Fourth Grade Race Relations

Gem of a paragraph on recently. Prudie, Emily Yoffe, is Slate’s excellent, 21st Century, “Dear Abby”. The kid, the mom’s reaction, the whole probable scene cracked me up.

After my chuckle, I thought I’d give a response a go without looking at Prudie’s reply until afterwards. How hard can it be, right?

Compare and contrast the pro’s response and the amateur’s.

Dear Prudie,
I have a fifth-grade son who is white and plays basketball on a mostly black team. He has made friends with many of his black teammates and hangs out with them a lot. I’m happy that he’s so colorblind, but then I heard him call his new friends “my niggas.” I was horrified and immediately talked to him about it. He said that his black friends use the term all the time and told him it was OK for him to use it with them, too. He said that he understood the history of the word and knows that it can be hateful when used wrongly. My son clearly isn’t intolerant, but he could get in a lot of trouble throwing that word around. I don’t even know if it’s OK for a white kid with black friends to use that word if they all do, and no one means it in a bad way. I usually feel confident guiding my son, but on this one I have no idea what to tell him.—Stumped

Dear Stumped, Tell your son your glad he’s friends with his teammates and encourage their burgeoning friendships. Recognize though, as a 10 year-old, your son’s knowledge of the word is most likely limited. The same is probably true for his teammates. Explain to him that as they get older they will probably take more pride in their blackness and feel a greater sense of ethnic kinship. Help him understand that at some point they will most likely feel differently about any whites, even understanding teammates, using “niggas”. Also point out that people who overhear him use the term may not be nearly as open and understanding. Again, tell him to enjoy and build on their friendships, but to drop the term out of respect for their particular history. Also remind him to pass first and shoot second.—Ron

Dear Stumped, If only our 10-year-olds could stay so innocently well-intentioned. Unfortunately, even though you’ve had one conversation about this, and your son knows some of the history of this word, you have to revisit this so that your boy doesn’t find himself the subject of a complaint and the object lesson in a lecture at a school assembly. Perhaps when he was tiny you had some comic, endearing names for your son such as Mr. Stinkbottom or Sir Droolsalot. (If not, pretend you did.) You can tell him that within families people can call each other things that might be insulting if said to an outsider, but among relatives it’s done with a tone of teasing affection. That’s what’s going on with his friends on the team. Yes, the whole team is a kind of family, but for many people their ethnic or racial group also has the feel of a family. Because of that, there are things that the black players can call each other but which sound very different coming from his mouth. You can say you know his teammates have encouraged him to say it, but if a teacher, parent, or coach heard him, it’s likely that person wouldn’t understand. It’s possible that a parent of his teammate could be offended and report his remark, no matter how affectionately it was said. Say you know this doesn’t seem fair, but the history of this word still has the power to cause great pain. So as a sign of respect to those who might be hurt by it, he needs to understand that his friends can use the phrase with him, but he must refrain from returning it.—Prudie

Why We’re So Susceptible to Decision-Making Paralysis

The short answer. Because we succumb to self-induced pressure as a result of thinking about big decisions in zero-sum, make or break, right and wrong terms. Is this the absolute best college to attend? The perfect person to commit to? The ideal number of children? The best job? The best possible residence? The right investment?

The longer explanation. Thanks Bill Pollian, former Indiana Colts General Manager, for a very helpful alternative perspective on big-time, life decision-making. Asked why Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos and not the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco Forty-Niners, or any of the other NFL teams he recently talked to, he said, “The decision to play for Denver wasn’t the important decision. What’s most important is all the decisions he makes from this point forward.” Beautiful. My interpretation. If he continues to do the things that have made him so successful throughout his career, outworking everyone else, he’ll continue to win no matter what color uni he’s wearing.

Some high school grads think there’s one best college for them. Pollian would argue it doesn’t matter if you get into your preferred college. What matters more is whether you apply yourself at whatever college you attend. Do you take full advantage of the opportunities? Do you do the reading, take challenging courses, develop self understanding and practical skills, pursue internships, figure out what work might be meaningful, build social capital?

Some people think there’s one “soulmate” for them. Pollian would argue it’s less important that you feel a mystical “love at first sight” connection to your partner than how determined you are to make the relationship work. Based on Pollian-logic, there’s not one right person, just proven processes. Mutual physical attraction is a wonderful thing, but the physical elements of love lessen over time. Long-term committed relationships are less about flashy wedding ceremonies and more about day-to-day decision-making, mutual respect, shared values, interpersonal skills, kindness, and resilience.

A final example. Building wealth is less about picking the absolute best stock or creating the perfect asset allocation and more about distinguishing between “wants” and “needs”, day-to-day discipline, and regularly saving more than you make.

The next time you have an especially important decision to make take some pressure off by remembering that a positive outcome hinges mostly on the long-term, cumulative effect of the numerous daily decisions that follow.

An Open Letter to College Admissions Committees

From Andrew F. Knight, former physics teacher, Potomac Falls High School–originally published here. See my response at the bottom.

As a physics teacher who recently resigned from Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing public school districts in America, I urge you to altogether stop considering high school grades in your admissions process and decisions.

Our schools are failing. Rarely does real learning happen in modern classrooms, and when it does, it is often merely a byproduct of each student’s pursuit of an independent and potentially conflicting goal: high grades. While I can only speak to grading practices at my school, I suspect that these concerns are endemic throughout high schools nationwide.

First, high school grades themselves are very poor indicators of a student’s competence. As a graduate of MIT and Georgetown Law, I have experience in earning high grades and gaining admission to competitive universities. My grades were in part due to “grade engineering”: the process of maximizing grades with minimal effort and without regard to learning or understanding material. In other words, I received high grades partially by exploiting the weak correlation between grades and mastery.

At one time, I suppose, grades might have been an objective and reasonably accurate measure of competence in a given subject. Not anymore. Today, they primarily measure how well a student can game the system. It is quite easy for savvy high school students to pass a course, and in some cases even to receive an A or B, without actually knowing or understanding any of the course content. Here’s how:

• They choose easy teachers. Many teachers at my school believe that all students are capable of getting A’s; not surprisingly, very few of their students receive lower than a B. Are these amazing teachers who push their students to succeed or spineless grade inflators who don’t want to deal with angry parents? Because a student’s grade depends largely on his teacher’s philosophy of grading, students can avoid the annoyance of actually having to earn high grades by rationally choosing teachers who want to give them.

• They harass teachers about grades. Students and their parents often cooperate to make a teacher’s life a living hell. They pester the teacher weekly with requests for progress reports. They call the teacher during her lunch break to request extra credit or test retake opportunities. They write demanding and condescending emails. They schedule early-morning parent-teacher conferences to negotiate higher grades. They complain to the principal. They meet with guidance. They flex their muscles and put the teacher in her place. During my last week as a public school teacher, a colleague actually cried after receiving a nasty parent email. Given enough harassment, many teachers will either succumb to inflating grades or quit.

• They cheat. At my school, the likelihood of getting caught is low. Students can easily copy other students’ homework or plagiarize from the Internet. They can even cheat during tests, as many teachers give the same test version to every student. Even if a student is caught, there is essentially no consequence for first-time offenders so perceptive students readily make use of this free hall pass. Does cheating actually occur? In an anonymous survey of my 130 physics students, all but three admitted to copying homework or test answers from other students.

• They get into special ed. Not all of special ed is a sham but some of it is. I am not an expert in special education and I absolutely agree that specific learning disabilities exist that can be addressed with research-based interventions and procedures. However, instead of a shield, special ed (and its even shadier cousin, the child study) is often used by parents as a sword to gain competitive advantages over other students, particularly the small-group testing accommodation, in which students are taken to a different room by a special ed teacher who may “coach” the students. In my experience, this coaching tends to involve providing hints and interactive feedback that would be considered cheating if provided by fellow students, thus allowing students who are otherwise clueless in my class to ace my tests. Sadly, many students have learned to exploit their special ed status as a crutch and excuse for nonperformance, resulting in higher grades in the short term at the expense of accountability and achievement in the long term.

• They earn “completion” points by turning in all homework, projects and assignments. Completion is the new competence. Modern grading practices encourage children to turn in lots of shoddy work products because completion points, which now account in many classrooms for the majority of the grade, reward quantity over quality. By copying off other students and the Internet and even scribbling worthless nonsense to give the semblance of assignment completion, a student can receive the vast majority of credit on these assignments with minimal effort. Even if they bomb the tests — reflecting a total lack of understanding in the subject — they’ll still be able to pull off a B or C.

When students are judged for college admissions on an indicator that may or may not bear any resemblance to their actual level of mastery, an entirely rational response is to focus on the indicator itself. Why go through the arduous process of actually learning physics if you can pull off a B merely by copying homework, getting last-minute extra credit points, and having your parents harass your teacher for a retake when you bombed the test you didn’t prepare for? These grade-increasing strategies are now the rule in public education, not the exception. Sadly, the hardworking students who have integrity, an old-fashioned American work ethic, and a desire to actually learn are at a competitive disadvantage to their less-honest counterparts.

Consequently, the drive for high grades is blinding students and parents alike to the real purpose of education: learning. In parent-teacher conferences, “How can my child bring up her grade?” has replaced “How can my child better learn the material?” The system’s response to angry grade-obsessed parents and disgruntled students has been to fudge the indicator instead of improving the system in other words, to inflate grades in spite of worsening performance. I was routinely pressured by parents, students and even administrators to inflate grades in the form of curving scores, providing extra credit and retest opportunities, and more heavily weighting homework and projects that are easy to copy from friends. It is instructive to note that two-thirds of our students are on the honor roll. (That’s right.) When a majority of students routinely receive As and B’s in all their classes, the distinctions intended by a traditional A-F grading scale become hazy and meaningless.

Finally, grades are far too personal to be effective. When an A student receives a C in algebra, for example, she is fooled into believing that she is no good at math when, in reality, a C is (or should be) an indicator of perfectly acceptable performance in which there is room for improvement. As a result, her self-esteem and confidence take serious beatings and she gives up, even though real excellence is molded from a long cycle of falling and then getting back up again. Teachers are thus given the option of assigning honest grades that reflect true mastery — and of dealing with angry, discouraged students who have not been held accountable for their own education — or of deluding C and D students into believing they’re A and B students. The latter option will result in a generation full of misled “straight-A” students possessing few actual skills and a subpar work ethic who don’t understand why America is no longer economically competitive in the global marketplace.

The solution I propose is comprehensive exams at the end of each course, much like Advanced Placement exams, that thoroughly and objectively distinguish students on merit alone. The emphasis in each classroom would then shift from fighting the teacher for high grades to cooperating with the teacher to learn the material necessary to perform on the exam. Unlike Virginia’s Standard of Learning tests, which are essentially worthless baseline tests of rote memorization that do not distinguish the most competent students, AP exams test a broad array of knowledge and understanding. There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test,” because fundamental understanding and application of knowledge cannot be mastered by memorizing the answers to past exam questions.

The focus on grades is killing American education. In my book, “Full Ride to College,” I specifically teach students how to engineer their grades and exploit the weak correlation between grades and mastery, thus giving students a competitive advantage without the inconvenience of working hard and learning. While I consider this strategy to be a mockery of American education, it is also effective. Until such time as college admission committees stop soliciting and using archaic, meaningless high school grade information in their admissions decisions, I plan to continue teaching grade engineering, because it is the rational and efficient response to a grading regime in which students are rewarded for cheating, harassing teachers, and choosing classes based on the ease of grading instead of the quality of teaching. [end of letter]

Props to Mr. Knight for having the courage to point out the emperor has no clothes on. However, he doesn’t go far enough. Denise Clark Pope illustrates the problem in gory detail in her 2003 book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. Knight’s solution to the problem of grade engineering, introduce high stakes Advanced Placement-like end of course exams, is an unsatisfying fix.

We must dig deeper. We have to not only acknowledge the detrimental effects of academic competition, but experiment with narrative forms of assessment and learning structures where students are expected to work together in substantive ways, like most of us do in our families, in our civic organizations, in our workplaces. Myopic, “grades as an end-all, be-all parenting” and intense individualism endemic to the U.S. are the greatest impediments to change. When honest, many “A” students say what they like most about getting “A’s” is knowing their classmates don’t receive them. I don’t see how A.P.-like exams will do anything to dent the zero-sumness that explains most of the behavior Knight laments.

Adolescents are the most social of animals, yet in school, we almost always require them to work individually and we assess their work individually. And of course, college admissions offices assess them individually too. But talk to eighteen and nineteen year olds about what they most value from their high school experience and almost to a person they’ll say the groups they were apart of—band, drill team, service clubs, student government, choir, orchestra, drama, athletic teams. Why? Because in contrast to third period physics, they develop collective identities in those activities and enjoy the community that results from them.

What do you think about Knights’ description of the problem and proposed fix?

Pressing Pause

Periodically it’s nice to pop the hood or lift the curtain on the blog. Choose your own metaphor.

• Every self-respecting blog has a clear focus. For me, that’s a perpetual struggle. My interests are varied and I’m too easily distracted. If you’re a regular and attentive, you may have noticed I’m trying to improve the focus by posting an education-specific post at least weekly, usually first thing Monday morn.

• WordPress has upgraded the statistics they provide. They now show the nationality of readers. A few incoming links are even showing up with posts translated into Arabic and other languages. Very cool. Floored that about 25% of page views come from outside the U.S. A warm welcome to every international reader. I value your participation. Top ten countries over the last month—Philippines, Canada, Jamaica, United Kingdom, India, Netherlands, Norway, Bangladesh, Brazil, Malaysia. What a great mix. I’m going to try being more mindful of the international mix of readers when writing. What’s that mean? Not entirely sure, but I’ll try to avoid referring to the U.S. as “we”.

• I’ve saved the most important item for last. I have never asked you, my faithful readers, for anything. In fact, I’ve written about how bad I am at asking for help. But now I need your help. With apologies to international readers who may not be familiar with our very popular children’s public television show Sesame Street, and a segment that’s sometimes a part of the show, which one of these is not the same?

Person Following on Twitter Twitter Followers “ING” to “ERS” ratio
Walt Mossberg—tech reporter 266 318,250 1,196x
Ellen Degeneres—t.v. personality 47,609 9,938,951 208x
Ron Byrnes—famous blogger 20 11 .55x
Lance Armstrong—product pimp/triathlete 348 3,341,070 9,600x
Steve Carrell—actor/comedienne 0 87,805 87,805x

There are two types of people in the world—forward-looking ones on Twitter and hopelessly out-of-date ones not yet on Twitter. If you haven’t already, take your “cool quotient” into your hands and sign up for a Twitter account now. It’s easy and painless. And then follow me at And then, have your life changed.

It’s a shame that only eight of you and three aspiring porno stars are aware of how brilliant I am on Twitter. It’s the perfect format for me. On Twitter I’m funnier, more informative, and twice as charming as normal. It’s a shame more of you are not taking full advantage of more Ron at the same low cost!

Why clutter the blog with my triathlon training deets when there’s Twitter. Wonder what my world class eavesdropping self has overheard recently? Twitter. Curious about my most recent sports insight? Twitter. Wonder what tasty new meal I’ve cooked up for the fam? What, you didn’t even know I’ve taken over cooking duties? Well, that’s because you’re not following me on Twitter.

PLEASE accomplish two things simultaneously—radically transform your life for the better and help me get my “ING” to “ERS” ratio into positive territory.

Thank you in advance! Can’t wait for the ratio to blow up.

As always, thank you for reading and don’t hesitate to write me with questions or thoughts.

Peace out,


Conflict is Normal

Hope I don’t jinx myself with the next sentence. I’ve just passed through a period of above average interpersonal conflict. The wife, the daughter, everyone has been conspiring against me.

A lot of our behavior is explained by insecurities rooted in our past. As a result of our insecurities, we get sideways when other people dare think and act differently than us. Our tendency is to try to change the way they think and act. They resist. We persist. The result. Interpersonal conflict.

At a recent conference I met an insightful woman who was a professional mediator. She said something in passing that I found rather profound. “If we can normalize conflict, we can respond to it instead of react to it.” If intimacy and conflict are inseparable, as I believe they are, why do we react so poorly to conflict rather than constructively respond to it?

When we think of conflict as a weakness, as a sign of failure, and as something to be avoided at all costs, we get caught off-guard by it. That makes the successful resolution of it less likely. When we assiduously avoid conflict, natural low-level resentments build and become corrosive.

When we respond to conflict we slow things down enough to think and we’re mindful of treating the other person the way we want to be treated. We may get very emotional and talk animatedly, but we do so knowing a resolution is going to require respectful give and take. Instead of just waiting for the other person to stop talking long enough to begin arguing a point, we truly listen, and are mindful of the other person’s feelings.

When we react to conflict, we lose control of our emotions, sometimes end up shouting past one another, quit caring as much about the other person’s feelings, and ultimately say hurtful things which makes resolution much more difficult. Respond—gradual progress towards resolution. React—things spiral downwards.

It would be nice if there were Harry Potter-like wands that we could use on one another to make us more accepting of ourselves and more secure. Then maybe we’d be freed from the grip of wanting to change others to think and act more like us. By truly accepting ourselves, maybe we could learn to accept others—even their different politics, values, personalities, and life goals.


Extra Circular Activities

I’m working on a paper on why students cheat so much in high school, how they rationalize it, and what it means for improving high schools. I’m in the pre-writing stage, re-reading and coding some of my first year college students’ papers on their high school experience. Here’s an excerpt from one of them. The humor lies in the typo and unintended pun:

On top of being a straight A student, my parents also expected me to participate in extra circular activities. By being involved I as able to show colleges I was a very well rounded individual who could balance the demands of school and extra circular activities.

Extra circular activities, the mind whirls. Could it be crew? Could this particular crew row in a giant circle in a large roundish lake? A donut eating club? A cross country team that runs in large circles around the city, school, track? A student government that sits in a circle? A folk dance club?

Friends don’t let friends develop spell-checker dependency.

Here’s another decidedly less funny excerpt from another student’s paper:

There was one word to describe my math teacher junior year: Exacting. This teacher had his class curriculum sealed tight.  He knew every part of his Power Point slides and what he was going to write on the board. He always followed the book closely and I was seriously struggling.  In his class, I was like a fish out of water, desperately trying to grasp the concepts of pre-calculus. I spent a majority of my time trying to slack my way to a good grade and not actually take the time to learn the concepts and functions taught.  I frantically tried to find loop holes and backdoors around assignments and test but had no luck.  I gave up, trying to find my way around the assignment and started to read the book and try and learn the curriculum.  However, while I was flipping through the pages of my book a short sentence in the bottom left hand corner of the page caught my eye, it read, “See teacher’s edition”.  Suddenly a light went off.  I went straight home after school ended, turned on my computer and proceeded to find a teacher’s edition book of high school pre-calculus.  I found it and purchased it.  I felt relieved that I had mastered the impossible and found a backdoor to success in my math class.    The teacher’s edition book had everything I needed, from test answers to assignments.  After that I never ran into a bump in the road and coasted through the rest of my junior year.

And finally, this sixth-grader has the makings of an excellent Donut Club prez. His paragraph is titled “The Fake Doughnut”.

App Review—Zite Personalized Magazine—Algorithms Ain’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

When I first met the Zite Personalized Magazine App I was totally infatuated. She was a total looker, great interface, and totally customizable. Our first dates were fantastic. We created structure by selecting several newspaper “sections” including: architecture, arts & culture, automotive, business & investing, film & tv, food & cooking, gadgets, health& exercise, mac news, personal finance, philosophy & spirituality, and sports.

Then we settled into a nice daily rhythm of just hanging out and reading. When I read an article on Steve Jobs, she asked me if I’d like more like it. “Yes,” I answered. Always so selfless, when I read a Sports Illustrated article on recruiting controversies at the University of Oregon she asked if I’d like more articles from Sports Illustrated (yes), about the University of Oregon (no), and NCAA recruiting (no). So inquisitive, and such a patient listener, she totally “got me” in very short order.

But now we’ve plateaued, maybe even started to drift apart a bit, and I’m not sure how to get the lovin’ feeling back. The problem is, with all her fancy pants algorithms, she’s gone overboard in personalizing my homepage. Nevermind what’s happening in Iran, Syria, or Putin’s Russia, my home page is filled with stories about Apple computer, college sports, and, not sure where she got this, Prince Harry partying in Belize.

As you know, whether we answer “did you like” inquiries or not, algorithm-based highly personalized internet suggestions and marketing are the future. iTunes and Netflix tells us what music and movies we’d like based each of our choices. Same with Amazon. At Amazon and other commercial sites we don’t even have to make purchases. Big Commercial Brother tracks our internet surfing and then creates personalized suggestions and ads.

“Free” customizable newspaper apps shouldn’t be as controversial should they? It’s a real time saver not having to sift through less interesting stories. Right? The problem is the end result—hyperpersonalized newspapers that make it less likely we’ll stumble upon interesting, quirky, challenging stories that stretch us. Spontaneity is sexy, endlessly staring into a mirror is not. We already live in economically and racially segregated neighborhoods, we watch television that affirms our political biases, and we attend churches and recreate with people that look like us.

Where are the diverse neighborhoods, schools, churches, and public places where people can begin learning how to get along with people different than them? People who are richer or poorer, people from across the political spectrum, people who are and aren’t religious. And where are the internet apps and websites where people’s thinking is challenged, nourished, deepened?

Another article on my Zite homepage today is titled, “The Gray Divorcés” which is about the increasing percentage of 50+ year olds deciding to divorce. (More evidence I was right that divorce is the new default.) I’m not quite ready to break it off with Zite altogether, but she’s getting on my nerves.

Grade: B-