self-directed learning, not bells and classes. Within a decade, this will be the mainstream model in our schools. And in my ideal world, each high school graduate will have the equivalent of a “double major,” with deep expertise and achievement in an area that they’re passionate about, as well as developed competencies in an applied field that ensures that they can, if they choose, get a well-paid job that they enjoy, right out of high school. Of course, there are certain key areas we’d want every child to cover in the course of her/his education (shaping events in history, core concepts of science, proficiency at critical “learning how to learn” skills, etc.), and we’ll have effective strategies for ensuring that these fundamentals are in place for our graduates.

Also, I think we have completely missed the essential points when it comes to the relationship of great learning and meaningful assessments. If we insist that the “competence”of a child in Seattle has to be compared, precisely, to the competence of a child in Tulsa, we give up the ability to assess anything important. The coming few years will see a remarkable transition in how we evaluate anyone’s acheivements and potential. We’re already seeing employers place far more weight on digital portfolios capturing creative and authentic competencies. And the coming school year will see the Coalition for Access roll out, providing a digital-portfolio-based way to apply to eighty top private and public colleges.

Why a movie?

I believe in the power of story and emotional engagement. Books or prescriptive documentaries can convey the logic for change, but fall short of really affecting their audience. So “Why a movie?” isn’t really the key question. It’s more “Why an emotionally-compelling movie?” It’s pretty easy to do a boring documentary. But it’s awfully hard, yet so powerful, to produce a movie that reaches the heart and soul of its audience. I feel that’s what Greg Whiteley and his team did with Most Likely To Succeed, and why I’m so committed to accelerating its reach and impact.

Why a 50 State Tour?

The film premiered at Sundance in January 2015, and we had aspects of our strategy in place then. We wanted to showcase it in other major film festivals and we wanted to reach schools through our community screening initiative. Both have gone exceptionally well, and the film’s website makes it easy to bring the film to your school or community. But in the spring I tried a couple of experiments at the state level — in Idaho and Rhode Island — and felt there was an opportunity to use to film to galvanize top-down change in states and districts that were looking to innovate. Not knowing which states would be most receptive, and with real interest in listening to and learning from voices all over our country, I committed to taking the film to all fifty states this school year. From mid-September to mid-December, I visited almost thirty states, and it’s been so inspiring to see the amazing things taking place all over the country, and to play a role in helping states move their schools forward.

How has the film been received across the country?

I’ve now been to over 100 screenings of the film, and have been heartened by audience response. It helps that the film is generally viewed as the best film ever made on the topic of school, and leaves audiences so inspired. It’s a good sign that we’re getting many requests to return to states to help as their strategy evolves. And it’s been amazing to me to see what engaged citizens are capable of doing in so many locations across the country, and it’s very gratifying to be able to help them be more productive in their fight to give our kids the best possible futures.

Any favorite tour stops?

The tactful response is probably to say, “They’re all great in their own way.” But I am not known for tact. One of my favorites will be Fargo, North Dakota, where a great volunteer team pulled together one of the best days the film will ever experience, with more than 500 people coming to a grand theater in downtown Fargo. Fortunately, I brought part of our film team to the event, and we captured the magic of that visit with a short film. A second favorite was a screening we did to 400 students at East Side High School in Newark. The acoustics and lighting weren’t great, and not all of the kids were locked in on the film, but several afterwards talked to me about how seeing the film changed the way they viewed themselves and their potential. These are the kids we need to fight so hard for. I had an almost-mystical experience one morning in December when I drove to, and walked, the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, visited Selma High School, and heard Anton Scalia’s highly-uninformed remarks about how students like the ones I was talking to in Selma would be better off in less-demanding schools. Finally, I have done screenings in places we’ve lived, where many dear friends came, so Seattle, Charleston (SC), Boston, and Charlottesville all felt a bit like my wedding reception! In a year when I’m seeing so little of friends and family, these opportunities to re-connect are particularly meaningful.

What is the ideal outcome for the 50 State Tour and Most Likely to Succeed?

I’m hoping to change the national discussion about our schools from “What can we do to increase standardized test scores?” to “What can we do to engage and inspire our students and teachers?” So many business voices that have weighed in on education have been just plain wrong on the issues and priorities. I’m hoping to offset the damage that these business interests have done. Our little initiative is a bit of a “David and Goliath” story, since we are a small team with resources quite modest compared to the big, established education entities (the Federal government, the large foundations, the text/test companies). I’m hoping to borrow a page from our country’s experience in innovation, and show, once again, that a small team with a clear strategy doing things to a high level of excellence, can ultimately shape our country’s arc.


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Katie Vander Ark

Katie Vander Ark

Katie is a education and innovation enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter at @kvanderark.


Carol Dial /

Have you ever worked in a school? Obviously not, or you would know that what you want is only possible with smaller class sizes, supportive administrators, discipline policies that remove disruptive students, parents whonarevnotbgiven the last word, less paperwork and meaningless meetings for teachers, giving teachers more power over the classroom and curriculum, and LOTS more Money. None of those do I see happening in the near future. Why don’t you teach for a year in an inner city school? Then younwill be qualified to speak on this subject. Right now you know nothing about what classrooms today are like. Hint: it isn’t like Little House On the Prairie.

Tom Vander Ark /

Hi Carol, here’s 30 districts we’ve visited that are creating great learning environments for kids and teacher:
The good news is that, with thoughtful leadership, it’s possible everywhere!

.Kyle G. /

Another big shot with money who has never ran a classroom, trying to throw his weight around & try to tell everyone that he knows how to do it….. Keep your $$$$ Dindersmith & go buy another shipyard & sell the pieces to the highest bidder. That’s your lot in life.