By Nick Perez | Cross-posted at The Innovative Educator
“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read.” – Frank Zappa
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of questions raised about how innovations in technology will change education as we know it – Can machines replace teachers? Do internet resources provide everything needed to develop professional skills? What happens if you replace school with online learning? I’ve spent my life trying to find out, and the answers I have are both promising and a little horrifying.
The good news is that it worked. I’ve developed a wide range of interests and skills, with my lifelong field of choice being software. I have a software development job that I love, I have no student debt, and I feel secure about my long-term future. I’m pretty sure that this is what most students dream of. The path here wasn’t easy or well-traveled, but the experiment has been a success.
The bad news is that along the way, I discovered that public schools are not prepared to fairly compete for their students’ attention. This has resulted in a long series of slightly traumatizing events. From the prescription drugging, to the humiliation of being singled out from the rest of my peers, to the threats of litigation, it’s been a long road. I left school at the age of 17 after deciding that I’d had enough of my school district’s attempts to forcibly shift my attention toward the classroom, and away from my independent studies. This didn’t happen because of human evils, but because of old, rigid systems that have yet to bend and break under the pressure of progress.
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One of the arguments in favor of schooling that I hear most frequently is that the diversity of curricula changes the way students view the world – it exposes them to things they never would have explored otherwise, and it’s the perfect recipe for a well-rounded individual. While that sounds great on paper, it is an obsolete notion. In the information age, exposure to new ideas is inevitable. The diversity of ideas being shared online and in the real world far exceeds the diversity of a single school’s curriculum, and it is highly unlikely that this will ever change. I’ve worked with entrepreneurs in tech, media, skincare/beauty products, marketing, and education. I’ve interned in a professional recording studio and written hundreds of my own songs. I’ve had discussions and debates with people from all over the world, with passions ranging from evolutionary biology to international philanthropy to psychology to social activism to mechanical engineering to the arts. Opportunities to explore new ideas will always be incredibly abundant, but I’ve found it more important to focus on the things that I’m devoting my life to.
It is now easier than ever to discover your passion at an early age.
There has been no subject of interest that I’ve found to be more captivating than technology. I spent most of my early childhood playing video games and learning how to use my old DOS PC. In the mid-to-late 90s, computers began to transform our culture in a huge way. I figured out how to use e-mail to stay in touch with my aunt who, at the time, lived across the country in California. I learned how to browse the web and download games. Magazines started including interactive CD-ROMs with every issue as the downfall of paper media began. I could learn about anything imaginable with Encarta ’95. As a curious elementary school student, I was witnessing and being a part of one of the biggest changes that humanity has ever faced in all of history. When the time came to get off the computer and sit in a classroom for seven hours, I felt reasonably preoccupied.
My experiences in classrooms largely consisted of staring at a clock on the wall and waiting for a bell to ring so that I could go home and learn about more interesting things. While I thought I was just “playing on the computer”, I was really developing indispensable skills and fully experiencing the joy of education. The enjoyment of learning is a feeling that I cannot find words to describe, and a feeling that often seems to be lost on society. In the eyes of my school, this was not considered ‘work’, and I was failing.
The Westfield school district has what they call a “child study team”. [link no longer active] They were called in to save the day. Their job was to figure out what was wrong with me, to completely disregard the dangers of a confirmation bias, and to have me somehow classified for special-education. The idea of a student primarily learning outside of the classroom was unheard of. It especially confused them when I scored highly on tests, despite ignoring all lectures and homework. I was always told that I had potential, but because I wasn’t doing the work that they provided, I wasn’t living up to that potential. School “experts” recommended that I see a psychiatrist. After all, it’s easier to fix a child by giving him a bottle of pills than to actually attempt to fix the bureaucratic, factory-like conditions that exist in public schools. I underwent a psychological evaluation and was diagnosed with ADD. I was placed in a ‘supplemental’ class where I could do my homework during school hours, and was placed on Adderall (an amphetamine) at 9 years old.
When I was 10 years old, my aunt noticed how inspired I was by technology, and paid for me to attend a computer camp over the summer. I was completely in awe of the realization that I could use my mind to build things for others to use. The possibilities will always seem endless to me, but these things are particularly enthralling when viewed through the lens of a young imagination. When I got home from camp with all of my new books and knowledge, my journey in independent education truly began. I knew that if I put enough effort into learning how to code, I could change the world. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I discovered that I wouldn’t be able to do this in school. The inability to devote my time toward the pursuit of my dreams made me miserable. I began to stay up late into the night to write code, which resulted in exhaustion, lateness, and absenteeism during school hours.
If you defy the system, expect it to slowly tear you apart.
When Adderall failed to make me care about school, they decided to try more drugs. Wellbutrin gave me a seizure. Prozac made me irritable and hostile. One day, while on Effexor XR, I experienced a dangerously rapid heart-rate, turned pale, and couldn’t stop vomiting. I was too young to understand what it meant to take mind-altering drugs, and was unaware of how it was affecting me. The belief that chemicals are the answer to low classroom motivation is not only incorrect, but also extremely dangerous and completely unforgivable.
After failing to accomplish anything positive through the use of amphetamines and antidepressants, the Child Study Team came up with the bright idea of having a paraprofessional follow me around all day to keep me on top of things. She was a wonderful person, but everyone knew that this was an odd arrangement, and it became really difficult to develop socially. This was the beginning of my isolation in school – when I really started to believe that there was something horribly wrong with me, and I didn’t belong. Everyone else was normal, and I wasn’t. I still knew I was gifted in some way, but felt that I was broken in every other way.
Treat a student differently, and rebelliousness will become a survival tactic.
Lacking a healthy social life in school, I had to look elsewhere. At 13 years old, I started hanging out with a group of high-school students who loved to party. We drank a lot, smoked a lot, and wrote a lot of music. It was a huge comfort to know that even though I felt like an idiot in school, I could feel like a badass outside of school. We did a lot of stupid things, but in hindsight, it all ended up doing less harm than the prescriptions. One day my school district found out about our little party scene, and then they had a reason to call me a troublemaker.
The more my school insisted upon treating me like a problem child, the less I wanted to subject myself to it. My family started receiving legal threats from the school district because I so frequently refused to go to school. To this day, I’m proud of every moment of schooling that I missed. I felt confident and comfortable outside of that environment, and skipping school gave me a significant amount of extra time to focus on positive things that were important to me. I composed music prolifically. I learned about 3d modeling, the inner workings of synthesizers, databases, Internet security, reverse-engineering, and at this point I had coded in about a dozen different programming languages.
It became very apparent to me that compulsory schooling was working against my favor, and skipping school wasn’t just a form of protest, but also a necessity. My school wasn’t helping me in any of my areas of interest, and options like homeschooling & private schools weren’t feasible. My mom was raising three kids on her own and could barely afford to pay the rent, so there was a lot of stress and uncertainty about what was going to happen to us. Unless I wanted to surrender all control over my education to a system that was simply not equipped to provide what I needed, this was the best I could do.
Things could have been worse.
I graduated from Roosevelt Intermediate, and felt like I had just survived a long walk through hell. It almost seemed like the situation couldn’t possibly get any worse, but it always can. Next, it was time to go to Westfield High School. [link no longer active]
For many, high-school is considered to be one of the most important stages of life. The social development that takes place during these years, in these environments, is irreplaceable. That’s what I’d heard, at least. I would never find out for myself, because I would never be allowed to experience a regular high-school class. From day one, my good friends in the Child Study Team decided to place me in a program called The Bridge. [link no longer active] My ADD diagnosis was not a severe enough diagnosis to have me placed me in The Bridge due to Least Restrictive Environment laws, so they did another psychological evaluation and concluded that I was “emotionally disturbed”, which is not a legitimate term in psychology – it is an umbrella term invented exclusively for the purpose of placing severe classifications on students who can not be diagnosed with an actual severe disorder. Google it. The number of students in the program was constantly changing, because some would leave due to jail-time, pregnancy, etc, but it was typically between 5-20 kids, which is all age-groups combined.
There’s a threshold of desperation in schools, beyond which grades become a currency.
The Bridge was never challenging, and there was always a focus on convincing us to do a bare-minimal amount of busywork so that we could get a passing grade for the day. The teachers cared about us, but it was clear that the bar had been lowered due to our unwillingness to participate. I think we all realized that our grades didn’t stand for anything valid – in The Bridge, grades are an imaginary currency. There were attempts at having actual classes, but they were frequently interrupted by things like fights breaking out, or students yelling “Man, this is bullshit!” It wasn’t much of a healthy learning environment, so passing grades for each day were typically offered in exchange for good behavior and a boring worksheet. The whole program is an attempt to get the least motivated students through high-school, whether actual learning is occurring or not. I’m sure it makes the district look great on paper, but I find it shameful that our flawed metrics for success could cause a school to forget what its primary purpose is.
I didn’t want the bar lowered. I wanted to focus on my work. I didn’t want to be isolated from my peers. I wanted to feel normal. Westfield High School has an enrollment of over 1,500 students, and I was one of them, but I was one of approximately 5-20 students who were placed in a single room all day, and not allowed to be a part of the larger community. No matter how much I expressed that I wanted to be in a normal high-school classroom, they didn’t listen. In return, I didn’t listen to them either. I completely stopped going to school and was left back a year. In a strange act of desperation, they offered to let me take a regular science and phys-ed class with students who were a year younger, which was awkward, and kind of defeated the purpose. That was when I realized that it was too late.
My school had wasted my time until there was no time left.
I had my education covered all along – what they didn’t understand is that they had failed to fulfill the single greatest responsibility of a high-school, which is to provide an environment that promotes healthy social development. From an early age onward, I was denied the right to exist normally, all because I had the audacity to challenge the notion that compulsory schooling holds a monopoly on my education.
I left, and I still feel cheated sometimes, but it isn’t over yet. After leaving school, I realized that there exists a massive movement of current and former students, teachers, parents, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and leaders who believe traditional schooling is a mediocre and obsolete educational approach. The old-fashioned learning institutions that are failing our communities will be replaced by something better, and now is the time to build it.
The world outside of the public education bureaucracy is enormous, and the alternatives to traditional schooling will continue to rise up, until they’ve risen above everything that is currently considered to be the norm. There can be no tolerance for the dying breed of traditional education professionals who mismanage groups of children in destructive ways when they choose the alternatives. There is no ‘fixing’ traditional schooling to adapt to the age of information. We will need to re-evaluate our needs from the ground up, and the result will not resemble our current Industrial Age institutions. The reinvention of schools won’t be easy, nor will it be met without resistance, but one thing that history teaches us repeatedly is that progress cannot be stopped. I think it’s time to accept that the role of educators is changing, because classrooms literally face a world of competition, and I can confirm that the competition is unprecedentedly powerful.
Nick Perez is a self-educated web developer, supporter of alternative education techniques, Mets & Jets fan, and producer of odd electroacoustic music. He likes to play around with every language, framework, and CMS that he comes across. The endless variety of open-source tools that we have available to us is one of his favorite things about developing stuff.