Time for a Change

What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration From Teachers Across America. By Ted Dintersmith. Princeton University Press, 234 pp, April 2018

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As a public school educator, I approach books with titles such as What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration From Teachers Across America with a certain amount of caution. I want to be inspired and moved to challenge myself and my students in new ways, but I don’t want to be told what to do by someone who hasn’t himself spent much time in a classroom as a professional educator. I wondered, before I started reading, which teachers inspired Ted Dintersmith, who arranged their meetings, and why. Still, I am willing to hear him out because he asserts early on that there is an “urgent need to reimagine education,” and I know that to be true, as do most stakeholders in America’s K-12 schools.

In order to investigate how schools might transform themselves in today’s changing world, Dintersmith set out on a year-long field trip. He traveled to 50 states, visited 200 schools, held scores of community forums on education, and participated in 1,000 meetings. The schools he visited were of all types and reflected people of various ethnicities and financial means. During the course of that trip, Dintersmith found that the educators, programs, and schools that inspired him the most all seemed to have four main principles in common, which he calls the PEAK principles.

PEAK stands for the following: Purpose (students understand the importance of what they are doing), Essentials (students acquire skills necessary in today’s world), Agency (students become self-directed), and Knowledge (students learn deeply, enabling them to create and to teach others). Dintersmith asserts that in schools where PEAK principles are the norm “children love school, learn deeply and joyously, and master essential skills.” The most successful PEAK schools focus on project-based learning, encouraging students to delve deeply into a subject in order to find solutions or create products. Teachers in such schools are coaches, gently guiding their students, who participate in Socratic seminars and capstone projects.

The author states that PEAK principles are not the norm in America’s schools. Most teachers, students, and parents would agree. Today’s students spend a great deal of time learning content in order to do well on standardized tests. “Surely,” Dintersmith says, “school could be more than a place where children are memorizing material they don’t care about, won’t remember, and won’t ever use.” Part of the problem, he suggests, is that K-6 teachers teach kids but high school teachers teach subjects. He asserts that there is too much emphasis on all things that can be counted or measured: recollection of facts and dates; replications; college admissions data; and AP, SAT, and other standardized test scores. There is not enough emphasis on authentic student learning, and there is little original work produced by students.

Throughout his book, Dintersmith meticulously describes many of the inspirational classrooms he visits as well as his numerous interactions with parents, school leaders, superintendents, policymakers, and business people who support change in schools. While Dintersmith’s undertaking was impressive, I felt a little misled. The title implies that the content would be more teacher/classroom centered than it was. If you are an educator who is lucky enough to work in a school that allows for some creativity, you will be able to take some of the ideas presented in this book and incorporate them into your classroom. The book, however, is not a how-to or idea book for teachers.

Still, it has merit. Dintersmith relates numerous stories about great things happening across the country, and he saw all of these things in just one year! The book is anecdote heavy, and that’s a good thing. It makes for an interesting, fast-paced read, with plenty of real-world experiences explained in just enough detail. What School Could Be is a work of philosophy, one that triggers exploration and reflection. It is a book that invites readers to examine the possibility of real change in America’s schools. Well-meaning people have been trying to improve schools by doing the same old things in a better way. Dintersmith instead encourages us to refocus and start doing better things.


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By (author): Ted Dintersmith

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