Why Our Brightest Teens May Begin Opting Out of High School

As we rise out of the industrial model of work into a global and information one, there is an increasing demand for artists, hackers, and innovators who create remarkable and generous products.

(Photo: R. Nial Bradshaw/Flickr)

Voula Coyle, by all accounts an excellent fourth grade teacher in East Rockaway, New York, was removed from the classroom in July of 2014 because her students were performing so well. Why, a reasonable person might ask, would a teacher get punished for high performance?

Because when Coyle’s students graduated from her classroom into the next grade level up, they didn’t perform as well for their fifth grade teachers as they did for her. Consequently, teacher-ratings of those fifth-grade teachers went down and those teachers decided enough was enough. Coyle had to go.

Repeatedly, Coyle’s supervisors told her to dumb down her teaching and keep her students’ test scores below the state rating of “effective.” She refused, was cast out by her peers, and eventually kicked out of the classroom. “One faculty member said, ‘our job is not to be optimal, but to be adequate.’ That underlying message of mediocrity was promoted,” Coyle said.

How do students respond to teaching that is often intended to be “adequate” at best?

In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Harvard lecturer Tony Wagner explains that many students drop out of high school, not because it’s too difficult, but because they are bored. Wagner’s findings are echoed by research done at Johns Hopkins University, which found that one of the four primary reasons for leaving high school is boredom and not seeing its value to one’s career goals.

Not only does student boredom come from inattentive teachers, but 75 percent of students report boredom stems from lack of interest in the material being taught. There are probably many reasons for that, but foremost among them is the simple fact that what’s taught in classrooms often has no bearing on or resemblance to things in the “real world.” This gap—between how our students are taught and how the world runs—appears to be growing exponentially in an information-saturated world in which the economy is changing rapidly.

Is High School Becoming Irrelevant?

In his book, Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner explains that the current education model is not teaching children what they need to know to thrive in today’s world. This isn’t because “schools are failing our children” or because teachers don’t care—many of them care deeply. It is simply because the academic model is obsolete and outdated. Wagner believes the rising generation needs passion, creativity and purpose above all else—skills that, Wagner contends, cannot be facilitated within the current system.

Wagner isn’t the only high-profile voice making this case. In his landmark TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson passionately argued that our current education system is killing children’s creativity, a fundamental human resource and the key ingredient to an innovation-driven economy. Seth Godin, one of the world’s leading voices on business and marketing, has expressed similar sentiments, noting,“The current (educational) structure, which seeks low-cost uniformity that meets minimum standards, is killing our economy, our culture, and us.” He further argues that the education system kills children’s dreams by making them compliant followers who don’t think for themselves. We don’t need the entire corpus of the rising generation to become factory workers anymore. As we rise out of the industrial model of work into a global and information one, there is an increasing demand for artists, hackers and innovators who create remarkable and generous products.

Dropping Out

Research indicates that nearly half of college students drop out before receiving a degree. An article in Forbes argues that college degrees are vastly overrated, especially for those who become entrepreneurs.

In an interview on 60 minutes, billionaire Peter Thiel explained that there is a bubble in education like there was a bubble in housing in the past decade. “Everyone believed they needed to have a house and would pay whatever it took,” said Thiel. “Now everyone believes they need to go to college, and will pay whatever it takes.”

However, Thiel believes many people are worse off because of going to college. From his perspective, the schooling does not give them the proper education and often leaves them with heavy debt. Consequently, he has created the Thiel fellowship which offers selected students $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue entrepreneurship instead.

Of course, people will be going to college, and high school, long into the future. However, it’s entirely possible that increasing numbers of young people will opt out of these to pursue more effective and efficient means of making their highest contribution to our global society.

Generation Z On The Rise

Right now, there is a rising current of high school-aged (and younger) kids poised to become the most entrepreneurial generation we’ve ever seen. This is Generation Z. They are extremely bright and talented and have been incubated in a wave of exponential technological advances.

Gen Z kids are digital natives without memory of a world without the Internet, smartphones and social media. Their technological skills are intuitive and exceed those of their parents, says Don Tapscott.“This is the first time in history when children are an authority about something really important.” Gen Z kids are innately savvy at technology and innovation; it’s in their blood.

Take, for instance, Yianni Feldman, a 14-year-old boy living in New York. In an interview, he told me he loves watching Shark Tank with his mom, and that he spends countless hours browsing innovation websites.

But he isn’t just gazing at others’ achievements. Recently, Yianni invented what he calls the “ponchella,” a hybrid between an umbrella and poncho. His inspiration for the ponchella came from using traditional umbrellas and yet still getting wet from the side-wind. Designed like a normal umbrella, the ponchella stores disposable ponchos (similar to raincoats) in the handle. It is set to launch in the coming months.

Also 14, entrepreneur Naomi Benenson created the Wish2Wish app, which just might disrupt the world of social media. On her platform, people share changes they want to see in the world. These “wishes” can be viewed and rated by anyone on the app. If you agree with someone’s wish, you can cross fingers for it, naturally. If you disagree, you can do it Stephen Colbert style by wagging a finger.

Naomi’s app was created in response to her experience as a competitive dancer. She often saw the outcome of debates within her dance company reflect the majority’s opinion inaccurately. She believes more people should have a right to hear what the majority feels. Her vision for Wish2Wish is to revolutionize the way change happens in the world. If there is a public or political issue at hand, post your opinion on Wish2Wish and see how people really feel about it. This app is simple to use, free and bound to make waves in the way we all communicate.

And if those two stories aren’t enough, consider others:

  • Ann Makosinski, a 16 year old from Victoria who created a flashlight powered by the human hand, called “Hollow Flashlight.”
  • Hannah Alper, an 11-year-old blogger from Toronto who now speaks to stadium-sized crowds all across North America.
  • Shawn Mendes, a 16 year old from Ontario who started posting Vine videos online and now has international pop fame.

Every nine seconds, a teenager drops out of high school in the United States. That is approximately 1.2 million dropouts per year. 81 percent of students say they would have stayed if the subject matter was more relevant to real life. Over 70 percent of teen dropouts want to start their own business. In times past, teen dropouts had a harder time achieving their entrepreneurial dreams. But, as we’ve seen in the previous examples, the doors are now open for anyone with an idea and a smartphone.

There is, however, one statistic that cannot be ignored. That is, 75 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts. Indeed, dropping out is not a virtue in and of itself. But the students I’m referring to are those who genuinely believe there is a better path for them—and who are willing to hustle and work hard to achieve their dreams. They seek enhanced learning, not less. As Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Gen Zers Are Socially Responsible

These kids care about big and small things going on in the world. They are highly motivated to create solutions to the world’s problems. This deep interest in social issues was not learned in their classrooms. Rather, research has found that global news consumed via the Internet has motivated Generation Z to become more socially conscious than previous generations.

“I think our generation is really socially conscious, environmentally friendly and they are really global thinkers,” says Linda Manziaris, a 14-year-old jewelry entrepreneur who gives half of her income to a charity created by her 16-year-old sister.

When I asked Spencer Shulem, a teen entrepreneur, about his mindset, he responded: “I’m laser-focused on what matters to the world. People are really trying to simplify with what they have in life. You don’t have a phone in every room, a work computer and a home computer. You don’t need a separate music player, or 20,000 credit cards. What I’ve seen is people want to focus on what matters and what they want. Fixing key problems like global warming, starvation, energy. For me, it’s really, ‘how can I make the world a more productive place?’ This world will not be here for my grandkids if I am not part of a generation that makes this world a better place.”

As a TV host on the National Geographic Channel, Jason Silva has said: “The goal today is not to make a billion dollars, but instead to positively impact the lives of a billion people. In our new world of free-flowing information, it’s not inconceivable to influence—directly or indirectly—a billion people. The ripple effects of our words and actions are limitless. Today’s teens want to be a part of radical and positive global change. They see it as their responsibility.”

With or Without a Diploma, Generation Z Will Change the World

In previous eras, you needed a piece of paper to give you permission to “succeed.” In today’s world, you don’t.

Peter Diamandis, author of The New York Times bestselling books, Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, and Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World, argues it is not the big systems and corporations that hold the power anymore, but the agile entrepreneur. Of this, Diamandis has said: “Everywhere, the rate of change is so fast that large U.S. companies are in constant danger of disruption. Not from competition in China or India, no. They’re in danger of being made obsolete from two guys/gals in a garage in Silicon Valley, or anyone, anywhere, empowered by exponential technology, willing to risk it all, driven by their passion.”

According to the Olin School of Business, 40 percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies will be gone in the next 10 years. Although it seems hard to imagine, companies like Facebook and Google will likely be disrupted by high school dropouts with better and more useful ideas. In today’s aggressively innovative world, no one is safe. Diamandis has said, “If you’re not disrupting yourself, someone else is.”

The Future of Work and Education

According to a recent report, 53 million Americans (34 percent of the U.S. workforce) work from home as freelancers and home-based business owners. Many predict that number will increase to 50 percent of the workforce by 2020. Some argue that in the near future, most of the population will be entrepreneurs instead of employees.

Interestingly, this new model of work facilitates the evolving educational structure. While many parents are working from home, kids will be “remotely learning” as they access “classrooms” on the Internet from the same home workspace. Rather than being forced to be somewhere at a particular time, kids can learn when they want from wherever they want.

The research supports this. The Pew Research Center published a weighty report projecting the future of education called Digital Life in 2025. Regarding the public education structure in 2025, one anonymous expert said: “All public education will be by master teachers who connect through the Internet to all students across the country—local teachers will become tutors only.” Similarly, Bill Gates said back in 2010, “Five years from now, on the web—for free—you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”

Although currently under-utilized in the United States, apprenticeship programs can efficiently and effectively prepare students for work in a variety of fields as another alternative to high school and college. This is already present in countries like Germany and Switzerland.

In Switzerland, almost 70 percent of students between the ages of 16 and 19 take part in dual-enrollment Vocational Education and Training (VET) programs. In these programs, students attend school for one or two days per week and spend the rest of their time in paid on-the-job training programs lasting three to four years.

Beyond the benefits of earning wages while learning, experiencing a career before making a lifelong commitment and learning under the direction of a master practitioner, teens are likely influenced to make higher quality decisions when surrounded by mature and experienced mentors and colleagues than when they are cloistered among their peers.

We also cannot overlook the changes that are already happening, and will continue to happen, within the current public system. Without a question, many people are working hard to make public education better and more relevant. And there are several success stories. Indeed, public education will continue to be a critical avenue for many young people to get educated. The goal is for everyone to help each other so the rising generation is getting the education they need to succeed in life and society. Whether you are in or out of public education, the only enemy is resistance to change.

Smartphones > Classrooms?

Despite the countless hours spent in classrooms, Gen Z kids are also spending loads of time on their computers and smartphones. They are well aware of what’s going on in our fast-changing global economy and they are equipped to jump in and be involved.

In the coming years, don’t be surprised to see teens you know deciding high school is irrelevant to their career and life goals. A generation ago, this might have been career suicide. However, in our innovation economy, it may be the best move they could make.

Benjamin Hardy is the foster parent of three children and the author of Slipstream Time Hacking. He’s pursuing his Ph.D. in organizational psychology. To learn more about Mr. Hardy, visit www.benjaminhardy.com or connect with him on Twitter.

Why Our Brightest Teens May Begin Opting Out of High School