A Parents’ Guide Beyond Opting Out

by Christopher Nye

To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

—Buckminster Fuller

School should not be mass production. It needs to be loving and close. That is what kids need. You need love to learn.

—a student at Vanguard High School in New York City

In testimony before a New York State Senate committee, parent Jeanette Deutermann tells what convinced her to become an Opt-Out activist. Describing her ten year old, she said, “he went from a child who looked forward to school in the morning and would return home talking about the projects and interesting things that went on in the classroom, to a child who cried at night, had stomach aches, and begged to stay home in the morning.” The changed behavior of this normal, well-adjusted child coincided with the imposition of high stakes testing at his school, and it ended when he learned his mother was opting him out of future testing. The climate in schools at testing time is so toxic and stressful that instructions to those administering tests in at least one state include what to do when a student vomits on the test booklet. Test stress is only one symptom of a larger problem.

Environmental philosopher, professor, and author, Kathleen Dean Moore, has this to say about how we can tackle daunting systemic problems, not at the symptom level, but getting to the bedrock changes that over time will cure them: First, stop the damage. Second, imagine new and better ways to live on earth. And third, “change the story about who we are, we humans.”

This framework with its three components of a successful, holistic solution to a major problem, was articulated as a way to address global warming and the repair of our damaged planet. But in some respects the same kind of narrow, materialistic thinking that is wrecking our climate has also subverted education. Therefore, Moore’s problem-solving framework, based on earlier thinking by Buddhist activist and author Joanna Macy, can help parents who are considering, or are already, opting their children out of excessive testing. This path takes us to a place where we can understand the bigger problem of the accountability paradigm favored by corporate reformers and the U.S. Dept. of Education and then begin to work toward a whole child paradigm that will truly nurture children and their development.

Stop the Damage

In the accountability paradigm, you can’t have too much data. In practice this means that much time, not to mention funding and other resources, are stolen from teaching and poured into test prep, testing, and data management. Moreover, in order to have curriculum aligned with tests, a more rigorous (read rigid) progression of lessons becomes required, one that reduces teachers to technicians following scripts with little opportunity to creatively respond to individual student needs. As a result some of the most capable and innovative teachers leave the profession while promising potential younger ones turn to alternative careers. No wonder we now have a serious national teacher shortage emerging. A recent piece on NPR titled “Where have All the Teachers Gone?” stated that enrollment in teacher training programs is down as much as 53%. What creative teacher would want to work in a compliance climate where teacher discretion has been replaced by intrusive oversight and a climate of fear?

Recently a much loved and respected high school principal in Rockville Center, Long Island, Carol Burris, resigned early because, in her words, “I will not participate in an evaluation system such as the one designed by the governor or legislature. It is morally and ethically wrong.” And further, “I will retire early and dedicate all of my energies to fighting the assault on our public schools and our teachers.” Strong words from a woman whose own life was transformed by education. Coming from an urban, working class family––her father laid subway tracks in the city––she rose to earn an Ivy League doctorate and become in 2013 High School Principal of the Year in New York State.

The toxic climate for teaching that leads to the departure of good people from public education, and the diminished appeal for creative new ones, can be attributed to the materialistic mindset that shapes the accountability paradigm. Policy architects of the education reform movement have managed to miss the point as to what education and child development are all about. Schools could focus on drawing out the unique individuality and original talents of each child. Instead the priorities have become following standardized curriculum and bureaucratically enforced procedures in order to keep test scores up and not challenge the system. The resulting loss of perspective can lead to absurd conditions, as in Pittsburgh, where in 2014 fourth graders took 33 standardized tests mandated by the state or district. In addressing this nationwide juggernaut, it will not be enough to reduce the excessive testing, for, as Einstein wisely observed, you can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it. The path toward a less mechanistic thinking will be suggested in the final section.

Stirred to action by the use and abuse of high stakes testing, engaged parents have an opportunity to stop the damage, for they are the one group somewhat insulated from the threats and sanctions the current system metes out to non-conformers. Thus the Opt-Out movement has spread from coast to coast, much to the dismay of educrats. Allies include groups like Save Our Schools, Citizens for Public Schools, Parents Across America, and Rethinking Schools. A leading voice raised against the climate of fear and compliance in public education is that of Diane Ravitch, who was Assistant Secretary of Education under George W. Bush when No Child Left Behind was being drafted. In a dramatic reversal, however, when she saw the results of this legislation in practice, she changed course and now tirelessly opposes the approaches she once helped craft.

Another person who understands the transformative power of education because his own life exemplifies it, Yong Zhao began life in remote rural China. He characterizes himself as “a failed peasant.” Yet today he is an engaging professor at University of Oregon, where he is Presidential Chair and Director of an Institute in the College of Education. Zhao points out that for hundreds of years, Chinese education has been mired in a testing culture that managed to expunge almost all creativity and initiative from students. Chinese leadership today realizes that for the country to be a world leader it needs to promote learning that values innovation, thinking outside the box, and creativity. Just at the moment when China is moving away from a discredited culture of testing-driven education, the United States has chosen to embrace it.

Aided by these perceptive thinkers and these courageous organizations, let us first stop the damage, mobilizing the growing awareness and resistance of other parents. To accomplish this, we need to make these changes.

  1. We must take every opportunity to have the Opt Out movement grow. Opt Out parents have performed a tremendous service by unmasking the mania for testing, what one observer has called “obsessive measurement disorder.” Competent teachers know how well their students are doing. They do not need an outside entity to tell them if the students they see every day are learning. However, high-stakes tests have become an enforcement mechanism for identifying students who deviate from norms, for weeding out teachers, and for closing schools. In the process they create a climate of stress and fear—far from an ideal learning environment.
  2. Common Core State Standards, deceptively named because they constitute a nationalized curriculum at least for English and math, should become guidelines, not rigid requirements that carry sanctions if not met. Making the curriculum standardized across all 50 states so that students who move from one state to another come in at the same level where they left off makes little sense when this robs teachers of the right to individualize content in order to reach and motivate their classes. This is letting the tail wag the dog. Individual students, individual classes, and regions can have distinct needs and characteristics. Straightjackets may be useful in dealing with crazy people.
  3. The federal role should be limited to empowering the local efforts–with research, with financial support that helps even out unequal funding, and with programs that address problems like poverty through free and reduced-cost meals. Insofar as the federal government seizes the national education agenda, it disempowers states, local school boards, and those in the classroom. This may not even be constitutional, though it has yet to be formally challenged.

Parents are voters, and the one constituency not subject to discipline by the educational establishment. They can join and organize opt out groups, attend and get elected to school boards, inform their legislators, use social media, and be imaginative in demonstrating to other parents that they have to power to topple this system that depends on their compliance. They can also encourage authorities to allow pilot of magnet schools freed from the intrusive data requirements so that teachers have to teach and be creative. All this will be easier if we have a vision of a compelling, creative alternative. This brings us to the next problem-solving component.

Imagine New and Better Ways

Finland is believed by many to have the best schools in the world, can teach us much. The Finland Phenomenon, an important film featuring Harvard education professor Tony Wagner, does an outstanding job of revealing the way our compliance system for supervising and managing teachers contrasts with Finland’s, which is based on trust and professionalism. This documentary also makes clear that because the country rigorously prepares teachers and empowers them to take initiative and be creative in their classrooms, they gladly help and coach one another and take pride in their work. No intrusive system of testing is needed to insure they are doing their job. We can learn from Finland and do even better.

Better ways exist all around us. Let’s learn from them and use our imagination to take the ideas further. There is so much to be learned from Finland. And other European systems–Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and Korczak. In the U.S., place-based education, Expeditionary Learning, democratic education, and even home schooling in many cases liberate learning from the unimaginative and mechanical routines that often fail to connect with children. What the successful existing approaches have in common is an emphasis not on accountability and data, but on nurturing the whole child. What does that mean?

Parents can use www.EducateTheWholeChild.org as a place to start in understanding the possibilities for rethinking schools. It proposes a framework that involves engaging students whenever possible on five different levels. The framework builds on the fact that children have multiple intelligences, and brain studies tell us that material can be learned and retained better, the more parts of the brain become involved. Thus a student working on a project that requires doing research and making calculations in order to build a model or simulation, culminating in a presentation and written report (thus a multi-level activity requiring teamwork and initiative), will be more motivated and engaged and is bound to do better. The five areas Educate the Whole Child has identified are:

  1. cognitive-intellectual activity, associated with the left brain
  2. creative-intuitive activity (the arts), associated with the right brain
  3. structured physical movement and unstructured, self-directed play
  4. handwork, making things that can be useful, sometimes beautiful
  5. engagement with nature and community

These efforts work best when the school climate or culture is warm and supportive, in other words enhances social and emotional growth as well.

Teachers who have run projects beyond school walls or had students learning through service in their community, know that when students are active in the fifth area, it is easy to engage them in the other four. The tangible service in one’s own place or community adds a purposeful dimension to learning, one where students build self-esteem because they can see they are contributing. Moreover, community members become stakeholders in the children’s education.

When students’ learning occurs in the community or surrounding natural environment, that is called place-based education. This relatively new movement, introduced by the magazine, Orion, and written about by Professor David Sobel, opens all kinds of possibilities. Sobel reports on an impoverished and polluted mining town in Appalachia that wanted the school to be a change agent for the community. To a remarkable extent, they succeeded.

Crellin Elementary School utilizes place-based instruction that is both meaningful and relevant to students’ lives. Problem-based activities give students experi-ence in conducting research, using higher level thinking skills, and working in cooperative groups.

Classroom instruction is also content interrelated. During a fifth grade math class on area and perimeter, students create the space outdoors for the new Stewardship Garden. Students write and publish books about the Environmental Education Laboratory (EEL) for younger grades. These publications include information about components of the EEL such as the water treatment ponds, wetlands, boardwalk, vernal pool, Snowy Creek, and native gardens. They create field guides, write newspaper articles, and demonstrate their knowledge artistically.

“Drill, Baby, Drill might be a good mantra for off-shore oil enthusiasts,” said the Baltimore Sun in an article about the Crellin school, “but it’s an impoverished mindset for good school reform.” This article of July 22, 2010, noted that of 847 elementary schools in Maryland, Crellin had come from a disappointing performance on the state assessment to having the highest scores in the state. The Bob Gliner film, Schools That Change Communities, has a moving chapter on the Crellin story. At Crellin, and at any schools that seek to enrich learning with projects, out-of-classroom experiences, parent participation and support can make the difference between success and failure.

Any well-conceived project-based learning like this readily engages the whole child. For example, gardens, even on a vacant lot next to an urban school, provide tremendous opportunities to challenge children on several levels. In the winter, students plan, calculating how they will use the available space, the number and cost of seeds; they can learn about different nutrients plants need. In spring they plant and tend the seedlings. Drawing the young plants as they emerge builds powers of observation and artistic skill. In late spring the students will be challenged to come up with a plan for getting their vegetables through the vacation so there is something to harvest when school begins again. Then in late summer into fall as they are astounded by the way the tiny seeds have transformed and produced seeds of their own, as in pumpkins. Students can learn meal preparation with food they have harvested. In late fall they dry and prepare seeds for next year’s crop, and they can learn about recycling by making compost. They create a cookbook with recipes they have researched or created. Other writing activities can be introduced along the way. And finally, reflecting and writing about the gardening experience can form a basis for next season’s plans.

Of course if you ask most educators, “Do you try to teach the whole child?”

they will answer “Yes.” But in fact doing so is almost impossible if the controlling paradigm for the school is accountability, and hence a compliance culture built on reductionist assumptions about human nature. With these assumptions kids become data points. Lost are their uniqueness, their potential, even their—sometimes well hidden—promise of greatness.

It is interesting to note that just as in education we have come to focus on outer, material or measurable forms of achievement, at the same time neglecting the inner child, in medicine something similar has been going on. In his bestselling book Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande had this to say:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.

School culture and curriculum should provide reasons to be alive and opportunities to thrive on various levels. Without this and without a sense of higher purpose, which in itself provides a form of nourishment and a compass heading for one’s life, especially in the tumultuous adolescent years, one should not be surprised to see anxiety, depression, destructive behavior, cutting, addiction, even suicides.

The whole child model does not assume that children can be manipulated in a behavioristic way, or that they are knowledge receptacles we try to fill with enough facts, concepts, and skills to make them employable upon graduation, or that they are like clay waiting to be modeled into something useful. Each of these assumptions can be found in contemporary educational thinking. And each is inadequate. So what conception of the human being in childhood will raise our sights so the next generation can meet and transcend the challenges ahead? What vision of human nature can evoke what is highest and best in individuals, but works for all kinds of children, not just the most obviously talented ones? This brings us to the remaining problem-solving element.

Tell a New Story about What It Means to be Human

How can we decide what we want for our schools before we know what kind of people we hope our children will become? Do we want them to be kids who never color outside the lines and adults who never think outside the box?

Perhaps we can approach an alternative view by asking: What is REALLY going on in child development? Starting with the miracle of birth, it is truly amazing how this complete, breathing, sensate little being comes into the world, ready to be nourished and to bond with the mother from the outset. But note: food is not the only form of nourishment required. Without warmth, eye contact, touch, and an emotional climate conducive to calm and sense of well-being, the infant will not thrive. As the child grows, other forms of nurturance are needed

Once a child becomes more mobile and interacts with his or her surroundings, we can observe the first form of learning—imitation. It has been said of young children that imitation is their whole vocation. The way a young child’s ability to imitate enables the acquisition of speech is truly remarkable. As educator A. C. Harwood remarks in his classic work, The Recovery of Man in Childhood, “The small child enters so deeply into the essential nature of speech that by the age of three or four he is using highly complicated inflections and word combinations to express every kind of relationship of space and time.”

Children learn immense amounts though play—sensing, fine and gross motor skills, testing boundaries, getting along with others, pressing on after a failure or fall. Excellent material exists from Alliance for Childhood and others on the importance of play and how it equips the young for later challenges, including the sometimes tumultuous adolescent years.

Anyone who has watched a child develop all the way to adulthood, and can then step back and set aside all the trials and stresses attached to being a parent, can see that healthy child development is a succession of miracles that deserves to be nurtured with the utmost attention and care. The culmination and fulfillment of this development becomes the ability to make a contribution in the world, and more important than just the ability, the desire to give back or in some small way to make the world a better place.

As a general rule, if you don’t believe in miracles, you won’t see or appreciate them, like passing someone on the street and not recognizing them. On the other hand, if you are open, they are all around us. Take the honeybee on the chrysanthemum. Isn’t it a miracle that this tiny creature, one of about 10,000 in a hive, knows how to navigate to this flower, gather nectar, and return home, and on top of that communicate with other bees by means of a dance where good nectaring can be found? Seeing the sun come over the horizon in the morning or watching barren branches leaf out in spring can be miracles to a young child, or anyone. Rachel Carson wrote eloquently about the sense of wonder. Children are born with it, but we tend to “educate” it out of them. This can change. Wonder can bring learning to life. As Brian Swimme says in the Emmy-winning documentary on cosmic and human evolution, Journey of the Universe: “Wonder will guide us.”

This same quality of wonder or a heightened appreciation of things, if it pervades the parent or teacher, facilitates drawing out the unique talents of individual children. To the extent you can behold in every child, and in the objects of nature, some element that reveals the divine or that partakes of miracle, you make your environment, including your learning environment, sacred. There is nothing sectarian about this. It is just a developmental fact that children thrive when nourished, and cherishing the sense of wonder they innately possess nourishes them.

Another aspect of child development, and of understanding who we really are, has to do with the fact that we bring such different qualities and talents into the world. In any class, at any level, think of the range of temperaments, of personalities, of interests and skills and intelligences—many of which do not have a chance to reveal themselves in a conventionally structured classroom environment. Even in graduate school, after seventeen or more years of classes, by which time students are all studying the same narrow discipline and have been in school long enough to have all the individuality squeezed out of them—nonetheless you will find remarkable diversity. One person has an ability to make furniture; another is a poet; another is a superb parent; another is an impressive athlete. From a certain perspective the ways they are different overshadow the ways they are the same.

Just as parents note how different two of their children can be, even as they grow up in the very same environment, the observant pre-school or kindergarten teacher will notice that children already in their first classes exhibit some individuality and marked temperaments. One may be somewhat dreamy and able to sit quietly in nature. Another may be a restless doer, who has to occupy his hands and feet and may be inclined to boss others around. Still another may have a choleric temperament and be prone to anger but also very enthusiastic and good-hearted when not angry. In the effort to draw out the strengths and potentials a child possesses, and to motivate him or her, different strategies work better with different temperaments. To the extent possible, the teacher or parent wants to give a child’s temperament a chance to play out so that over time the growing individual can learn to use and master it. For when the temperament masters the individual, you can get an imbalance or in extreme cases mental illness. Giving the choleric child a chance to play the lead or head a team on a project, for example, can help achieve balance. The Waldorf system has developed this in depth, with strategies for effectively reaching children with each of the four major temperaments. This conception sees temperament as the mediator between the individual and the generic in a child.

Finally, we come to the most important dimension for any adult guiding children’s growth. At the core of what it means to be human, is the goal of achieving individual self-direction, self-mastery, or freedom. Cultivating this capacity in our own lives allows us to employ it to give meaning and enduring purpose to teaching, and of course parenting. Whole child education aims to build a foundation from which the child can develop this extraordinarily significant yet elusive capacity. This needs to happen not just through helping the child come to terms with his or her temperament. In all lessons and activities, the ultimate objective of helping the individual child become capable of true self-government, true inner freedom, should inhere. Nothing could seem less attainable in a class of, let us say, rambunctious six-year-olds. But being mindful that this as the ultimate destination will give depth and purpose to what happens day by day, and the children will respond to this recognition of their higher selves far more positively than if the teacher operates out of a barren materialism in which the child is little more than the sum of his or her behaviors or the product of an educational assembly line.

It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of keeping freedom in the sense of the capacity for self-direction, as the ultimate ideal for the teacher’s work. If through educational malpractice a child fails to develop a balance, a wholeness, in the way various faculties and intelligences mature, how much of a chance will that child have as an adult to make a life in which his or her highest and best self freely finds expression? Without strong self-direction and an inner core, how will she find her way through the increasing deluge of data (three terabytes per day produced on the Internet alone) and the other demands of modern life?

In a recent Pew Research Center study the under-30 generation was asked to list their most important goals in life. “Being a good parent” ranked first at 52%, followed by “having a successful marriage—30%, then “helping those in need” ––all these ahead of “having a high-paying career.” Note that each of the three leading goals demands a greater measure of maturity and self-direction than simply amassing wealth.

The parent engaged in growth and self-change becomes a model and encouragement for a child, even if the change is something as prosaic as quitting smoking. For teachers’ personal and professional development, the ultimate ideal of achieving inner freedom also advances whole child education. And this path becomes more possible as one cultivates respect, even reverence, for the inmost core of the child. This is the seed that holds the potential to one day grow in confidence and self-direction. This can seem difficult when a child is acting out; yet it is all the more important at such times. In fact, to apply discipline when appropriate and to demand civil behavior is to affirm the child’s inherent inner worth. Caving in to children’s whims sets them up for insisting on having their own way later in life, along with the sorrows that follow from self-centeredness.

This matter of freedom is key because it answers the question, Do we need to change the story of who we are or what it means to be human? The implied story in the kind of education public schools currently provide asserts the primacy of being prepared to compete in the global economic marketplace. It is about making a living, not making a life. The shallow soullessness of this story guarantees that we will never meet or exceed the accomplishment of schools in Finland mentioned earlier.

Alternatively, the story that allows or encourages the quest for true self-direction leads toward drawing out what is highest and best in emerging individuals. In the words of the founder of Waldorf education, “…the very purpose of earthly incarnation involves enlivening the impulse toward freedom.”

This need not be the only way to change the story. The point is that a superficial notion of what is going on in child development will not get us the results we want and the children need because the process of growth toward maturity is profound and filled with purpose. To witness and guide their growth into the parents, spouses, employees, and citizens of the future will require all the love toward them and self-direction in ourselves that we can muster, but isn’t that opportunity to grow as teachers and parents precisely what we find exhilarating about this journey?

With thanks for support and encouragement from The Myrin Institute and Orion magazine.