New York Magazine has an interesting piece in the current issue titled “The Opt-Outers.” It outlines the new Common Core system and New York’s various testing measures and reform movements through the lens of a group of parents who have chosen to have their young kids opt out of the state tests. The parents argue that they saw school curriculum increasingly focus on test prep, and that as a result their youngsters—who were, up until then, engaged students—started to hate school and become very stressed by the prospect of the tests.
I volunteer for an organization that teaches journalism skills to young kids—the youngest participants are eight; the oldest are thirteen—and a few semesters ago I had a rather jarring experience. One of the kids, Hayden, was disengaged throughout the whole program day and looked burdened by something. When I asked him what was wrong, he brought his tiny hand to his tiny forehead and exclaimed, “I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack!” I asked why. “The ELA test,” he replied. “I have to take it next week and I am so stressed.”
There was something really disturbing about seeing an eight-year-old kid that freaked out over a test. He looked like a college student in the midst of finals week. I knew his parents were probably just as alarmed, but instead of giving him some downtime, they had enrolled him in our program, probably as yet another way to bolster his chances of getting into a good middle school, followed by a good high school and a good college. And yet, Hayden’s stress over the upcoming test was keeping him from learning and engaging with the extracurricular program. In the long run, he would only benefit from the program in one way: it would look good on an application. Because of the pressure put on him by the system, the entire point of the program—to help him build a new skill set, to empower him, to be fun—was lost.
NY Mag’s piece, while mulling over the high-stress school environment, asks an essential question: What happens to kids when they opt out? If the Common Core Standards and the test-driven, data-driven culture are meant to prepare kids for college, does this mean that kids who opt out of the system will fail in their pursuit of higher education? I obviously can’t speak to every kid’s experience, but I can say that for me, opting out was the best college prep.
The kids profiled in the NY Mag piece are still in elementary school. I did not opt out until sophomore year of high school. I have a very clear memory of sitting in art class at my high school in downtown Manhattan. I was new at school; I had only been there a few weeks. The school was in a skyscraper near Wall Street, and the art room had huge windows that looked out at all of the other glistening skyscrapers of the financial sector. A storm rolled by and lightning cracked over the skyline. I kept staring out the window, at all the other lighted windows surrounding me, wondering what was going on in those buildings. This was Wall Street! This section of Manhattan that I was looking down upon was like an engine, or a heart, pumping furiously to keep our country’s lifeblood—commerce—flowing. I was struck by the immensity of the scene, of the skyscrapers and the storm and the decisions being made on this city block.
I had so many questions. The ground floor of my school building housed a cigar shop on the corner, and when we were dismissed for lunch I would always see these men in well-cut suits sitting in huge leather chairs, smoking cigars. There was something crazy to me about the idea that they were indulging in the middle of the day. I wanted to know who they were and what they did. On my commute to school from the Upper West Side, I got off on the Wall Street 2/3 stop and passed the New York Stock Exchange every morning. I wanted to know what went on in there, exactly. I wanted to talk to the NYPD guys who were always out front like the Queen’s Guard in front of Buckingham Palace, but with way bigger guns.
School seemed like the least likely place for me to get the answers to my questions. School seemed hyper-focused on preparing me for the Regents, and for college. When you walked in the front door, a list of graduating seniors was pasted to your left. You would see the senior’s name, and then trace over to the name of the college he or she was about to attend. I understood the emphasis on higher education—my mom had made it clear that opting out of college was not an option for me and my sister—but for some reason, school felt so dry in comparison to all of the life surrounding it.
So I left. I talked to my mom, and she wrote a letter to the DOE declaring that I would homeschool. She had to write a curriculum and send it to them every semester or so. They had to approve it. At the end of high school, I had to take one test—my choice, the ACT or SAT, just any test—so that they could quantify my learning, or something. I took the SAT. One day I got a flimsy envelope from the DOE. Inside was a letter stating that I had passed high school.
From sophomore to senior year, the bulk of my classroom learning was done at CUNY (the City University of New York). CUNY’s College Now program allows high school students to enroll in college classes on CUNY campuses. At first, the classes are college-level but taken with other high school students. Eventually, you can enroll in classes with the school’s existing students. I took classes all over the city—at Lehman College in the Bronx, Hunter College on the Upper East Side, New York City College of Technology in downtown Brooklyn, Borough of Manhattan Community College in TriBeCa. Traveling to so many different boroughs and neighborhoods was an education in itself. I met all kinds of different people in my classes; the College Now student body is diverse, so my friends came from all different cultures and backgrounds. I took introductory speech, anthropology, psychology, statistics, English, American government and criminal justice courses. By the time I graduated high school, I had a couple of semesters of college under my belt already.
That alone was a good way to prepare for college, but homeschooling really helped me become successful in college because it taught me to engage, every single day and all the time, in critical inquiry. My mom worked full-time, so she was not there to guide me all the time. When she told me to head to Ellis Island and do a history project, not only was it up to me to get to Ellis Island on my own, it was up to me to shape that project, to take in everything the venue had to offer and survey all of that information and decide where my interests were. That’s exactly what college is: the professors present you with all kinds of new information, and it’s up to you to choose a direction and create a thesis and write a paper or complete a final project. As a college-level writing tutor, I have found that many students just don’t know how to ask questions. They come in with a thesis that is a statement of fact, not an arguable concept. They don’t trust their own curiosity. This, I think, is a product of their test-driven schooling, which does not allow them to deviate from the bubble sheet and does not create a large enough space for experimental thinking.
The great irony here is that I want to be a teacher, and that post-graduation I am entering one of the leading education reform programs so that I can get classroom experience. I did not major in education, so the program will allow me to work as a teacher without having studied teaching as an undergraduate. Furthermore, I need to face the realities of the teaching profession—the extreme pressure to help students deliver good test scores included. The data-driven education reform movement shows little sign of slowing; in Race to the Top, Obama only expanded the measures that Bush introduced with No Child Left Behind. I know what worked for me as a student, and I feel strongly that some of the skills I developed as a homeschooler would make any student more successful. I think it’s important that I have an understanding of the system I will be working within if I want to change it.