Why the movement to opt out of Common Core tests is a big deal

The Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss, May 3, 2015

The movement among parents to refuse to allow their children to take Common Core-aligned standardized tests has been growing in a number of states, as recent Answer Sheet posts have chronicled (here and here, for example). As opt-out numbers have grown, so too has reaction from officials who argue that frequent testing is valuable and that school districts could lose federal funds if too many students refuse to take the test (a threat that appears to be based on shaky ground.) Though testing supporters have attempted to minimize the importance and impact of the opt-out movement, it is having a big impact, as explained in the following post by award-winning New York Principal Carol Burris.

Burris, of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In 2010, she was selected as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She has written several books, numerous articles and many posts on this blog about the seriously botched implementation of school reform in her state — including the Common Core standards and the implementation of high-stakes Core-aligned exams — and about the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. She recently announced that she had decided to retire early and to advocate for public education in new ways.

 

By Carol Burris

New York opt-out is reverberating around the nation. The pushback against the Common Core exams caught fans of high-stakes testing off guard, with estimates of New York test refusals now exceeding 200,000.

It was evident that the state would be far below the 95 percent federal participation rate as soon as the 3-8 English Language Arts tests began. When math testing started, the numbers climbed higher still. In the Brentwood School District, a 49 percent opt-out rate for ELA rose to 57 percent during math tests. These rates defy the stereotype that the movement is a rebellion of petulant “white suburban moms.” Ninety-one percent of Brentwood students are black or Latino, and 81 percent are economically disadvantaged. Brentwood is not unique–Amityville (90 percent black or Latino, 77 percent economically disadvantaged) had an opt-out rate of 36.4 percent; Greenport (49 percent black or Latino, 56 percent economically disadvantaged) had an opt-out rate that exceeded 61 percent; and South Country opt outs (50 percent black or Latino and 51 percent economically disadvantaged) exceeded 64 percent. New York’s rejection of the Common Core tests crosses geographical, socio-economic and racial lines.

There are also reports that student opt-outs were suppressed by administrators in some districts, who called in non-English speaking parents and pressured them to rescind their opt-out letters. Parent activist Jeanette Deutermann states that she “was contacted by dozens of NYC teachers who were horrified by the scare tactics being used on parents in their schools, to coerce them into participating in this year’s assessments. Language barriers and the absence of a social media presence resulted in a lack of knowledge about their rights to refuse the test. Teachers reported that administrators exploited this language and information barrier, telling parents that their children would not be promoted if they refused, or that they simply had no right to refuse. This is blatant discrimination at best.”

Despite attempts to suppress opt out, refusal rates were over three times last year’s 60,000, and activist parents are already planning to increase numbers next year. The opt-out movement is spreading across the nation. PARCC opt out is taking off in Colorado, New Jersey and California, especially among high-school students.

As the Refuse the Common Core Test movement grows, the three people who are the most responsible for causing New York’s rebellion—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Chancellor Merryl Tisch—are commenting on opting out, each with their own unique spin.

During a discussion with Motoko Rich of The New York Times, Arne Duncan threatened federal government intervention if states did not meet the 95 percent participation rate. Assuming that Duncan is not planning to call in the National Guard to haul off opt-outing 8 year olds, the only possible “sanction” would be withholding funds. That would surely lead to court challenges forcing the Education Department to justify penalizing schools when parents exercise their legitimate right to refuse the test.–an impossible position to defend.

During the same interview, Duncan said that his own children, who attend school in the non-Common Core state of Virginia, do not see the test as “a traumatic event.” He insinuated that “adults” are causing “the trauma,” thus furthering the stereotype of “the hysterical mom” that those who oppose opt-out often evoke.  Before jumping to the conclusion that New York parents are the problem, Mr. Duncan might want to compare the Virginia tests his children take, to the New York Common Core test.

Here is a sample from the Grade 6 Reading test that was given in Virginia last year to measure the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL):

“Julia raced down the hallway, sliding the last few feet to her next class. The bell had already rung, so she slipped through the door and quickly sat down, hoping the teacher would not notice.

 

Mr. Malone turned from the piano and said, “Julia, I’m happy you could join us.” He continued teaching, explaining the new music they were preparing to learn. Julia relaxed, thinking Mr. Malone would let another tardy slide by. Unfortunately, she realized at the end of class that she was incorrect.”

That is certainly a reasonable passage to expect sixth-graders to read. You can find the complete passage and other released items from the Virginia tests here.

Contrast the above with a paragraph from a passage on the sixth-grade New York Common Core test given this spring.

The artist focuses on the ephemerality of his subject. “It’s there for a brief moment             and the clouds fall apart,” he says. Since clouds are something that people tend to             have strong connections to, there are a lot of preconceived notions and emotions               tied to them. For him though, his work presents “a transitory moment of presence               in a distinct location.”

I will let readers draw their own conclusions.

Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reaction brought to mind Mad Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, whose slogan was, “What? Me worry?” Cuomo just didn’t see the big deal in opt out. After characterizing the scores as “meaningless” the governor continued by saying, “So they can opt out if they want to, but on the other hand, if the child takes the test as practice, then the score doesn’t count anyway.” Is Andrew Cuomo saying that New Yorkers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on testing and wasting nearly two weeks of instructional time for “practice”? Practice, exactly, for what?

And finally Chancellor Merryl Tisch expressed dismay and confusion. Tisch, who once confessed that “the opting out kind of breaks my heart,” reminded students that it’s a hard-knock life by threatening “a national test.” When the numbers continued to rise, she said that “we” have the right to use discretion and withhold funds to districts. When that didn’t stem opt outs, she decided that threats do not work and funding should not be withheld.

In an obvious attempt to duck accountability for test refusals, she threw the Governor and NYSUT under the bus by attributing opt out to parents and kids having “ got caught in the labor dispute between the governor and the teacher’s union.”

Her unwillingness to see her own role in the testing mess immediately caused a stir. The editorial board of the Lower Hudson Journal News accused Tisch of portraying opt-out parents as “confused patsies of a labor action.” Board members observed that “the stunning success of the test-refusal movement in New York is a vote of no confidence in our state educational leadership,” and they called for Tisch to step down.

The Journal News editorial board said what Duncan, Cuomo, Tisch and other so-called reformers don’t want to hear. Opt out is far bigger than a test refusal event. It is the repudiation of a host of corporate reforms that include the Common Core, high-stakes testing, school closings and the evaluation of teachers by test scores.   These reforms are being soundly rejected by parents and teachers.

I don’t often agree with Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, but he gets that opt out is a big deal. During his podcast discussion of opt out, he concluded (at 6.43):

“If this [opt-out] thing goes national, the whole education reform movement is in serious trouble.”

I agree with Mike with one slight revision—I would take out the word “if”.

Be Instead of Brag

Brain, Child

Family Stick Figures ARTBy Elizabeth Richardson Rau

I was stopped at a red light recently and pondered the stick figure family affixed to the back window of the minivan in front of me: one soccer player, a lacrosse player and a couple of cheerleaders. I have one sticker on the back of my car—round, decorated with sherbet-colored flowers, it looks like something that would be on the side of a VW bus heading to Woodstock—that says “Pay it Forward.” The abundance of familial advertising on the back of that minivan got me wondering whether I should have stickers promoting my three-person family. If I advertised the realities of raising my teenaged son, they might look something like this: Future pot farmer on board! Bedroom smells like a gym locker! Suspended for having cigarettes in backpack! F in English = summer school! I don’t recall seeing any of these on the racks at my local Target, though.

Raising children, particularly teenagers, is a tricky business. Parenting is tough enough without the added pressure of competing with those who publicly proclaim to be doing it better than we are. I wonder when our children’s accomplishments became the source of our own self-esteem. And what message does advertising only the positive send to typical kids who miss curfew, roll their eyes and talk back? Public promotion of our kids’ accolades not only creates a false reality for other parents but teaches our children to conceal the reality of life: that it is messy and imperfect, just like they are.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents did not contact our extended family or friends each time I did something boast-worthy, nor did they send a holly-trimmed newsletter each December bragging about my successes of the past eleven months. They did not have bumper stickers of any kind of the backs of their cars, certainly not ones advertising my identity as a tennis star or piano player. From them, I learned that the accomplishments themselves made me feel good, not the praise I received from others for achieving them. I was a typical teenager, much like the one that I am raising, an average student who participated in extra-curricular activities largely against my wishes; left to my own devices, I would have raced home every day after school to watch Little House on the Prairie while eating spray cheese straight out of the can. I did participate in many sticker-worthy activities, yet virtually no one outside my immediate family knew about it. There was no social media, and parental competition was something passed from ear to ear, not trumpeted from the top of the Internet mountaintop.

With Facebook came the public platform for showboating (Ate oatmeal for breakfast! Ran 5.5 miles! Twenty years ago, married the love of my life!). Twitter brought the capability to do so in 140-characters or less. When I was a pimply-faced, awkward adolescent, information moved at the turtle-slow pace of a note passed in the school hallway. My parents never thought to brag about my piano concert or number of tennis match wins. But today, with one click of a button or the slap of a sticker, the world is in the know about our business.

Why should we, as parents, care about public recognition for our kids’ accomplishments, and when did it become popular for parents to take credit for their children’s successes? I don’t recall ever seeing stickers advertising parental successes on the backs of any minivans (Employee of the month! Won preferred parking space at the gym! Voted most popular in book club!), so why do we put this pressure on our kids? Are we so desperate, as parents, for recognition of our kids’ achievements that we are willing to sacrifice the powerful lesson of gaining esteem from accomplishment to get it?
Listening in to conversations at high school sporting events, I hear mothers bragging about kids’ grades, sports wins, extra-curricular successes and those college applications! My son will be attending community college and while I am proud of his choice, mention it and people back away slowly, as though it might be catching. Community college is not sexy or prestigious, despite it being the best choice for my son. He doesn’t know what he wants to be for the rest of his life and has enough common sense to find out before investing a small fortune in an education he feels would be for show.

It is the accomplishments themselves, not the public trumpeting, that should generate self-esteem and self-worth. Teaching our children, particularly our vulnerable teenagers, to base their value on acceptance and third-party praise is one of the most damaging things we can do as parents. Instilling the value that being the best we can be, without recognition or judgment by others, is far more meaningful than advertising it. Life is about balance—with every accomplishment comes equal failure—so advertising only the good promotes a reality that is unattainable and puts pressure on our kids to be something that doesn’t exist: perfect.

My son learned a hard lesson when he lost his circle of friends because he was publicly honest about smoking pot. He admitted an imperfect choice, one that many of his friends also made regularly, and became an outcast overnight. The mothers of these boys, one of whom was my closest friend, led the social exodus and my children and I became prey to the realities of false advertising: it must look perfect in order to be accepted or worthy. Parenting teenagers is rarely pretty, but attractive lies are apparently far more appealing than ugly truths. Interestingly, the void left room for other families who were more interested in what we were on the inside as opposed to what we presented on the outside. Our social circle is smaller, yet more authentic as a result.

With drug use, suicides and mental health struggles in the adolescent population at epidemic levels, we must ask ourselves, as parents, if we should be advertising our kids differently, if at all. Teaching children to value themselves for their successes and be real about their struggles might be healthier than advertising partial truths. Perhaps the time has come to place value where it should really be: who we are as human beings instead of what we are achieving. Isn’t being—not bragging—the foundation of good self-esteem?

Be instead of brag. Maybe we can make that into a bumper sticker.

Author’s note: I continue to emphasize internal authenticity with my kids despite the challenges of doing so in a social media-obsessed world. We are regular practitioners of paying it forward and strive to “be instead of brag.”

Elizabeth Richardson Rau received her B.A. in journalism from Simmons College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and marketing communications strategist and lives in central Connecticut with her two children.

A Single-Sex Education Makes All the Difference for Girls

Editor’s note: This piece was originally posted on the website of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools and is used with permission.
It’s time to challenge the coeducation standard. The evidence supporting the benefits of all-girls schools is abundant.
A new report comparing all-girls high school environments to coeducational institutions provides clear evidence that — from academics to personal aspirations — the impact of the all-girls experience positively permeates a girl’s life at rates coeducational environments simply cannot match. At a time when real and resounding inequities remain between women and men in the workforce — from pay disparity to significant leadership gaps in nearly every industry — the report provides compelling evidence that girls’ schools offer a worthy solution.
Steeped in Learning: The Student Experience at All-Girls Schools analyzed the responses of nearly 13,000 high school girls attending all-girls schools, coeducational independent schools, and coeducational public schools to the 2013 High School Survey of Student Engagement. According to the survey [conducted by the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University], girls attending girls’ schools are more likely to have an experience that supports their learning than are girls attending coeducational schools. In particular, students at all-girls schools report:
  1. Having higher aspirations and greater motivation.
  2. Being challenged to achieve more.
  3. Engaging more actively in the learning process.
  4. Participating in activities that prepare them for the world outside of school.
  5. Feeling more comfortable being themselves and expressing their ideas.
  6. Showing greater gains on core academic and life skills.
  7. Being and feeling more supported in their endeavors.
Among the most striking results detailed in this study is the effect the all-girls environment has on a girl’s personal aspirations. Virtually all girls within an all-girls environment expect to earn a four-year degree; two-thirds expect to go on to graduate-level work. This is compared to under 40 percent of coeducational public school girls with graduate school expectations.
Such higher personal aspirations are likely influenced by the educators and classes girls attend while at school. More than 75 percent of girls in all-girls schools report their classes challenge them to achieve their full potential, and that they gave their maximum effort in their classes. This was higher than both coeducational independent and public schools, with public coed schools faring the worst with just under 40 percent reporting that their classes challenge them to their full potential.
The majority of our girls deserve better from their education. How can we hope to raise the profile of women if we cannot push them to reach their full potential in the classroom? Confidence grows out of experience and our girls are simply not getting enough practice.
The girls’ school girls also report higher levels of confidence in a wide variety of academic areas compared to their coeducational peers, including writing, speaking, critical thinking, reading, teamwork, and independent learning abilities. In sum, they are more personally engaged and successful in their learning and they report higher levels of support from both their fellow students and teachers.
The difference for girls in these educational environments is dramatic and the impact of educating even more girls in this way could help balance our social and political landscape, enabling women to claim their talents in a world that needs them to do so. Imagine a world where all women receive an education that unleashes their true potential.
A study released last month by University of Massachusetts at Amherst states that when women make up the majority of a group in an educational environment – specifically in the sciences – they are “more likely to worry less, feel confident and also to speak up and actively contribute to solve the problem at hand.” Another study at UCLA found that, even when accounting for self-selection biases, graduates of girls’ schools enter college with more confidence in their mathematical and computer skills, a greater interest in engineering careers, a stronger scientific orientation, higher SAT scores, and generally a more intellectual orientation toward the purpose of college.
With this supporting research and thousands of successful girls’ school graduates as living proof, we now have clear evidence that the coeducational high school environment needs to be challenged.
An all-girls education is a choice made by families because they value the extraordinary benefits of this learning environment.

Trudy Hall is board president at the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools and head at Emma Willard School (New York). Megan Murphy is executive director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. This piece was originally posted on the website of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools and is used with permission.

Push, Don’t Crush Students

Photo

CreditKeith Negley

PALO ALTO, Calif. — PALO ALTO HIGH SCHOOL, one of the nation’s most prestigious public secondary schools, is sandwiched between two stark and illusory paths. Across the street to the west, Stanford University beckons as the platonic ideal, a symbol of the road to Google, the White House, the mansion on the hill. To the east, across a bike trail, are the railroad tracks where three boys from the school district have killed themselves this year.

Suicide clusters are relatively rare, accounting for about 5 percent of teenage suicides. Startlingly, this year’s is the second contagion to visit this city. Five students or recent graduates of the district’s other high school, Gunn High School, killed themselves beginning in 2009.

Experts say such clusters typically occur when suicide takes hold as a viable coping mechanism — as a deadly, irrational fashion. But that hasn’t stopped this community from soul searching: Does a culture of hyperachievement deserve any blame for this cluster?

The answer is complex, bordering on the contradictory: No, the pressure to succeed is not unique, nor does it cause a suicide cluster in itself, but the intense reflection underway here has unearthed a sobering reality about how Silicon Valley’s culture of best in class is playing out in the schools.

In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient — a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.

“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”

Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”

But here, and in lots of other ultrahigh-achieving communities and schools, Ms. Pope said that children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college. “In everything,” she said.

“I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” said Ms. Pope, who is working with Ms. Levine to counsel at the high schools.

Ms. Pope said that wrongheaded idea becomes an emotional and physiological threat when multiplied by at least three other factors: technology that keeps teens working and socializing late at night, depriving them of essential rest; growing obligations from test-prep classes and extracurricular activities; and parents too busy to participate in activities with their families.

“We are not teenagers,” Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, wrote in an editorial in the local paper in response to the suicides. She described students as “lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition” and wrote of going to the emergency room to deal with stress, missed periods and having “a panic attack in the middle of a 30-person class and be forced to remain still.”

There has been lots of talk in the community about what to do, she wrote, but action has not followed. (The district is providing counseling services, offering a suicide-prevention kit and urging teachers to limit homework hours.)

“Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises,” she wrote, and noted: “We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.”

THIS curious idea of a rhetorical divide came up in a number of recent discussions with parents and their children. In one conversation about the suicides, a mother at a Bay Area school in a similarly high-achieving community told me how little pressure she puts on her teens and noted by way of an anecdote how she had succeeded: Her daughter, she proudly recounted, was so well balanced that she decided last year not to go to the best college she got into but, rather, the school that best fit her passions. The school was Vassar.

In this subtle linguistic slip, Vassar qualified as a second-rate school.

Esther Wojcicki, the teacher who oversees the Palo Alto High School newspaper, lamented the competitive environment but noted seconds later that the school paper had just won a “Gold Crown” award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and that the two dozen students sitting at computer terminals at 4 p.m. that day were thrilled to stay until 9 p.m. to put out the school magazine because they have so much fun doing it.

Alan Eagle, a sales director at Google whose 17-year-old son, William, is a junior at Gunn, was frank about the distance between what he tells his son and what he means.

“I can say all I want that it doesn’t matter where my son goes to college,” Mr. Eagle told me.  But “I’m sure that as much as I preach that, I’m not being 100 percent authentic and frank.”

He added: “I personally went to Dartmouth and it did help. I look at the economy, the difference between haves and have-nots, and I believe a college education is critical.”

And a rich high school experience, too. A few minutes later, while acknowledging that his son had given up playing on the basketball team to study more, Mr. Eagle noted that “at least he’s still got track.”

Glenn McGee, the district’s superintendent, also seemed to struggle to walk the line between celebrating the exceptional nature of this area while urging students to relax. Sitting in his office and looking across the street at the Stanford campus, he mourned the fact that some parents feel that such a school is the only acceptable outcome.

“In many cases, people have made a big sacrifice to live in this community,” Dr. McGee said, referring to exorbitant housing costs (the median housing price last year was $3.3 million, making it the fourth most-expensive ZIP code in the country, according to Richard Florida, an academic who studies demographic trends). Characterizing the attitude of many parents, Dr. McGee said, “To be blunt, what is my return on investment?”

“My job is not to get you into Stanford,” he said he tells parents and students. “It’s to teach them to learn how to learn, to think, to work together — learn how to explore, collaborate, learn to be curious and creative.”

Some parents hear it, he said, but “a lot of families and parents don’t hear the message and say: compete and compete.”

Dr. McGee said he had interviewed 300 students and found that half would be “really embarrassed” to tell their friends they got a B. But the truth is that it’s awfully hard to be the best here, given the curve: The SAT scores are so high on average that a student who finishes in the 75th percentile in the district has a 2,200, the 99th percentile in general for college-bound seniors.

Soon after lamenting the pressure, Dr. McGee raved about a student who was part of a math team that finished first in January in a national competition, and about the new performing arts center under construction, and about the coming $24 million athletic facility funded by a private family foundation.

And why wouldn’t he rave? Why not be thrilled by achievement?

Because the bar for academic success here has become so high that solid performance can feel mediocre.

It puts enormous pressure on a school, or a community, when such consistent, across-the-board greatness becomes a baseline of sorts — what Mr. Eagle described as a culture of “not just excellence but uber-excellence.”

Perhaps that explains some of the doublespeak: Parents are searching for language to encourage their children, even push them, but not crush them.

One solution, said Ms. Pope of Stanford, is “downtime, playtime, family time.” For parents, too. In other words: Take a leap of faith (well supported by science) that downtime will lead to a healthier perspective.

Dr. Morton Silverman, a psychiatrist and senior science adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suggested that another answer is recognizing that the doublespeak also betrays a sense of terror about the future among both students and parents.

With the economy in flux and the income gap growing, parents don’t see a clear path anymore to financial stability — even here, maybe especially here, where things move fast and competition is fierce. In addition, many of the fortunes made here have been based on creating things that destabilize traditional businesses and their workers.

So confront the new realities, Dr. Silverman suggested, urging parents to say something like: “I can’t tell you which path to take or how to get there, but I will support you,” he said. “I’m here to back you up.”

It’s a hard message to hear in a can-do place like this.

Walking near the train tracks where the children laid themselves down, Dr. McGee said this community, if any, should have answers.

“Can we put sensors up there?” he mused quietly to me, maybe to alert the train operators that someone has climbed onto the tracks. “This is Silicon Valley. There ought to be something we can do.”

Upgrade Your Daughter’s Celebrity Role Models

If your daughter’s love of Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, or Selena Gomez is inching dangerously close to idolizing superficiality, introduce her to female role models who have a bit more substance.

Sierra Filucci Executive Editor, Parenting Content | Mom of two 

It probably wasn’t too long ago that your daughter’s pop culture obsession was trained squarely on Dora the Explorer. Now, she’s into Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj. And though there’s nothing wrong with idolizing female celebrities — especially those who are clearly in charge of their careers — sometimes you wish she still pined for the backpack-carrying, animal-befriending cartoon, who’s so friendly and wholesome.

You may not like all the famous women your daughter chooses to admire. And you may not be able to change her mind (and trying might just make her dig her heels in). Instead, strike up a conversation about whom your daughter likes and why. You’ll gain insight into what she values and how she’s influenced by popular culture. Share your values, too (delicately, of course).

These conversations also are great opportunities to introduce your daughter to other cool role models — who might share attributes of the women she already admires.

Like Taylor Swift? Try Missy Franklin!
Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin is a great role models for girls, especially if they’re into sports. Girls who learn about Franklin will get to know someone who pushes herself to be great, maintains a super positive attitude, and puts personal achievement above financial gain.

Learn more about Missy Franklin in the documentary Touch the Wall.

Like Jennifer Lawrence? Try Amelia Earhart!
Amelia Earhart was a media sweetheart in her time who pushed past gender prejudice to be the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Talk about a woman who likes adventure and taking risks!

Learn more about Amelia Earhart (and her buddy Eleanor Roosevelt) in the picture book Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride.

Like Nicki Minaj? Try Maya Angelou!
Teen girls will find a lot to admire in Angelou, who wrote poetry, essays, and autobiographies and received over 50 honorary degrees during her lifetime.

Learn more about Maya Angelou’s early life in her groundbreaking memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Like Katy Perry? Try Temple Grandin!
Author and scholar Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science who uses her experience of being on the autism spectrum to help others understand the condition. Her books on animals and autism have brought her national attention, and her interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air and other shows can teach girls about perseverance and empathy.

Learn more about Temple Grandin in this HBO biopic.

Like Ariana Grande? Try Malala Yousafzai!
Malala Yousafzai has accomplished a lot before the age of 20. She survived an assassination attempt, became a global leader for female education, and received the Nobel Peace Prize. Learning about Yousafzai’s triumph over adversity and her willingness to stand up for what’s right even when her life is in danger is an inspiring message for young girls.

Learn more about Malala Yousafzai’s life in the youth-targeted version of her autobiography.

Like Selena Gomez? Try Dolores Huerta!
Dolores Huerta has a long history of civil rights organizing, including founding the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez. Huerta has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was named one of the 100 most influential women of the 20th century by Ladies’ Home Journal. In Huerta girls will find someone who has stood up for the less fortunate and made a real difference in the quality of families’ lives.

How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson?

Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things. Extreme success is different from what I suppose you could just consider ‘success’, so know that you don’t have to be Richard or Elon to be affluent and accomplished and maintain a great lifestyle. Your odds of happiness are better that way. But if you’re extreme, you must be what you are, which means that happiness is more or less beside the point. These people tend to be freaks and misfits who were forced to experience the world in an unusually challenging way. They developed strategies to survive, and as they grow older they find ways to apply these strategies to other things, and create for themselves a distinct and powerful advantage. They don’t think the way other people think. They see things from angles that unlock new ideas and insights. Other people consider them to be somewhat insane.Be obsessed.

Be obsessed.

Be obsessed.

If you’re not obsessed, then stop what you’re doing and find whatever does obsess you. It helps to have an ego, but you must be in service to something bigger if you are to inspire the people you need to help you  (and make no mistake, you will need them). That ‘something bigger’ prevents you from going off into the ether when people flock round you and tell you how fabulous you are when you aren’t and how great your stuff is when it isn’t. Don’t pursue something because you “want to be great”. Pursue something because it fascinates you, because the pursuit itself engages and compels you. Extreme people combine brilliance and talent with an *insane* work ethic, so if the work itself doesn’t drive you, you will burn out or fall by the wayside or your extreme competitors will crush you and make you cry.

Follow your obsessions until a problem starts to emerge, a big meaty challenging problem that impacts as many people as possible, that you feel hellbent to solve or die trying. It might take years to find that problem, because you have to explore different bodies of knowledge, collect the dots and then connect and complete them.

It helps to have superhuman energy and stamina. If you are not blessed with godlike genetics, then make it a point to get into the best shape possible. There will be jet lag, mental fatigue, bouts of hard partying, loneliness, pointless meetings, major setbacks, family drama, issues with the Significant Other you rarely see, dark nights of the soul, people who bore and annoy you, little sleep, less sleep than that. Keep your body sharp to keep your mind sharp. It pays off.

Learn to handle a level of stress that would break most people.

Don’t follow a pre-existing path, and don’t look to imitate your role models. There is no “next step”. Extreme success is not like other kinds of success; what has worked for someone else, probably won’t work for you. They are individuals with bold points of view who exploit their very particular set of unique and particular strengths. They are unconventional, and one reason they become the entrepreneurs they become is because they can’t or don’t or won’t fit into the structures and routines of corporate life. They are dyslexic, they are autistic, they have ADD, they are square pegs in round holes, they piss people off, get into arguments, rock the boat, laugh in the face of paperwork. But they transform weaknesses in ways that create added advantage — the strategies I mentioned earlier — and seek partnerships with people who excel in the areas where they have no talent whatsoever.

They do not fear failure — or they do, but they move ahead anyway. They will experience heroic, spectacular, humiliating, very public failure but find a way to reframe until it isn’t failure at all. When they fail in ways that other people won’t, they learn things that other people don’t and never will. They have incredible grit and resilience.

They are unlikely to be reading stuff like this. (This is *not* to slam or criticize people who do; I love to read this stuff myself.) They are more likely to go straight to a book: perhaps a biography of Alexander the Great or Catherine the Great* or someone else they consider Great. Surfing the ‘Net is a deadly timesuck, and given what they know their time is worth — even back in the day when technically it was not worth that — they can’t afford it.

I could go on, it’s a fascinating subject, but you get the idea. I wish you luck and strength and perhaps a stiff drink should you need it.

* One person in the comments section appears not to know who Catherine the Great is, suggesting that this is “an utter lie” of mine + “feminist stupidity”. But Catherine’s ability to rise, and strategize around discrimination, holds interesting lessons for anyone.