The false choices of “What School Could Be”

Gary Houchens:

Ted Dintersmith’s new book, What School Could Be, profiles dozens of schools across the United States that are engaging students in rich, real-world learning, and contrasts their experiences with the vast majority of other schools. Dintersmith calls on schools to innovate in ways that closely parallel some of my own frustrations and desires for education in Kentucky and beyond. But unfortunately the vision of What Schools Could Be is wrapped up in a badly overstated diagnosis about what ails us. Dintersmith reinforces dangerous, false choices that all too commonly frame our debates about schooling and mostly obscure, rather than clarify, the path forward.

Dintersmith, an entrepreneur and former representative to the United Nations General Assembly under President Obama, is best known as co-author with Tony Wagner of Most Likely to Succeed and producer of the documentary film by the same name. Last year he was honored by the National Education Association with its Friend of Education Award, the group’s highest recognition. What School Could Be extends the themes of Most Likely To Succeed, arguing that students are too often bored, that teachers focus too narrowly on annual test score increases, and that schools are failing to adequately prepare students for the economic and social realities of the 21st century. On all counts, I agree.

To look for alternatives, Dintersmith spent a year traveling to all 50 states, touring schools and conducting hundreds of interviews with students, teachers, parents, and education policy leaders. In every state he found exciting examples of schools taking students to a different place of learning, especially at the high school level, like the Big Picture Learning network of schools which focus on meaningful career preparation, the Albermarle schools in Virginia which are pioneering project-based learning as the focal point of the school experience, and the Eminence Independent Schools here in Kentucky, the state’s first officially recognized District of Innovation.