'If kids don't come out of high school today being innovative, they will come out being unemployed'

American high schools, according to venture-capitalist-turned-reformer Ted Dintersmith, were designed more than a century ago to produce efficient workers who could follow instructions. “Henry Ford did not need creative, bold, innovative assembly line workers,” he said.

Now, the U.S. economy has changed from manufacturing to innovation. Have schools changed with it?

Education reformer Ted Dintersmith wants more high schools to adopt the project-based approach of the vaulted High Tech High in San Diego.

Even with the technology revolution, most of us believed basic jobs -- such as truck driving and delivery services -- were immune. But along came Google’s self-driving car and Amazon Prime Air delivery drones.

As President Obama noted in his State of the Union address Tuesday, “Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated.”

Over coffee in downtown Atlanta recently, Dintersmith contended most high schools still adhere to the industrial age model, only with greater intensity and more testing. The result: Disengaged students, unmotivated teachers and flat test scores.

“If we don’t have kids coming out of school being innovative, we are going to have kids coming out of school being unemployed,” said Dintersmith.

Dintersmith has invested some of his fortune, made from backing tech start-ups, and his time into finding high schools that believe teaching students to follow instructions sets them on a path to obsolescence. These schools don’t ask students whether they can factor polynomials quickly or list the elements in the periodic table — all of which can be done in an instant now with smartphones. Instead, these schools ask: Can you be creative? Can you be resourceful? “Can you innovate?”

Dintersmith is co-author of “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Age,” and executive producer of the film “Most Likely to Succeed,” both of which showcase schools and programs that foster innovation rather than rote memorization.

Ted Dintersmith

Among them is the celebrated High Tech High in San Diego, which began with one public charter high school in 2000 and now includes a network of 13 schools using project-based learning that enables students to solve real-life problems by experimenting, failing and trying again.

In his quest to visit schools in every state -- he's been to 30 states thus far -- Dintersmith encounters few schools that trust teachers and students enough to allow them to focus on what excites them. He sees students memorizing facts for tests and immediately forgetting them. “Life for students is all about jumping through meaningless hoops,” he said.

With a master’s degree in applied physics and a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University where he focused on mathematical modeling, Dintersmith values math. But he doesn’t think students ought to be forced marched into calculus under the rationale that understanding integral and derivatives enhances critical thinking.

“If there were 10,000 adults right now at a conference in Atlanta and you asked how many of them use calculus in their daily lives, the answer would be zero to three,” said Dintersmith. And those three people would compute integrals and derivatives on their computers.

With all the debt-laden college graduates complaining no one ever told them about the fine print on their student loan contracts, Dintermsith says high schools ought to teach financial literacy, along with probability, statistics and computer programming.

Dintersmith challenges the standard argument that advanced math improves critical thinking, saying that's become the justification for piling on academic requirements that are inconsequential to the world in which students will live. Real critical thinking comes from analyzing and resolving real problems.

If high schools taught driving the same way they teach everything else, Dintersmith said students would review the parts of the car their first year, learn the history of tires the second, study safety regulations the third and memorize the brake system in their final year.

“They would have great grades,” he said, “but never learn how to drive.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.