How to hack public school

Amazingly, a lot of people who read this blog are sending their kids to public school. At first I thought those parents were crazy, since I’m constantly telling them their school sucks. But then I realized that these parents are incredibly open-minded and genuinely trying to get information to help make good decisions. This post is especially for those parents.

Here are some things I’ve uncovered about how to hack the school system:

1. Hold your kid back so he or she is the oldest. There’s a plethora of research to show that in elementary school the kids in the younger half of the class are at a huge disadvantage. This research concludes that not only do kids score worse on tests, perform worse in sports and have more behavioral problems, but the disadvantages of being in the younger half of the class have lasting impact throughout a kid’s schooling.

The logical thing to do is to hold your kid back, especially if he is a boy with a late birthday. In New York City, among the rich and educated parents, it’s so common to hold kids back that you can’t even get an advantage by doing it. But in regular, public school your kid will be better off being in the oldest half of his or her class, so hold your child back a year if you need to.

2. Give a lot of money to the school. Look, it’s $40K to go to a private school that approaches the benefits of homeschool. So if you gave $3K to your public school every year, and actually got better schooling for it, that would be a bargain, right? Your first instinct is probably to give the money to the classroom teacher. But that would get spread around the class and have very little impact on your kid. However, if you give the money directly to the principal, she can use it to solve whatever is her biggest problem. And the principal determines who your kids’ teachers are, which is a huge factor in the quality of a kids public school education.

3. Classify your kid as having some sort of learning difference. Get your kid an Individualize Education Plan (IEP) early on so that they get unlimited time taking the SAT. The classification is not reported to colleges, so it’s just seen simply as a really high score.

You might think this is extreme, but in New York City parents get their kid classified as special needs in order to get a leg up getting into elite preschools. So doing this to get into an elite college seems fine. And look, it’s hard to get an IEP when your kid is two years from taking the SAT. Everyone wants an IEP then. It’s easy when you have a first-grader. Most first graders look like they need an IEP when they are in school because school is so uncomfortable for young kids.

4. Take your kid out for special lessons. Most public schools will negotiate on attendance if the kid is doing something special. You might not feel you can take your kid out 100% of the time, but you can find one thing that your kid is very interested in, and take your kid out of school to do that thing.

Don’t worry too much about what the kid is doing. Allow for trial and error. And it doesn’t have to be something typical of overachiever types. My son did pottery with a group of teens in the summer and then they disappeared in the fall. Why don’t parents take the kids out of school to create time to continue practicing at the wheel? The payoff will be huge because the kid will have a hook when he applies to college. And that hook is more important than grades or SAT scores.

5. Give your kid an easy course load. Colleges admissions officers do not reward kids for studying nonstop and having no extracurriculars. Because at this point, studying nonstop is a commodity. So have your kid take easy courses and then work hard at extracurriculars. Easy courses will leave more time for what differentiates your kid. Also, the easier the course load, the less time the kid has to do homework, which means more time to practice self-directed learning, which is indisputably the best way for kids to learn.


25 replies
  1. Gareth
    Gareth says:

    In case any actual public school parents are reading this, you might note that suggestion #2 is probably illegal. “Donations” of more than fifty dollars given directly to public employees are typically considered “bribes,” and will fall foul of good government legislation in most locations.

    If you want to donate significant sums to your child’s public school, the most viable method is to incorporate a “friends of” group as a non-profit, and disburse money directly to goods and services (do not pass public employee) from the non-profit.

    This might make your kid’s school suck a little less. However, be prepared for the parents who can’t donate significant sums to hate you and call you a racist for excluding them.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      I don’t think she is saying to give cash direct to the principal as a bribe. She is saying donate it to the school to a fund that the principal controls.

    • Laura A
      Laura A says:

      In our district, parents are invited to make donations directly to the PTO. Those funds make a big difference to our kids- they go directly into art, music, science, improving our library, and investing in tech support and programs that help our kids. Last year the PTO of our elementary school raised more than $50,000 in support of those underfunded programs.

  2. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    The only problem I see with number 5 is that the highly motivated kids are the ones taking the AP courses so you are asking your kids to hang out with less than stellar students if you dont get them on that track. While in some areas this might be okay, in other parts of the country this may not work. Your child has the potential to get lazy or hang out with the wrong crowd.

    I like the idea of taking your kid out for special lessons but I will tell you that the majority of public school teachers probably hate this. I think it would be desirable to work ou the best time with the teacher so you don’t alienate the teacher in the process. (And most of them would encourage you to make this an after school activity.)Or you may end up with your kid staying inside for every recess to make-up the work they have missed.

    I definitely agree with holding your kid back.

    I would suggest looking for Charter School alternatives. We were able to find a hybrid, public school that offered classes online and a few on campus(you could probably owrk around these on campus requirements). Even if you lived far away, you could make this work. And because they don’t offer AP courses, students are not penalized when applying for college, for not “challenging” themselves.

    Some public school districts will allow homeschool students to take extracurricular classes on campus. This is another great option that is kind of the reverse of number four.

    Another option-Hire a private tutor if you don’t personally want to homeschool. You could find a former public school teacher (raising her own children) and hire her part time to plan everything out for you if you don’t want to unschool.

    And if you think you might be able to homeschool but don’t think you want to be with your kids 24/7, hire a nanny part time. It’s still less than private school.

  3. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    I read this blog and don’t even have kids! But I do think it is a true blog and a good predictor for the future.

    The divide between the haves and the have nots is going to get wider and wider in the future, and this blog is documenting the very beginnings of the widening gap.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think that’s really true, Jenn. I guess it’s the dirty underbelly to this blog – that smart, educated parents are going to figure out a way to homeschool even if they don’t have a lot of money. And that’ll leave a huge gap between the kids in public school and the homeschoolers.

      It’s not good for society in the short term, but in the long run I think it forces this country to be more honest about what we are providing for kids and what we can provide for kids. And then we’ll have real education reform.


  4. Heather
    Heather says:

    With all due respect, this post is absurd. We should have to “hack public school”? The IEP system was put into place to help the children who really need it, not to have everyone do it so their kids receive special treatment on their SAT’s. And to suggest that parents put their children into easier classes? Personally, I like to teach my children to work hard and enjoy learning. Each child is different, so obviously not all children belong in the harder classes but some kids need to learn to challenge themselves. In my opinion, you are suggesting that we pave the way for our kids to make life easier for them. Actually, the world can be a tough place – it is our job to teach them how to deal with not always being the best, how to handle failure as well as success and the pride that comes with hard work.

    • P Bielawski
      P Bielawski says:

      As an elementary school counselor who strongly considers home schooling my own children when we get to that point, I agree with some of these points especially #1. I see more behavioral issues with our younger kids and that can set them up to dislike learning and school and also feel bad about themselves.
      I disagree however with trying to get your kid on an IEP unless your child truly needs it. First, the process to do this is very difficult and is definitely for those that truly need it. If the sole purpose is to get extended time on standardized tests, requesting a 504 plan might be an option if the student truly has a disability but doesn’t require special education. More info: This allows for accomodations such as extending time.
      The parents that seem to have the most influence at our school are the ones most involved, so I would add that to this list whether it’s serving on the PTO, volunteering in the classroom or attending board meetings.

    • Paul Rain
      Paul Rain says:

      Who cares what it was ‘meant’ for?

      The only reason I can see not to go down this track is the risk of getting your kid/s lumped in with the low-IQ, low-conscientiousness types who the programs are primarily intended to serve.

      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        Offensive Paul. These programs are *meant* for so much more than your two shoddy examples.

        Lots of kids have just fine IQs but struggle with traditional school methods and their parents haven’t or won’t figure it out that there are other viable alternatives, i.e. home schooling. Those kids may need put into place a plan to help them be successful in their own way and time.

        Frankly I do not know why more parents don’t insist on an IEP to more personalize their kiddos’ learning experience except maybe they have your false idea of exactly what the program might be *meant* to provide.

        PT’s post about 3 Things you shouldn’t do for your teen has a comment from me about my son’s homeschooling and trades academy experience or rather our experience with folks who *think* they know what it is for and how badly we are harming our child having him enrolled in it.

        Ugh! Really we need less judgement and more options and personalization. We aren’t making widgets so much anymore.

  5. Paxton
    Paxton says:

    Thanks for all the great tips! You mentioned some things that probably would have never crossed my mind otherwise. I especially liked #4 because it allows a way to work around the system.

    I have been saying for a long time that a good teacher can make all the difference in effective teaching. A good teacher can make even the most “boring” subject interesting. Unfortunately, one of the major obstacles for teacher are the parents who, for example, think their kid is perfect, needs no discipline, and deserves that A.

  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    I’ve read twice that overachievers and smart kids will take hard classes because they need to be challenged.
    Sounds to me like putting a track star in a hamster wheel because of the need to run fast.
    all the post is saying is that if you help your kid understand that the school system won’t get them very far then their talents should be focused in other ways.
    I went thru 2 years of college for free because I went while in high school. I thought it’d be perfect to sign up for all interesting classes but then I wished I’d just had free time and internet to learn on my own. All the paperwork, tests, difficulty getting up early enough because of homework…ugh!
    So teach your overachiever to discipline their needs and focus on first maintaining their mental health so they won’t have a breakdown because fatigue and realizing your work is for nothing gives way to that crisis. But being good at something you enjoy is heaven.
    I guess it’s like violin for gifted children, they have to be pretty much forced to play twinkle twinkle star before they go play complicated pieces.

  7. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    I have to say that I agree with Karelys. I went to a Top 10 university out of a Top 100 (nationally) public school. I spent more time interning and being in student positions of leadership than I spent studying. I graduated without honors, but I was one of the few that had a job offer in April of my senior year.

    Currently, I’m building a lifestyle business as a copywriter and content marketer. And when I pitch to potential clients, they always ask me “Wow. You know so much about online marketing and web strategy. Where did you learn about this?” And I always say “The internet. Blogs. Reading while I was at my full-time desk job.” I’m not saying I got an MBA from the internet, but I’m saying I didn’t pay a cent to get the training I needed to start my next career. That is the world we’re living in today and it’s silly that this isn’t recognized more often.

    I was one of those kids who did really well in public school (or the traditional school system). And now I’m trying to convince my Gen X sister (I’m Gen Y) to homeschool her 4-year-old and 2-year-old because they are way smarter than I ever was. Her biggest argument against it is “at least if I put them in traditional school (they’re looking at Catholic schools), there’s a sort-of guarantee that they’ll turn out okay.”

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      Lauren tell your sweet wonderful sister she is already homeschooling her kids and … there are no guarantees. She will however get the opportunity to spend the best part of the day with her girls. She will get to see they joys and triumphs and frustrations and failures and help them navigate all of it.

  8. Cassie Boorn
    Cassie Boorn says:

    I love this post. The most frustrating experience with public school is the lack of direction the school provides for parents. They dont offer much insight on how you can better your kids education or support their goals in a more active way.

    I did so poorly in school because my mind doesnt work in the way most classrooms teach. I see that starting to happen with my son and it makes me want to homeschool him but I dont have the guts to take the plunge

  9. Lindsay Cesari
    Lindsay Cesari says:

    As a public school teacher, I’m not sure I buy a lot of this. There are also a number of studies that suggest redshirting your child has NO positive impact on academic success. Any advantage of redshirting your child appears to decline after 3rd grade (see link below).

    Also, everything I know about college admissions suggests that they’d prefer to see students take more difficult classes and get mediocre grades than take easy classes and get excellent grades. They want to see that students have challenges themselves.

  10. kristen
    kristen says:

    I’m enjoying, for the most part, my children’s public school. But I do feel like I’ve “hacked” it in some ways.
    One of my kids is older due to his fall birthday. It has made it easier for him to hit-the-ground-running in kindergarten.

    I’m on the PTA and give money directly to that group in order to provide more field trips for the kids. It’s an experiential charter school so field trips are really what they’re all about.

    I not only pull my kids out for “specials” but I’m currently arranging for a music teacher to come to the school to teach my kids during the school day. The school is willing to work with me.

    I agree with one of the other posters that volunteering and being present is key. Both my husband and I help out every week, he in Phy Ed and me in math. My husband is on the governance council while I’m on the PTA. We also chaperone all the field trips and are just always involved. I’ve found it makes the teachers treat us more like colleagues than parents. Our professions make that easier, he’s a paramedic and I’m a doctor, but I think a big part of it is just being there. There are only 5 teachers in the school and they’re a tight bunch, but when I drop my boys off in the morning I stand around shooting the breeze with them and I don’t feel that they change the tone of the conversation with me. I have seen them be more “on guard” with the other parents. I don’t think this has anything to do with me as a person, it’s just familiarity. That familiarity makes it very easy to discuss my children and their needs, when the occasion arises.

  11. David Robert Hogg
    David Robert Hogg says:

    There is not “a plethora of research to show that in elementary school the kids in the younger half of the class are at a huge disadvantage.”

    There is a modest amount of evidence for that argument.

    There is an equally modest amount of evidence that kids kept back are more likely to lose interest with school and fall behind.

    It’s about a wash.

    NY Times article:

  12. anne
    anne says:

    This is- all of it- terrible advice. Taught for 7 years, and had a successful academic career, am entrepreneurial, and think much of your advice is intriguing and has some merit. But not this nonsense. Do NOT try to bribe the school or get your kid special services he/she doesn’t qualify for. Instead, volunteer at the school, keep in contact with teachers, and by all means hold them accountable. Encourage your kids to take the toughest classes in subjects they have interest; beyond these few things, let THEM tell YOU what they need.

  13. kristen
    kristen says:

    I don’t try to BRIBE the school, I help fund certain things at the school. Perhaps you haven’t heard, schools are a bit hard up for cash. Particularly for frivolous things like field trips and play ground equipment, the extra money is welcome and benefits all the children. If all the parents who have the means and yet utilize the state babysitting service provided these extra funds, our schools would be able to do a lot more with our little darlings.

  14. Damn Djinni
    Damn Djinni says:

    # 3 made me sick.

    There are children out there who truly need help, and you are really suggesting parents try to steal time and help away by pretending their child has a learning difficulty? That’s a horrible thing to do!

    I grew up with learning problems, and had an IEP. It’s not what you think it is.

  15. CB
    CB says:

    As an eighteen year old student currently attending university playing university sports and having completed high school among the top of my class, in a very competitive class (Academically, athletically and artistically) I find much of the debate/argument above to be quite silly. When it all comes down to it, your child will not be successful because you unjustly gave them an advantage and in part took help away from a student in need (IEP placement) nor will they be successful because you held them back. They will be successful because they want to be successful. They will want to be successful because they are so inspired and driven in the direction of their passion. Not because Those 5 AP classes a year have really thrilled them into learning. Success is not measured by your ability to tackle AP classes and the best universities. Youth will face success when they possess the ability to face challenges, interact with people, inspire, be inspired, thrive under pressure, and learn to live happy. Much of which isn’t nourished hunched up at the desk in your dorm room fussing about midterms and stressing about papers.

    I among 100s of other first year students at my university alone, am taking a year off to hack-school. To find what drives us and to give to those around us. Volunteer, travel, learn to cook, go rock climbing, play squash learn to sow. How many kids can really say they know how to sow or cook? But how many times a week do we say we are hungry, or there’s a rip in my jeans?

    Success is not quantitative.
    Education is changing
    Hack-schooling is completely viable, and can nurture the grounds for a more prosperous conventional “education”
    many of the ‘Hack schoolers” I know intend to go back to school and learn, they’re just getting an education first.

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