Cheating on the SAT

The thing I can’t get out of my head when I read this NYT article on kids paying other kids to take the SAT for them is simply this:

All they charged was $3600? Cripes, that’s a bargain at ten times the price.

Don’t get me wrong: you shouldn’t cheat, both because it’s wrong (which should be enough reason) and tactically too risky (in case the first argument wasn’t enough).

But I mean, come on, let’s do the math: a one-percent increase in salary over your life is easily a five-digit number even if you’re kind of a slacker. Two significantly different SAT scores mean admission to schools of two significantly different calibers. And I doubt the salary increase we’re talking about here is just 1%.

For those of you who are fans of the Drake equation, which uses best-guesses to try to figure out whether there’s intelligent life out there, I challenge you to apply this reasoning to SAT prep.

In fact, you might even try to create an analogous equation governing this stuff, like I just did. (I hope you have more luck than I did; if so, please let me know.) But, equations aside, it’s not really that hard to think about.

To figure out what a higher SAT score is worth, just do the following steps:

First, get a lifetime earnings calculator. (Google it; there are many.)

Then, use it to estimate the student’s lifetime earnings, given that he or she attends the best school to which he or she can gain admission given the initial SAT scores.

Then, take the average (expected) gain in SAT scores given a particular preparation method.

Then, use the calculator to estimate the student’s lifetime earnings, given that he or she attends the best school to which he or she can gain admission given the final (expected) SAT scores.

The difference between the two lifetime earnings is the value of the higher SAT score.

And now that I’ve said all that out loud, I’m starting to realize that “only four-digit” prices for SAT prep only make sense for providers who can offer only single-percentage-point gains with a high variance, as delineated in this article in the Wall Street Journal regarding the average benefit of SAT prep.

Now these days, I am no longer doing SAT prep, having left Bodsat Prep in 2016. However, the work I do preparing students for the AMC competitions (as well as the Math 2 and Physics SAT Subject Tests) still seems to be governed by this math.

Since we don’t often see prices like this, the conclusion I come to is: almost no one is delivering reliable results. (Or the people who are aren’t also good at pricing.) Interesting.

The power of the nudge

My friend and colleague Jai Flicker just posted this lovely essay on the time he knew just what to say to a student to make a big difference. His point was that one’s attitude towards work matters a lot. I take away a different point: that there’s more to teaching than knowing the material and knowing how to teach.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that knowing the material and knowing how to teach are both higher bars than we give them credit for.  (“Knowing how to teach” is especially tricky, it turns out.) But if teaching is your career, then I think that those two important skills, while necessary, aren’t sufficient on their own.

Most teachers never studied Buddhist philosophy, Qigong, or Non-Violent Communication, but Jai sure did. I think it’s clear from even a casual interaction with Jai that part of what makes him an exceptional educator — his “special sauce” if you will — is his awareness of the effect of emotional state and perspective on outcomes.

For me, it might be focus on effective processes of creative thought (because of my experience in music performance and competitive puzzle-solving), or maybe my love of analogy.  Or my great fashion sense* — it’s hard to know these things about yourself.  (Indeed, I just asked a few trusted colleagues this question, and learned rather a lot.)

I sure know what it is in others, though.  For each of my students and for each of my professional colleagues, I know what makes him or her special — what special sauce each brings to a hurdle, from home schooling to playing first violin; from fearless honesty to boundless patience; from experience as a youth counselor to experience as a corporate executive.

It’s important because of the power of the nudge.  Any good educator can help you with the next step, but the right idea, at the right time, presented in the right way: this is what helps you make a huge leap instead of another small step.  Great educators try for the leap instead of relying solely on the step.

But how is that done? I think it takes three components, two obvious, and one not: being a good teacher and deep subject knowledge are the table stakes. But it’s outside experience that makes the difference.

Jai has his mindfulness practice; I have competitive puzzle solving; others have other sources of “special sauce.” That’s always been an important part of my teaching practice: “I teach people, not just math” is how I’ve tried to explain it.

And increasingly, that’s the basis for my referrals too: I’m looking to catalyze leaps, and that means knowing my network not just as professionals, but as people.  When they go to work, they bring their whole selves, and that’s why they get such better results.

*PS I actually have terrible fashion sense.

– – –

Here’s my favorite one-session story.

Rachel and David came to me because Rachel, a straight-A student for years, just could not crack a B in her precalculus course. Nothing she did was enough; she kept getting docked too many points on tests; her motivation was faltering and so was her meticulousness.

It was apparent that Rachel was a mature and grounded student, and that David was an involved and supportive but not at all “helicoptery” parent.

We talked about the class itself, and the teacher in specific.  It came out that the teacher came of age in Soviet Russia towards the end of the Cold War. I know a bit about that culture, because it was a particularly noteworthy time in the history of math competitions, which I coach.

So Rachel and I talked a bit about that period, about the relentless focus on grit, drillwork, and obedience, about the aspects of those qualities that we value in our culture today, and about what a teacher who was a student during that period might bring to her teaching practice — what expectations she might have, and how she might gauge whether students are measuring up as they should.

We looked at one of Rachel’s recent tests through that lens, and instead of undeserved points lost due to unimportant minor mistakes, we both saw warning signs of a student in command of only part of the end-to-end process that leads to reliably correct answers.

About two weeks after that session, I called to find out why they hadn’t booked a second session, and the answer was a delight: it was because Rachel had only gotten an “A” on every homework and quiz since our meeting.

(I later helped her improve her SAT scores, but that’s another story.)