Valedictorians Slam School in Graduation Speeches: The Righteousness of Speaking Truth to Power

The high school diploma is a largely meaningless piece of paper. One does not need a high school diploma to get most any job, nor is it needed to get into any respected American college or university. The high school graduation, on the other hand, is a highly valued and meaningful tradition for many graduating seniors, parents, grandparents, and teachers. It is a way to celebrate a shared experience between generations, an experience with its share of adolescent joys (for many) and miseries (for most all). It is also seen by many as a coming of age ceremony.

However, with the proliferation of graduation ceremonies (to include middle school, elementary school, kindergarten, and pre-school graduations), and the artificial extension of childhood into adolescence (and college, and beyond), the high school graduation is beginning to resemble a glorified high school assembly.[1] And high school assemblies can be frightening experiences for high school administrators who want absolute control. That is why students are rarely given a platform at assemblies. In order to maintain control over what they view as a large group of potentially unruly teenagers who cannot be trusted, administrators enforce strict rules of behavior, and they dictate the schedule and content of the assembly.

The high school graduation has traditionally given one student the opportunity to have a platform in front of their peers, school administrators, teachers, and the wider community. This is a unique opportunity not only because students are rarely (if ever) given a platform in school, but also because the traditional means of social control that a school wields over students, by way of punishments, mostly no longer exist. It is difficult to mark down a student’s GPA or class rank, or expel them from school when there is no more school to be had. That student who gets to give a graduation speech all of a sudden finds herself in the rare position to speak truth to power without a looming threat of being crushed for it.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the one student a school would allow to have a platform to speak is the one that they can trust the most to stay in line.[2] That student is the valedictorian, the student who climbed to the top of the rankings, above all their peers, by playing the game according to the rules laid out by the administration. Students who are vying for the top spot are typically the ones most eager to please those in power. They are less likely to make a stir, or question the institution that reaffirms their self-worth on the basis of their compliance and performance on required tasks.[3][4]

Over 37,000 valedictorians speak at their high school graduations each year. Over 37,000 of those speeches fly under the radar because they all tend to follow a similar narrative: thank yous (to teachers, parents, and sometimes God), inspirational quotes, funny anecdotes and inside jokes, self-praise for four years of tireless effort, premature life advice to fellow graduates, and promises of future success to all the students who did not earn the right to speak. But every once in a while, a valedictorian steps out of character, and speaks truth to power, and it is glorious when it happens, and becomes viral if videotaped.

The system, imposed upon us by tradition, has separated true education from academic achievement.
— Attributed to Jonathan Chu

Last year, a truly remarkable speech (posted above) was given by young man who admits that his standing as valedictorian of Granite Bay High School (CA), and his opportunity to speak, were made possible by his commitment to playing a game at the cost of his own social isolation.[5] He acknowledged that other students worked harder than him, and others were more talented, but none of them played the game as well as he did. A 4.63 GPA was the score that won him the game, and all he had to sacrifice for it was forgoing opportunities for personal development. He admits that a GPA does not account for “extracurricular involvement, social awareness, or how much was learned.” Instead, he indicts the system for undermining education by placing a priority on academic achievement over true education. A system that encourages the most ambitious to learn to navigate the system instead of learning to master their own lives, and to chart their own course. A system that allows for a winner only by creating a bunch of losers.

This year, another notable speech (posted here) was given by Peter Butera who graduated as valedictorian of Wyoming Area Secondary Center in Pennsylvania. Not only was he valedictorian, he was also class president, a position that he indicated meant a lot to him because it was chosen by his peers. However, the speech he gave deviated from the speech he submitted to the administration for approval. He used his platform to point out that students have no real power at the school, not even the class president, which he said could be more accurately called “class party-planner.” He says that the problem, which also prevents students from developing their leadership skills, stems primarily from “the authoritative attitude that a few teachers, administrators, and board members have.” Proving his point, the administrators then cut his mic and Principal Jon Pollard told him to sit down.[6][7]

These speeches are not the first to call out the institution of schooling, or at least the practices of their respective schools. For example, Erica Goldson, the 2010 valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York, gave a wonderful speech (posted below) about the flawed institution of schooling at her graduation ceremony. But because these speeches go viral when they are given, even though they account for fewer than 0.003% of all graduation speeches, in addition to the heightened anxiety authoritarian administrators have about their relative lack of control over graduating seniors, more and more schools are taking steps to keep the speakers in line. Some are considering establishing formal guidelines and restrictions for the speeches, while others are doling out punishments such as refusing to give a speaker their diploma based on the content of their speech.[9][10] Additionally, thousands upon thousands of schools require speakers to submit their speeches for approval before they are permitted to take the stage, with the threat of having their microphones cut if they do not stick to the approved script. [11] And in the case of Devan Solanki, the 2015 valedictorian of Lodi High School in New Jersey, school officials were so threatened by his potential speech that they preemptively stripped him of his opportunity to speak.[12]

These selected instances of privileged students using their limited platforms to bring awareness to the failings of schools, as well as the negative media coverage that often accompanies censorship efforts by the schools, are a small but growing threat to traditional schools in an era when more and more families are recognizing that there are real, meaningful, and accessible alternatives to school.[13] Moving forward we hope to see more students speaking truth to power at graduation, although doing so will ultimately result in the death of the valedictory speech. Even better, would be seeing millions of students recognizing their lack of autonomy, and the lack of an opportunity to experience a meaningful education in the authoritarian, hierarchical, rank-based traditional schooling structure, and choosing instead to opt out of school so that they can engage in self-directed learning.

1.     See Dr. Robert Epstein’s book The Case Against Adolescence for an introduction on the extension of childhood into adolescence, and Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult for a glimpse into how unprepared even the highest performing high school graduates are for college and life.,   

2.     Some schools may allow more than one student to speak at graduation. These are often salutatorians, class presidents, or faculty selected class day speakers.

3.     Students who focus on performing along the measures laid out by adults, and outperforming all of their peers, and sticking to the rules and conventions of the institution often do ok in life. They tend to go to college and graduate, and get good jobs. But they rarely change the world because they rarely challenge the status quo.

4.     Some parents may consider prestigious degrees, prestigious jobs, and financial security to be a worthwhile outcome, but they should consider what someone loses when they go down this path. What is not often considered is how empathy is lost in the competitive process, as well as creativity, emotional and mental well-being, personal relationships, and the ability to find meaning in life. Also, not considered is the reality that if the goal is to be number one, then everyone but one person winds up a failure.

5.     My research leads me to believe that remarkable young man is named Jonathan Chu, who graduated in 2016, and likely matriculated at the University of California, Los Angeles. His recognition of how flawed his high school experience was will hopefully allow him to take better advantage of his college experience, and prepare him to create opportunities for the future as opposed to accepting those that are provided to him. Surprisingly, I could find no news articles covering this speech. I did find a cached article that spoke of Jonathan’s views.

6.     The Washington Post did a great write-up of the speech and the motivations behind it.

7.     Peter, who is heading to Villanova University next year, was invited on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to explain what happened and to finish his speech. What he would have said, had they let him finish, was that he hoped that in the future “[administrators] will begin to prioritize education itself, as well as the empowering of students.”

8.     Erica, who matriculated at the University of Buffalo, posted the full text of her speech on her personal blog:

9.     Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana made news in 2008 when they considered mandating English-only speeches after Louisiana State University bound co-valedictorians and cousins, Hue and Cindy Vo, interspersed lines of Vietnamese in their majority English speeches. Interestingly, Terrebonne Parish is the state’s French speaking stronghold, and schools had punished previous generations of children who dared to speak French at schools.,

10.  Kaitlin Nootbaar, the 2012 valedictorian of Prague High School in Oklahoma, was denied her diploma because she quoted a line from a Twilight movie that included the word “hell.” Despite being denied her diploma, Kaitlin matriculated at Southwestern Oklahoma State University on a full-ride scholarship.

11.  In 2013, Harold Shaw, Jr., salutatorian of Wharton High School in Florida had his mic cut after he allegedly went off script on his speech. However, the real motivation may have been that administrators were upset that the University of Florida bound student published a video on his Facebook page documenting the deplorable bathroom conditions at the school.

12.  Devan, who was heading to Harvard after graduation, was additionally suspended, and then forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation in order to graduate. The school took an absurdly literal interpretation of Devan’s statement, "I just want to resolve this peacefully," as he pled his case that he should be allowed to speak at graduation. However, a fellow student suggested that the real reason they barred him from speaking was because he was often “standing up for either the whole class or specific students” when they faced unfair treatment by the school.,

13.  There are now numerous self-directed learning centers (including Abrome) and democratic schools peppered throughout the country. In areas that do not have such learning centers, or for families who may not be able to afford such options, homeschooling and unschooling remains a viable alternative.

Want to ruin the lives of children? There’s an EdTech company for that.

Today I came across a tweet that turned my stomach. The tweet referenced a promotion video from Hero K12, a “student behavior management” software provider that just raised $150 million of venture capital

The video itself is only two and a half minutes, but the way they efficiently pack in so much of what is wrong in schooling today is remarkable. To put it bluntly, it was a bunch of behaviorist garbage. It makes the argument that students are animals that need to be conditioned to do what is expected of them through punishments and rewards. This is music to many educators’ ears, because they all know from their teacher training that the foremost priority in school is classroom management. And when classroom management is taken care of, then they can focus on what really matters—test scores.

Hero K12 attempts to walk through the benefits of their technology offerings by following imaginary students Chris and Jill through a day at school. Chris seems to be doing everything right. He starts the day off with a bang, showing up on time, and dressing just how the school wants him to dress. He gets a ticket for performing just how the adults expect him to. Jill, on the other hand, has a rough morning. She shows up late, and is immediately given a tardy pass, assigned detention, and has a message sent to her parents to remind them that Jill has already failed at school, just a few minutes into the day.

You must click "Watch on Vimeo" in order to watch video.

In class, students get rewards for completing academic assignments. The video does not tell us how Chris and Jill did, but let’s let our biases take over and assume that Chris did his assignment, and Jill could not seem to pull it together.

A behaviorist would expect that these rewards to confer some sort of special privileges, and Hero K12 shows us that it does. Because Chris got a reward ticket, he gets to skip the line at lunch. Perhaps this means that Chris can spend some extra time with his friends, or get caught up on schoolwork. Jill, because she is labeled a failure, must wait in line with the other failures. Her slow start to the day prevents her from getting the chance to get ahead.

The punishments and rewards continue to compound on themselves. Chris gets to go to the pep rally later in the day where he can let loose and have fun. Chris is a good boy, and gets to do good boy things. Jill, however, is a bad girl, so she must go to detention instead of going to the pep rally. Perhaps making Jill sit in a room by herself while everyone else is having fun will teach her to ‘act right.’

When Chris goes home he finds out that his principal called his parents to rave about what a wonderful student he is (based on behavior alone). Things just keep getting better for Chris, and perhaps this will give him the confidence to recognize his superiority over his classmates. For Jill, home may not be as welcoming.

Hero K12 reaffirms everything that is perceived to be right with Chris, and everything that is perceived to be wrong with Jill. However, what if Jill had a good excuse for being late? Like she needed to take care of a sibling in the morning because of a family emergency? Or what if she works a part-time job in the evening and is not getting enough sleep? It does not matter in the world of Hero K12, though, because only zeroes fail to show up on time.

On top of this, let’s imagine that Chris comes from an affluent white family, and that Jill comes from a lower income black or brown family. And let’s recognize that implicit bias colors how we interact with children. It does not take an expert in child psychology or education to understand that Hero K12 is not so much a solution for schools as it is a disaster for children. Hero K12 promises to promote a positive culture in schools, reinforce accountability, and recognize great students. But the reality is that they are simply putting a more efficient, tech oriented spin on the heavy compliance, no excuses approach that schools have been using as weapons against already marginalized students.  

When you think that schools are not harming children enough on their own, you can likely find an EdTech company that can come in and finish the job.

Talk to Your Children

The homeschool versus public school debate revolves around the education of children typically only after the age of five. Ignoring what happens before a child is old enough to attend state schools ignores the reality that education begins at home, not at school.  A significant portion of a person’s intellectual capacity is determined in his or her first 36 months.  As such, parents cannot wait until children learn how to speak or until they are old enough to be shipped off to state schools to begin to foster their children’s intellectual development.  Fortunately for parents, developing a child’s intellectual capacity is simple; they only need to talk to their child, early and often.

In 2008, Harvard professor and innovation expert Clayton Christensen wrote Disrupting Class, focusing on how innovation can be used to transform education in America. Christensen felt so strongly about the importance of parents talking to their children that he deviated from the theme of his book and dedicated an entire chapter to this subject.

Much of the education gap between the rich and the poor upon entering school age is driven not by economic disparity, but by how much a child has been talked to by their parents.  As Christensen notes, “talkative,” college educated parents spoke 2,100 words per hour, on average, to their infants, while “welfare” parents spoke on average only 600 words per hour.  By 36 months of age the children of the talkative parents had heard their parents speak 48 million words to them, compared to the children of welfare parents who heard only 13 million words.  Christensen further explains why this difference is so remarkable. It is not that the kids of the talkative parents hear 3.7 times as many words as those of the welfare parents.  Instead, when kids are being engaged in conversation, even if they don’t understand it, they are developing the synapses between brain cells which improve children’s cognitive capacities.  Because each brain cell is connected to hundreds of other cells by as many as 10,000 synapses, the advantages of the extra 35 million words is tremendous to say the least, far more than just a 3.7 times advantage.

The difference in the number of spoken words can be attributed in part to the type of talking parents engage in with their children.  There is a difference between standard talking in which parents are giving orders such as “pick up your toys” or “wash your hands” and extra talk in which parents are engaging in face to face conversations with their children.  Such conversations are not merely baby talk, but fully adult conversations in which a child would be expected to respond to, if the child could speak. All parents talk to their children in standard ways, but it is talkative parents that engage in the more serious talk. It is those engaged interactions that stimulate the development of the synapses mentioned previously, something that cannot be replicated by sitting a child in front of the TV to watch Sesame Street.

The timing of parents talking to their kids is also important.  As Christensen states in his book, the most powerful words are spoken in the first 12 months of life, even though there is no visible evidence that children can understand what their parents are saying. Parents who delayed speaking to their children in a serious manner until the point at which their children were speaking (at about 12 months) found their children suffered from a persistent deficit in intellectual capacity relative to the children of talkative parents who were speaking to their children throughout the first year.

There is no college degree or teaching certification necessary to talk to your children early and often.  As with homeschooling from the ages of five and up, parents who take their children’s development into their own hands as opposed to waiting for professional educators will be the most successful.

Note: This essay was originally published by Antonio Buehler in 2011 on another blog. It has been copied here verbatim. 

Raising Resisters

The 2016 presidential election campaign reminded many Americans that while our society likes to boast about its commitment to equality, justice, liberty, and tolerance, that an often stronger undercurrent of bias, bigotry, oppression, and hate courses through the veins of American culture. Prior to the election of Donald Trump, and coming off two terms of America’s first black president, both the political left and right were generally dismissive of what appeared to be a rising tide of hostility toward immigrants, black and brown communities, Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and women. However, since the election, the hostilities against marginalized and oppressed groups have continued to rise, while fascist and white supremacist organizing has moved out from the shadows and into the streets. Although the fabric of society may have changed very little over the past year, the aesthetics have changed significantly.

As organic and organized protests began to grow after election day, and leading up to the inauguration, it became apparent that many previously inactive people were looking for ways to become engaged. While more established political and non-profit entities were eager to pull those people into their organizations, a small group of Austin activists came together as the Oh Shit! What Now? (OSWN) Collective to find ways to introduce those people into more radical activist circles that focus on direct action tactics. OSWN has since helped organize and plan study groups, discussions, trainings, and workshops aimed at building a diverse community of resisters, and equipping folks with radical skills that they can share with others to push back against hierarchical and oppressive forces within society.

The younger generations have historically been one of, if not the primary driver of radical social change, while their caregivers or guardians, as well as those who contribute to the development of the younger generations (e.g., teachers), help shape whether the youth believe that they can drive social change. Therefore, OSWN came together with Abrome, the Crustacean Zine Library, and Austin Yawp to launch Raising Resisters, a discussion group that focuses on anti-oppressive parenting and education tactics.

Parenting, education, and activism have a long history of interrelatedness. Radical leftists and anarchists have often understood that oppression is more easily dismantled within the family than within societal institutions, and that young people could be spared being conditioned by mainstream schooling into accepting authoritarianism, capitalism, nationalism, and other hierarchical belief systems. For example, in the 19th Century, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Leo Tolstoy, and Francisco Ferrer Guardia all led alternative schools that were the precursors of radical free schools and democratic schools wherein children had full control over their educational experiences. In the 20th Century, in conjunction with the rise of the free schools, writers such as Paul Goodman, George Dennison, and John Holt helped introduce the notions of deschooling and unschooling as a means of resistance into a wider counterculture that was already questioning American foreign policy, racial segregation, and assumptions about social norms. Holt, being the most influential of these people, even forewarned of today’s rise of fascism and the inability of system reforms to effectively stave off that rise.

OSWN, Abrome, the Crustacean Zine Library, and Austin Yawp invite parents and educators to join us at our monthly Raising Resisters discussion group meetings to continue the tradition of marrying parenting, education, and activism so that we can build community to resist, and create something better.

Upcoming dates (meetings at 6:30pm at Austin Yawp, 4548 Page St., Austin, TX 78723):

·      Thursday, June 15th

·      Thursday, Jul 20th

·      Thursday, Aug 24th

·      Thursday, Sep 21st

·      Thursday, Oct 19th

·      Thursday, Nov 16th

·      Thursday Dec 14th


Originally posted on the Alt Ed Austin blog.

Deschooling: How Long Does it Take?

Parents should not enroll their children in traditional schools when their children become school-aged, especially public schools, even if they are advocates of public schooling. The reason being is that they do not know what the future holds for their children, and it is easier to go from a self-directed learning environment (e.g., emancipated learning, unschooling) to a schooling environment than vice versa. For example, if one enrolls their child in school and that child later decides to homeschool, the family opens itself up to the very real risk of malicious truancy claims by school officials.[1] Homeschoolers, however, will not be calling the police if your teenage child leaves the local homeschool co-op to enroll in a public high school. The more likely risk parents invite when they enroll their children in traditional schools is that their children’s inborn love of learning will be replaced with a passive resignation that learning is only relevant and worthwhile when it is being measured by people in positions of power.

We live in a society that emphasizes conformity over curiosity, tradition over progress, and authority over liberation. Schools are both a reflection of society and a force that perpetuates the worst it. Our society and our schools are most forgiving to those who have the most, and most punitive against those who have the least.[2] And while affluent and white students are usually given the benefit of the doubt in terms of grading and discipline relative to low SES students and students of color, all students are reminded every day that they are viewed as incompetent and ignorant, and needing constant direction from adults. Schools do not allow young people to believe that they are able to chart their own course in life. After all, there is a curriculum that the students must conform to. There is only one approved path that students can take, and it is the same path that their peers are expected to take.

The rigid and unforgiving practices and structures of schooling leave students incapable of experiencing true autonomy or intellectual vitality. The learning that matters most is the learning that is mandated for everyone, without concern for the unique needs, goals, interests, and contexts of individual students. The best students are those who subjugate their curiosity to meet the needs of adults who believe that a student’s value is determined by where they rank relative to same-age peers. The worst students are those who get distracted and wander down paths of personal inquiry, or those who engage in acts of resistance in the hope of holding onto a piece of themselves. And the majority of students who make up the center of the bell curve are those who do what is necessary to keep moving along through the conveyor belt of schooling from one grade to another. Most students quickly resign themselves to the reality that their education is not their own. And that leaves most of them helpless when presented with the opportunity to make meaningful decisions about their education. It is this learned helplessness that gave rise to the practice of deschooling as a transition from school to self-directed learning.

Deschooling is the “process of decompression from the effects of school.”[3] It is an adjustment period where parents step back and allow children to be free of all formal schooling activities such as required attendance, readings, journal entries, worksheets, and tests. It allows them to begin to recuperate from a schooling environment that in many ways mimicked the structures and practices of prisons or factory farms. Deschooling also allows children to break away from the schooling mindset and mentality that learning is about performing for adults, and that meaning is dictated as opposed to discovered. It allows them to restructure their concept of learning, and reframe their understanding of their role and responsibility in their own life. Deschooling also allows for rejuvenation, as they rediscover that they can have interests that are worth pursuing for their own sake, as opposed to for the sake of appeasing adults.

For parents who believe that education is about keeping young people busy and engaged, deschooling can be difficult. It asks parents to step back and not interfere with the child for a protected period of time. In this way, parents also go through a period of deschooling.

The general rule of thumb for deschooling is that it should last one month for every year a young person was in traditional school.[4][5] Abrome finds this rule of thumb problematic for three reasons. First, just one year of traditional schooling can do immense harm to a child. One month of freedom is unlikely to be sufficient to allow a first grader to embrace learning again. Second, the effects of schooling compound over time, making it much more difficult to rewire one’s mind after years in traditional school. It is this reason that teenagers who try to move from a schooling environment to a self-directed learning environment often flounder for extended periods of time.[4] And third, every person learns and develops on their own timeline. Just as schools wrongly expect every student to learn by standardized periods of time, it is wrong to expect every formerly schooled child to be able to transition to self-directed learning along a preset period of time.  

A better rule of thumb for deschooling is to step back and wait for them to celebrate their freedom, then get bored of their freedom, and then actively make use of their freedom. At Abrome, we have Learners who came to us from traditional public schools, traditional private schools, alternative private schools, and who have been homeschooled or unschooled their whole lives. Those who have been subjected to the more formal schooling of public and private schools have a much more difficult time deschooling than those who have only had progressive schooling or homeschooling experiences. For these reasons, a 13-year-old who spent eight years in traditional schools may require up to two years to navigate the deschooling process, while a 9-year-old who comes from a more progressive school may only need a couple of months, and a 5-year-old who was never subjected to schooling can transition seamlessly.

It is best for parents to not put their children in a position where they need to deschool in the first place. Extend unschooling beyond the age of five, and allow young people to retain their natural love of learning in a self-directed learning environment through adolescence and into early adulthood. Parents should seek out homeschooling and unschooling groups and cooperatives, or find self-directed learning spaces such as Abrome or democratic schools to enroll their children in. However, for families who enrolled their children in traditional schools because they thought it was the best option at the time, the most important step they can take in the present is to immediately withdraw their children from traditional school and begin the process of deschooling. The longer they leave their children in traditional school, the longer (and more difficult) it is going to take for them to move to a self-directed learning mindset.


1.     Every year, there are numerous examples of school districts harassing, threatening, and calling the authorities on families who decide to pull their children out of school to homeschool them. Some parents have even been arrested and have had their children taken from them. The Home School Legal Defense Association often posts about such examples on their website

2.     As both Bryan Stevenson and Immortal Technique have pointed out, you are better off rich and guilty than poor and innocent. Being identified as an ‘other’ in terms of ability, age, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, physical appearance, race, religion, self-expression, sexual orientation, or other identifier often becomes an aggravating factor when it comes to the way society collectively treats someone.

3.     The Homeschooling Option by Lisa Rivero

4.     Summer breaks should not be considered deschooling periods. Many students already see the summer as a season of respite from school, and if we hope to free children from the mindset of schooling, they need to recognize that they are being released from the practices and structures of schooling during periods in which they would normally be in school.