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opinion | Ted Dintersmith

Overturning the old model of education

PEP MONTSERRAT for The Boston Globe

Boston has a rich history of innovation and excellence in education. The first US public school (Boston Latin), the first college (Harvard), and the first municipal public library (Boston Public Library) were in the Boston area. After visiting Europe, Horace Mann returned to Massachusetts with the Prussian model of education, which spread across our country. Today, our schools — from pre-K through college — stand at the top of all rankings.

But success can come with a price: reluctance to change. We experienced that, painfully, in the 1980s as our high-flying companies (e.g., DEC, Prime, Wang, Data General) clung to an obsolete model and let global technology leadership slip through our hands. But as unfortunate as it is to lose a generation of tech start-ups, it’s quite another to risk the futures of our kids.


Schools today are based on an education model dating back, somewhat incredibly, to 1893. Late in the 19th century, the far-sighted “Committee of Ten” anticipated the profound shift in our economy from agriculture to manufacturing. They stepped up to transform education in our country from one-room schoolhouses to our current factory model. This system of universal public education prepared youth for millions of new jobs and fueled the rise of a robust middle class. Our country thrived, and the tide did in fact lift all boats.

Today, our biggest education challenge has nothing to do with issues that dominate our national discourse — test scores, charter versus public, choice, teacher unions, or Common Core. The biggest obstacle to advancing education is that we still cling to that obsolete Prussian model. Students shuffle from subject to subject in class periods punctuated by ringing bells. They memorize, cram, and drill on low-level material. They jump through (increasingly expensive) hoops, and develop skills for jobs that no longer exist.


Nationally, we sound alarm bells about our mediocre global ranking in education. Frightened by the specter of being out-educated by China, we enact policies (which I refer to as “No Child Left Inspired” and “Race to the Bottom”) designed to spur students to out-drill and out-test our Asian counterparts. The results have been dismal, with bored students, demotivated teachers, and stalled test scores. The irony? We’re upping the intensity on a model that even high-scoring Asian nations openly question.

We are the most creative and resourceful society on the planet. In the innovation era, we should be educating to our strength. We need to emulate the courage of the Committee of Ten, and reimagine our schools. Help our kids develop essential characteristics for the 21st century — curiosity, creativity, determination, audacity. Trust our teachers to bring compelling learning experiences to our students. Set high standards and hold all participants accountable — but accountable for skills that are important in life. Most important, we need to reverse the danger signs we’re seeing in our next generation — rampant under-employment, crowded college psychiatric counseling centers, bored but high-potential kids dropping out of high school, out-of-control Adderall usage, massive student loan debt, disengaged young citizens, and a generation entering adulthood lacking purpose or essential skills.

Boston is a city that leads. We’ve been leaders in education, technology, innovation, and social change. Boston led the seminal event in US history — the American Revolution. Now, we have the opportunity to ignite an education revolution. There are sparks and embers of great learning all over the Boston area. The question for us is whether our best-in-nation success with the 19th century model will blind us to the need to effect wholesale transformation? Perhaps, though, we’ll have the courage and vision to turn these sparks and embers into a bonfire of engaged learning, and once again lead the way forward.


Ted Dintersmith organized, funded, and helped produce the documentary “Most Likely To Succeed,” which will be the opening night feature of the GlobeDocs film festival on Oct. 7.