First Person

Why City Teens Should Consider Becoming HS Opt-Outs

I work for the city Department of Education. I am also the author of a guide that advises teens to take ownership of their learning by leaving school. Here’s why.

I have more than a decade’s worth of experience in educational innovation. I spend my days working with administrators, teachers, and students finding ways to innovate learning in an effort to establish student learning environments that are more engaging, authentic, and connected to real life. I’ve worked in various capacities such as technology coach, literacy coach, and educational technology professional development manager, and I currently serve as a technology innovation manager at the DOE. Before that I did similar work for Teachers College Innovations at Columbia University.

I am fortunate to work for an agency that focuses on and embraces technology and innovation. Despite outdated constraints involving issues like seat time, student funding, and resource allocation, we are making progress toward bringing more personalized and engaging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students are doing better in a more innovative climate, ultimately, we are just using updated tools to meet narrow and outdated measures on which our students, teachers, and school leaders are judged.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.

This is why I have published an online guide that helps teens leave school. Recognizing that I am no better than a high school dropout, I created “The Teenager’s Guide to Opting Out (Not Dropping Out) of School” because for many students, school has become a barrier, rather than a sanctuary, for learning. You need only spend a few minutes on Facebook groups like “Parents & Kids Against Standardized Testing” and “Testing is not Teaching!” to get a sense of the frustration felt by parents about school systems that prioritize testing over the mental and physical well-being of children. You need only attend education conferences, like the recent iNacol Virtual School Symposium where the audience replied with a resounding “BORING” to the keynote speaker’s request for “one word to describe high school,” to realize something has gone very wrong. “The Teenager’s Guide to Opting Out (Not Dropping Out) of School” is geared directly at teens who don’t fit the standardized mold and are desperate for a life customized to their personal goals for learning and plans for success.

I also created this guide for the teenager I was back in the 1980s when I had no idea there were alternative options to traditional school. I thought my options were simply to graduate or drop out. I feel for today’s youth who, like me, dislike sitting still all day being told what to do. Instead of finding an environment more suited to student needs, they are being medicated at extraordinary rates to help them comply with the institutionalized setting. As movies such as “Race to Nowhere” suggest, we also have students who are becoming physically and emotionally ill as a result of school, even to the point of suicide, and schools are telling parents flat out that they don’t care.

The guide was also written for those like my cousin Adam Ritter, a valedictorian-track high school honors student who said this to me:

School is torture because I am required to spend all my time doing menial tasks, worksheets, and rote memorization. This takes too much time away from being able to discover my hobbies, interests, or passions. I’m in tenth grade and I don’t foresee having the ability to do that before I graduate high school.

Not only is this situation hurting our children directly, but we are losing some of our most passionate teachers. Earlier this year, I met one such teacher who explained she was being forced to turn her vibrant, passion-filled classroom into a bubble-sheet-completion factory.  I asked if she could just close her door and continue the work she had been doing, but she explained there was no way out: Administrators do drive-by test prep collection. She and many others have reached out to me in desperation. They explain they can no longer stand feeling morally responsible for taking the light out of their students’ eyes with a test-prep, test-taking curriculum.

“We have an educational system that thinks weighing the animal more frequently is more important than feeding it.” – Stephen Krashen, education professor at the University of Southern California

During a professional development workshop I held last week, a few teachers who are aware that I, like others (i.e. Joe Bowers, Alfie Kohn, Chris Doyle), know standardized tests are poor measures of success for the 21st-century student shared their disappointment with me. They shared that there is so much test prepping, assessments, and tests, that they are left with little to no time for actual teaching and learning. Furthermore, they said, there is no talk of or time for passion-driven learning in today’s data-driven classrooms. They reported that morale is at an all time low, students and teachers feel beaten down, and some are just plain burnt out. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that drop-out rates are as high as they are or that for some, school might not be the preferred setting for learning.

The term “high school dropout” has negative connotations where youth and their parents are often viewed as being lazy or failures (see this heated thread on Facebook on the topic) if they don’t comply with the demands of institutionalized schooling. It implies something is wrong with the student. Sadly with no knowledge of other options, some students do go on to pursue lives that follow the stereotype. “Opt out,” however, is what students do who realize that the problem lies with their schools, rather inside them. As films such as “Race to Nowehere” and “Waiting for ‘Superman‘” show, for many, the problem is indeed the institution. But charter schools are not the only exit strategy for students who don’t want to stay: Instead, they can pursue alternatives to live and learn in their own way.

I aim to illuminate some of these alternatives in “The Teenager’s Guide to Opting Out (Not Dropping Out) of School.” Contributors include parents and teens who have chosen this unorthodox path with much success. One such contributor is Deven Black, a New York City teacher-librarian, who is a two-time opt out. Black left the Bronx High School of Science at 14, tried again at his local school, and then opted out there, too. He explains that for him, Manhattan was a 12-mile-long, 1.5-mile-wide educational experience. A brief subway or bus ride could deliver him to any one of dozens of museums of art, natural history, craft, or occupation. Or he could emerge from underground into what seemed like a different city where the people spoke Chinese, Italian, Spanish, or Ukrainian and the food in the restaurants were the best kind of spoon-fed learning. He went on to have many successful careers. After finally finding a college that met his criteria he received his college degree at 43. Six years later, tired of restaurant management and looking for something else to do, his son’s elementary school principal suggested he try substitute teaching. It was magic. Deven signed up at a prestigious university, where he got a master’s degree to meet the city’s requirements, and became a full-time teacher at age 50. Now he is getting a second degree so he can remain his school’s librarian. He is still waiting for graduate school to teach him something useful that he doesn’t already know.

The guide dispels myths such as “you can’t be a high school opt-out to get into a good college” and “school actually prepares you for success in life.” It asks questions like, “How can school prepare students for life when all the tools we need to succeed in the world are blocked and banned in school?” and “How can we prepare students for the world when we give them little choice or control to discover, explore, and learn about what it is they are interested in?” It also reveals that even when people such as myself and contributors to this guide do everything they are told, which is basically “get good grades and finish college,” they are often left unsure of where to go or what to do next because the purpose of school has become to make students dependent learners who are good at doing as they are told for school life, rather than critically thinking about success in real life.

The Teenager’s Guide to Opting Out (Not Dropping Out) of School” aims to empower teens and their parents to unplug from the status quo and take back their learning. For some people, this means opting out of traditional schools and opting into any number of options including attending alternative schools that are not required to submit to the same government mandates, pursuing learning online through an online school or by designing their own learning using Open Education Resources, or by completely claiming their right to own their learning like teenager Leah Miller did. As a high school sophomore at Oakwood School in California, Miller opted out of school. Now she has developed a presentation that outlines why she made that decision. Part of her plan includes a 2-week-long visit to New York City where she can investigate her passion for theater. She says she “plans to explore and soak in the city” and adds, “I know that I will learn bucket loads from this trip.”

My guide provides examples and ideas for individuals interested in opting out of school and opting in to a learner-centered life — one where they are able to pursue passions and outline goals for personalized (not standardized) success, not just in school, but in life.

Lisa Nielsen is a technology innovation manager at the Department of Education. 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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.