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The Deep-Seated Problems With Common Core And College Readiness

Ted Dintersmith, author and education activist, explains how the Common Core and standardized tests are failing to prepare children for the future.

When the Common Core was implemented, it set a country-wide standard for students in math, languages, science, and history. That in itself, is not a bad thing. After all, for one of the most developed countries in the world, the United States sits squarely in the middle of the pack of academic achievement and has been dropping for some time. But that problem — and how to solve that problem — is a bit of a dilemma.

Many parents and teachers have to face the question of whether or not they should risk their kid’s achievement in order to change the system for the better for everyone. Do most parents and teachers believe that standardized testing and the SAT are predictors of intelligence? Probably not. Is there any other alternative? Not really. So parents and teachers are often stuck in a system, one they don’t quite believe in, but one that they have to game in order to help their kids succeed. Ted Dintersmith, a philanthropist, venture capitalist, and Ph.D in math modeling, was one of those parents.

And then, one day, he started to really think about what his kids were learning. He wondered how these lessons were preparing them for an increasingly uncertain economic future, and adulthood in general. He transformed his wonder into two things: a 2015 critically-acclaimed documentary called “Most Likely to Succeed,” and his new book, What Schools Could Be, which is the result of interviewing hundreds of teachers in all 50 states and thousands of schools. The book discusses, at length, the issues with the Common Core: “college-ready” education, so-called “achievement gaps,” the parent dilemma, and a lack of culturally responsive education.

Here, Dintersmith talks about what he found in his research, what he thinks about SAT preparedness, and why the best prediction of an economic future is not having a prediction.

In your book, you mention that schools that focus on “college readiness” fail kids. That seems like a contradiction, at least on the surface. 

My first community screening with Most Likely to Succeed was in a public high school in Palo Alto. The crowd, for that screening, had an auditorium that held 850. They had to stream in the gym for another 650 people. They had 1500 people at the event, because that school year, they had five student suicides. These were healthy, normal kids on paper. But what’s happening —  and it happens all over — is that parents wage a long-term campaign. Their kid, in the fourth grade, is bored. The parent says “You’ve got to buckle down because you need to get into ‘X’ College.” And that’s just it, year after year after year.

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Then kids don’t get into their top choice and feel like failures. 

Yes. They get rejected by X and get into Y and the parents put a brave face, but the kid feels like a failure. Getting into college is a crapshoot. It depends so much on who your admissions officer is. And for every admissions officer that’s looking for the kid that jumped through the hoops, there’s another one who is looking for an interesting kid.

Do you raise an interesting kid and keep your fingers crossed and get that admissions officer, or do you grind them through stuff they don’t care about, telling them year after year that what’s important in life is doing something that will please this college admissions officer?

If, over two to 16 years, you’re training kids to excel at something that machine intelligence will always be better than them at, what happens to those kids?

That seems like an impossible choice for parents who just want their kids to succeed.

What does it take to be valedictorian today? If you can memorize content, replicate low-level procedures, write formulaically and follow instructions, and you’re excellent at those four things, you will be at the top of your class. All four of those things are things that machine intelligence does perfectly. So if, over two to 16 years, you’re training kids to excel at something that machine intelligence will always be better than them at, what happens to those kids?

What’s the problem with trying to be “machine intelligent?”

That model was probably quite appropriate when I was coming out of school. Most of the economy then was still largely bureaucratic, hierarchical large hiring organizations. People would work for a company, often, for a lifetime. If you are entering a world with precise job descriptions and labor grades, that’s a world very much aligned to hoop-jumping in school.

And we’re not in that world anymore.

Those jobs flattened in the late 20th century and are now on a downward decline. Right now, what’s in its place is two things: the creative economy, that we need to educate all kids for, and then the Taskrabbit, Uber economy, where people are just trying to get by. In 10 to 15 years, there will be no Taskrabbit economy. So what happens when that’s gone? We can say we’ve got a lot of time. We can say it won’t happen that fast. But by the time a kindergartener today gets out of school, there will not be a routine job in the economy.

By the time a kindergartener today gets out of school, there will not be a routine job in the economy.

You mention in your book that we’re closing the “wrong achievement gap.” What’s the “wrong” gap we are trying to close?

The gap that matters is that we spend two-to-three times more, at least, to educate the affluent versus educating the poor. We don’t want to talk about that gap, because that gap means hard trade-offs. If you go to a rich school and say, “How would you feel about taking half the money you raised through your PTA and give it to a poor school?” they gulp. So, we talk about score gaps. And we call it “achievement” because that makes it look like it’s actually the kid’s and the teacher’s fault. In that battle, statistically, rich kids are going to do way better than poor kids.

So how do you think kids need to prepare for for the future?

I didn’t find a single kid who said, “I can’t wait to get up in the morning to do SAT prep!” The SAT is a figure of value that reflects the parent’s determination and push, not the kid’s motivation and talent.

So which is a better preparation for life: fixing important problems in your community or doing polynomials quickly without errors? The whole point of that test is to rank a kid in New York against a kid in Cedar Rapids against a kid in Monterey, CA. That means you need to have a handful of kids, by definition, on a bell curve. So you give some no-brainer questions that anybody ought to be able to answer, but you also include questions that very few can answer, and introduce time pressure to force mistakes and to force more kids to the mean.

If you’re thinking of sending your kid to SAT test prep camp, go online, take some practice questions, and say, is this really helping my child develop the skills, proficiencies, and an outlook consistent to what I know to be important to an adult?

“They would never put hip-hop on language arts. They put questions about regattas. About dimensions of squash courts.”

But in some sense, it’s not possible for parents to just forgo the system. College is still the goal, and no matter how creative parents want their kids to be, they are still trying to help them succeed in a mainstream way.

SAT test prep tutors will give your kid advice the poor kids never get: “If you take five minutes to solve a problem you’re going to miss the last 10 questions. If it’s hard, if it requires you to stay at it, skip it.” What kind of a message is that to a kid?

There isn’t evidence that SAT scores predict anything consequential in life. It is correlated with family affluence, parents that will solve problems and get their kid from going to jail if they’re arrested, and pull strings to get an internship.

So is the issue with the SAT that it’s too expensive, or that tutors that many kids can’t afford are necessary to succeed?

In my book, I talk about hilltop detention centers. These are kids in juvenile jail. A teacher told me this story about her student being asked an SAT question. The setting of the question is a young child in a doctors office, and they ask, where is this child? The student can’t get it right. It turns out that this kid — who is in high school — has never been to a doctor’s office. The only place they go for medical care is a hospital. But these academic Ph.D’s who dream up these SAT questions live in Princeton, New Jersey. It’s great for them. They don’t mind shoving college-ready bullshit down the throat of every kid in the country. They would never put hip-hop on language arts. They put questions about regattas. About dimensions of squash courts.

Finally, what’s your vision of the future? What should schools look like? Do we ditch the SAT and the idea of college readiness altogether?

I think it’s so important to distinguish between a failed model and failing teachers. Blaming the teacher is the wrong thing to do. They desperately want good things for their kids. But when you hold them accountable to these horribly designed state-mandated tests, there’s something wrong.

The amount of intense hatred I saw for the Common Core was off the charts. Are there some good ideas behind it? Yes. Was it rolled out well? No. Is it 100 percent college ready focused? Yes.

Some elite set of academics came together and defined what every kid in America needs to learn. Then they immediately tied it to assessments that they use to measure the success of the teacher and the kid. It’s the same arrogant top-down bullshit that’s driven our school systems into the ground for 20 years. We want kids to be good critical analysts. The whole question is: how do you get there?