I’ve held on to this essay in the Washington Post by Ted Dintersmith since early November because something struck me as peculiar therein. Rereading it, now, I see what it was.
Dintersmith retired as a venture capitalist but found himself on a mission to understand public education and has made a bit of a second career of it. At the core of his search, however, is a contradiction that he doesn’t seem to catch. To help his son in science class, he bought some supplies from Home Depot and spent time experimenting with simple machines in their basement. So, when it came time for a test, the son’s much-more-advanced answer to a simple question was marked wrong.
Asking the teacher for an explanation, he was “floored” to hear: “Throughout school, these kids will need to take standardized tests. We need to prepare them properly. Open-ended questions can confuse them.”
So what does this pro-open-question father do? He sets out to find “the purpose of school” (emphasis his). What happened to open-ended questions? Why must there be a purpose? Dintersmith progresses to acknowledging that there can be a collection of goals, but that’s just a variation of the same notion that schools must work toward a particular end. Even when he finally concedes that “maybe, in the end, the purpose of school is to help our kids find their own sense of purpose,” he’s assuming a single answer. Maybe some students need to learn how to find purpose even in rote work. Maybe some families hold this old notion that the family is responsible for guiding its children to an understanding of purpose.
In the end, Dintersmith finds the purpose of school as one that applies mainly to the narrow experience and worldview of people like him.
Don’t get me wrong. I share Dintersmith’s enthusiasm for some of the education models that he discovers, as well as his emphasis on creativity and a willingness to go down in the basement with some wood and screws and make lessons tangible. I’m just not persuaded that we can — or that we should — approach public education as a way to impose this framework on all children in our 320-million-people nation.
As a direct matter, it’s well and good to want “to prepare [our children] for a life where they can set, and achieve, their own goals, not grind away to meet the needs of some bureaucrat or college admissions officer,” but some of them, maybe most of them, are actually going to have to grind away meeting the needs of employers and families. This isn’t to say that we should decide to educate some portion of the population to be satisfied serving others; quite the contrary. It’s to say that “we” shouldn’t decide.
Evidence for this suggestion can be found when Dintersmith begins trying to get his head around education and categorizes things kids learn into lists of things that are “irrelevant” versus those that are “preparing kids for life.” His definition of irrelevance is surprisingly specific to his experience. For some kids, comfort with “factoring polynomials, memorizing the definition of mitosis, past participles, conjugating French verbs, [and] facts about the Mesopotamians” is going to be critical. Even if they don’t retain the specific information, they’ll have the comfort with such topics that comes with knowing that they can relearn them, because they’ve learned them before.
Of course, the landscape of potential knowledge is so broad that it would be lunacy to try to make students comfortable with every specific subject matter, but that only points to the larger thing that Dintersmith misses, in my view. Consider this paragraph:
Systematic studies, such as the findings of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s groundbreaking book “Academically Adrift,” reach similar conclusions about how little our students are learning, even at the college level. They report that “gains in student performance are disturbingly low; a pattern of limited learning is prevalent on contemporary college campuses.” Richard Keeling and Richard Hersh, in “We’re Losing Our Minds,” conclude that far too many college graduates can’t “think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently and clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers.”
What jumps out about the list in that last sentence is how fundamentally different the skills for each capability really are. At least for some students (and assuming that it’s taught correctly), learning useless information is, in practice, a route to developing the skill of solving problems, comprehending complex issues, and meeting expectations. Education shouldn’t only be a process of learning and forgetting in order to practice learning, but the value of such practice can’t be dismissed. Learning to be creative is different from learning to meet expectations.
My children will never perform most (if any) of the pieces that I teach them on piano, much less make a living doing so, but they’re learning the process of learning them, as well as the practice of meeting expectations. When they poke around on the keys and write new songs, I consider that wonderful, and I encourage it, but it isn’t a substitute for being able to do what I’d told them to practice.
Folks like Dintersmith and me risk losing sight of the fact that the same lesson that teaches his children and mine that pleasing an authority figure for a single test isn’t everything might teach another child that authority figures have no right to request that they do things for which they do not see the purpose… meaning things that they just don’t feel like doing. (Look to the pre-adolescent behavior of students on Ivy League campuses for samples of this danger.)
Be all of these backs and forths as they may, there is a conclusion to which we relatively privileged, well-educated people can come: Students who are not well served in a school setting that does not suit them ought to be able to try another. Without having researched all of the examples of innovative schools that Dintersmith promotes, I’d wager that there’s some element of parental choice involved in landing the students there. That’s what we need.
The lesson from Dintersmith’s experience with his son’s science teacher on the simple-machines test wasn’t that testing students for a narrowly correct answer in a subject they might never use in grown-up life is pedagogical malpractice. Rather, the lesson was that Dintersmith Junior’s school had no business claiming to educate the bright child of a man who made his basement an educational workshop.
The school might provide exactly the product that most of its students need, but the teacher should have been able to recognize that young Dintersmith was answering the question beyond the test, not in contravention of it, and Dintersmith Senior’s response shouldn’t have been to accept the teacher’s excuse for modern education, but to tell the school that its personnel wasn’t quite meeting his child’s needs.
For crying out loud, if a restaurant serves us crummy pizza, we don’t accept the excuse that water in that region isn’t conducive to good dough; we go to another restaurant for our pizza. In that regard, Dintersmith is correct in a depressing way: Education is still the one place that too many well-educated people insist on stomping on open-ended opportunities.