Class Rank

Do Grades Matter? Why Parents Should Care.

Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome was invited to the Laura Bush Community Library to speak about the importance of grades. This video is shared courtesy of the library.

Grades are a source of anxiety and frustration for many students and their families. For others, it is an ever-present motivator to strive for perfection. Grades affect every student’s conception of how they learn. Whether or not grades are helpful or harmful, they are a reality for most students.

Antonio Buehler founded Abrome to fundamentally change the way the world views education. He wants society to reject the notion that education should be a standardized product in which children are expected to be passive recipients of instruction that is chosen and delivered by adults. Antonio wants learners to be able to direct their own education so they can live rich, fulfilling lives. He believes that by providing learners with the opportunity to take full ownership of their education, Abrome will help save millions of lives, and in the process change the world.

Antonio earned a B.S. in Systems Engineering from the United States Military Academy, an M.B.A. from Stanford University, and an Ed.M. from Harvard University.

Place and Time. Time and Place.

Dmitry Shostakovich, 1950.

Dmitry Shostakovich, 1950.

If you have been reading our monthly newsletters you know that we lead a monthly book group discussion focused on education. I am a member of another book group, and this month that group reviewed The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. It was an enjoyable read that became more interesting and much more insightful toward the end of the book. A historical fiction novel based on Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's life, the book has received praise for begging one to consider who art belongs to. However, the book also challenges one to consider the value of an individual's life, the tradeoffs between cowardice and courage, and the external factors that shape those questions. As one reader pointed out, and I agree with, place and time were critical considerations in evaluating these themes, particularly against the backdrop of a totalitarian regime.

Shostakovich (the character in the novel as opposed to the real-life composer) was tortured by the choices he made in life. Having to constantly appeal to and bow down before power, he was prohibited from expressing himself as an artist (or as a human being), but his self-admitted cowardice and self-interested maneuvering ultimately allowed him to become a powerful member of the apparatus that almost purged him, providing him relative security but leaving him a shell of the person he could have been. Had he been true to his art, and himself, he would have been killed. That did not matter though, as he became dead in the soul long before his life expired.

Place and Time

It was hard for me to consider these issues without applying them to the situations we face in today's world. We are fortunate not to experience the type of tyranny that Shostakovich lived under, yet I would argue that many people end up in the same situation that he ended up—broken; having felt that his life was a disappointment and without meaning. Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so many fail to seize the opportunities that come with historically liberal personal freedoms as well as being a part of the largest economy in the world? Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so few leverage that freedom to find meaning within their lives?

The place and time we are born into are out of our control. One of my personal frustrations with the human race is that it often ascribes so much value, or so little value, based on the place from where someone comes. Two people born five miles apart on separate sides of the Rio Grande or the DMZ are sentenced to very different rights and life experiences through no fault of their own. Based on place, people are led to believe that others are enemies, or that others are coming to take something that is theirs by virtue of where they were born.

The time at which someone is born also impacts the course of one’s life. Most vividly, being black in 2018 is very different than being black would have been in 1963 or 1836. The disparities in rights and privileges conferred upon white men versus women, Jewish, Hispanic, Japanese, non-heterosexual, or members of other historically marginalized or oppressed groups have fluctuated over time, with the present day being better than times past for most non-dominant groups. Aside from basic human and civil rights, time can dictate if a generation gets sent off to war, graduates into a recession, or is able to participate in a transformative shift in the economy. [1]

Time and Place

While place and time are largely out of our control, I consider time and place to be more easily brought under our control, at least within the context of the place and time we are subjected to (e.g., the United States in 2018). When I speak of time and place I speak of how we choose to spend our time to include our voluntary participation in organizations. Shostakovich could have made time and place decisions that would have prevented him from being untrue to his art, and that would have defied the communist party. Although that would have led to a premature death. Bill Gates could have made time and place decisions that would have allowed him to graduate from Harvard and take a job with IBM, perhaps allowing him to someday rise to a senior executive position that would have also left him anonymous and scores of billions of dollars less wealthy. As you can see, time and place decisions cannot easily displace the place and time we are born into, but they can substantially alter the course of our lives.

Place and time includes into which family one is born. The resources of the family one is born into has a bigger impact on long-term academic and economic outcomes than the grades one gets in school.[2] And for most people, time and place decisions are mostly out of their control until their late teens or early twenties. Time and place decisions for young people are made primarily by their parents or the state. Perhaps the most significant of the time and place decisions made for young people is where they will be educated for over 15,000 hours of their youth (not including time spent on commuting, homework, studying, and extracurricular activities). It is this decision that is often so tragic, as it can have such an outsized impact on the quality and direction of one’s life both present and future.

Time and place decisions for children become time and place restrictions. Those restrictions then define to a large degree what a young person’s relationship with their education becomes, as well as the degree to which they feel that they have control over their lives. When a young person is told that they are to attend a traditional school for seven hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their life, they are told that they are unable to pursue their own learning interests. They are told that their life is to be put on hold because someone else decided that school was a better use of their time. Which would not necessarily be a bad thing (from a utilitarian perspective) if schooling helped children more than it hurts them. Unfortunately, not only does schooling take them away from their interests, it also takes them away from their community, it undermines an inborne love of learning, it misleads them into believing that what is learned at school is more important than what is learned outside of school, it conditions them to focus more on test scores than learning, and it conditions them to appeal to authority.

Traditional schooling is not the cause of unfulfilled lives short on meaning, but it often a primary contributing factor. When one is told that their worth is tied to grades within a standardized system that everyone else is subjected to, and thereby their worth is tied to a comparison to peers along a very narrow set of measures, they are unlikely to recognize how their unique interests, skills, and life experiences can allow them to lead a remarkable life irrespective of the game everyone else is playing.[3] When one is told that they must conform to an institution that treats them as ignorant and withholds basic rights from them, for their own good, of course, they become much less likely to challenge unjust institutions in the future. It is not hard to imagine that the person who suffers under a dictatorial boss, or a society that suffers under a tyrannical regime, is much less likely to opt out if they were forced to accept their place in school when they were young.

Choices that matter

It is unfortunate that we are born into a place and time that dictates to such a large degree the circumstances and quality of our lives. It is fortunate that for those of us in the United States that this place and time is a lot more forgiving than a lot of other places and times, although not by any means perfect. It is unfortunate that time and place decisions that hold a disproportionate influence over our adult lives are made for us when we are young. It is fortunate that for those of us who are parents that we have the opportunity to make time and place decisions about education that leave young people in control of their lives, that honor their individuality, and that preserve their inborne love of learning. In decades past, the notion of trusting young people to engage in self-directed learning through a space like Abrome, or through unschooling was illegal or seen as irresponsible. Fortunately, although it is still not the social norm, self-directed learning is understood by a growing segment of the population to be more humane and lead to better outcomes than traditional schooling.  


1. Through his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the understanding that timing is important when considering the successes of the wealthiest business people of all time. He focused on the opportunities available in the post-Civil War industrial age, and in the personal computer and internet age starting in the mid-1970s. He drove this point home by highlighting that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born in a three year span of one another.

2. Some examples: Parental Income Has Outsized Influence on Children’s Economic Future, Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong, A college degree is worth less if you are raised poor

3. The ranking of human beings in school, at work, and by economic measures not only guides people’s conception of their self-worth, but also the worth of others. This can lead to an elevation of people who may have done nothing more than to be born into privilege, and it can lead to a lack of empathy for those who are classified as less than according to narrow measures.


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.