How A Former VC Wants To Disrupt American Education

For more than two decades Ted Dintersmith was a successful venture capitalist at Charles River Ventures, based in Cambridge, Mass. He remains a Partner Emeritus at the firm, but these days Dintersmith has turned his energies to K-12 and higher education. He claims that education in the U.S. has fallen badly behind, stuck in a 125-year-old framework that no longer meets the needs of students or employers. In 2015 Dintersmith produced a documentary on education’s broken state, Most Likely To Succeed. It premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is available here:

Q: You were a successful venture capitalist. Now you want to take a wrecking ball to college education. What motivated you?

Dintersmith: Innovation; it’s on an exponential ramp. If any job out there is routine, following instructions, it’s on its way out. A.I. will dramatically restructure the labor markets. The other motivation was watching my kids in school, and thinking, “What the hell?” It’s almost as though educators want to crush out of kids the very skills and mind sets they’ll need to do well going forward.

Q: Why are educators doing that?

Dintersmith: This isn’t accidental; it’s actually by design. Schools still use a 125-year-old model, put in place to train people for industrial jobs, which lives with us to this day. And, with our Game of Thrones-like competition to get into the best colleges, it’s actually become worse.

Q: Some would argue that Game of Thrones competition is exactly what kids need so they don’t become lazy.

Dintersmith: I totally disagree. If schools don’t change, I don’t think civil society in our country is going to hold together. It will come apart. Teens across America are already experiencing rising rates of suicide, depression and anxiety. American students consume the majority of ADHD drugs prescribed in the world. There’s blood on our hands because we allow this to happen.

Q: Is online education the answer?

Dintersmith: Let me be the skunk at the garden party: Making it easier for kids to shove math procedures into their short-term memory is hardly reimagining education. We don’t need to do obsolete things better; we need to do better things.

Q: What are better things?

Dintersmith: For one, stop requiring calculus and start requiring statistics.

Q: Explain.

Dintersmith: Pick any company in an industry and ask, “Hey, GE, Microsoft, is anyone here doing integrals and derivatives by hand for their job?” No. It’s all done computationally.

But statistics–every company I talk to is desperate for somebody with data-analytics capability, in which statistics is essential. I’d even argue that having a good life requires statistics; i.e., one’s medical and investment decisions are big things. So how can educators justify teaching calculus, which has no relevance, yet not justify teaching statistics, which will affect one’s prosperity and health?

Q: You recently spoke about this to 250 college admissions directors. What did they say?

Dintersmith: They said, “We like calculus because it’s hard. It gives us a good way to compare the students.” Seriously, what a terrible justification.

Q: Maybe hard is needed these days. Lots of employers complain about the work habits of millennials.

Dintersmith: They do complain, but I don’t hear the word “lazy.” Most employers say, “We hire these kids with their impeccable academic resumes but then start wondering what’s wrong with them. They want to be micromanaged. They want to know what it takes to get an A, when they now work for Google instead of still being enrolled at Stanford. To blame the kids is wrong; blame the schools.

Q: Do you foresee employers, in effect, elbowing educators in their sides and saying, “Look, you’re not delivering what we need. We can’t let this stand, so we’re going to take over.”

Dintersmith: Yes. Let’s say you’re a really big organization like Xerox or Caterpillar. You talk to these companies, but their response, “Jeez, the really great students don’t want to work for us; they want to work for Google. We’re way down the pecking order at the top colleges.” So these big companies end up saying, “Okay, we’ll just recruit some pretty good students from pretty good schools.” But that’s a formula for mediocrity.

If I were a Xerox, I’d set up a Xerox Academy. And I’d go get the absolute best, the really talented and motivated kids out of high school, particularly from blue-collar communities, kids who are going to be struggling to make their way forward. I’d make the school selective and say, “You are now a Xerox scholar.” I’d make it a four-year residential program, with lots of intensive internships at Xerox, as well as such supplemental things as sports. I’d structure it like ROTC: “If you do this for four years, you’ll get your Xerox degree. But you need to stay with Xerox for a similar number of years or reimburse the company for the cost of your education.”

If Xerox did this, it’d get an amazing injection of next-generation leadership. It’d get that scrappy kid from Fort Wayne who’ll knock down walls to make something happen, and whose family can’t afford most colleges.

If I found the right entrepreneur who was doing something along these lines, I’d write a big check for it. There are a lot of companies like Xerox that could absolutely do it.

Q: You argue that elite universities now measure their status by the percentage of good kids they reject, not–as they should–by the talented outliers they admit.

Dintersmith: I think the Stanford mechanical engineering program should be accepting a number of people who have worked for three or four years as auto mechanics, as well as some people who are really gifted at making mechanical equipment work. Is that such a radical idea?

Q: What stops them?

Dintersmith: The stopper for them–and I even had this discussion with Stanford and with MIT–is that when you get into Stanford or MIT, before you can really do your engineering track, you have to pass the prerequisites, which include calculus. Thus, if these schools took an auto mechanic who couldn’t pass calculus, they’d have accepted somebody who wouldn’t advance, because, of course, calculus at MIT means you can’t use Wolfram Alpha or anything else; you’ve got to be able to do the computation by hand.

Q: Why?

Dintersmith: Because it’s always been done that way, by God! Seriously, it really makes no sense, other than that it’s tradition. If you realize that the engineering path should largely be about making things work, then you have to ask, why aren’t we accepting people who have demonstrated as teenagers and young adults that they can actually make things work?

A friend of mine tells this story. MIT, with great fanfare, said it was going to look at students’ Maker Portfolios as part of the application process. That’s actually a great idea. I was superexcited about it. And then one of MIT’s professors sat in on an Admissions Committee meeting–some kid had applied with an incredible Maker Portfolio. And the professor, who has a bias toward the practical, said, “My God, this could be a great student here. I can only imagine a million labs that would love to have him.”

Q: So MIT accepted the kid?

Dintersmith: No. They turned him down. They said, “Yes, the kid did really great things in his Maker Portfolio, but he’s going to have to get our introductory courses, and we don’t think he can.”

Q: What a tragedy. Then again, Silicon Valley is no longer about silicon and inventors tinkering in garages. Today it’s Algorithmic Valley and the coin of the realm is the 800 math SAT score and a degree from–or at least admission into–one of ten elite universities.

Dintersmith: Yeah. Silicon Valley companies are always tempted to hire the smartest people on paper, which too many recruiters lazily equate with SAT scores and elite colleges. But I think we can both point to companies stocked with elite college degrees that haven’t been particularly innovative. For 20 years Microsoft didn’t innovate much, despite its high-IQ workforce. That’s changing now. But Apple, probably because of Steve Jobs, has always had an eye for talent from schools outside the elite ones.

By: Rich Karlgaard

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How A Former VC Wants To Disrupt American Education