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Against the grain, a DOE employee advises on leaving school

The city Department of Education has adopted a laser-like focus on sending its graduates to college. But that doesn’t mean all of its employees are on board.

Lisa Nielsen, who works in the DOE’s office of educational technology, is advancing the idea that not only is college not for everyone, neither is high school. In the Community section today, Nielsen explains why she put together a guide to help teenagers figure out how to “opt out” of high school and continue learning and developing on their own.

She writes:

Despite outdated constraints involving issues like seat time, student funding, and resource allocation, we are making progress toward bringing more personalized and engaging learning opportunities to students through a handful of efforts, such as the iSchool and the Innovation Zone. But while students are doing better in a more innovative climate, ultimately we are just using updated tools to meet narrow and outdated measures on which our students, teachers, and school leaders are judged.

It is not enough to personalize learning for everyone to go down the same path — to college, without consideration of what comes next. Instead, schools need to embrace the many alternatives to the traditional college route that would better meet the needs of many learners today. What is missing at the DOE is the important work of letting students discover, define, and develop their own passions, talents, and interests and determine personalized, meaningful, and authentic measures of success.

Nielsen, who writes the blog The Innovative Educator, told me she hears frequently from teachers who say they fear they are boring students by teaching a test-driven curriculum. But when she tries to talk about the issue with other administrators at the DOE, she told me, it’s usually dismissed. “I feel like the conversation is not up for discussion,” she said.

That wasn’t true in the past at the department, said Nielsen, who has worked for the DOE for more than a decade. Under former Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Carmen Farina, who resigned in 2006, schools were encouraged to adopt programs that let students’ passions guide at least part of what they learned, Nielsen said.

“We were moving in the right direction and I was hopeful,” she said. “It’s not like the whole time I’ve been working in education I’ve been sad about what I’ve been seeing.”

The current climate might be exemplified by the disclaimer Nielsen pasted at the end of her Community post: “The views expressed in this piece are Nielsen’s alone and do not represent the opinions or endorsement of the NYC DOE or any other entity.”

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