Can your child learn more at a nontraditional school?

Michael Strong is co-founder of the Kọ School + Incubator, an Austin school serving students of middle and high school age. He is also author of the book The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice, a frequent speaker on TEDx stages, founder or co-founder of several successful schools, and an advocate for nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit as a force for social good. In this follow-up to an earlier guest post, Michael addresses, in an interesting new way, a question I hear often in consultation sessions with parents considering alternative forms of schooling for their kids: Will they be prepared to do well on the SAT and other college entrance requirements?

Two years ago, I wrote an article for Alt Ed Austin titled “Preparing for the SAT by Means of Alternative Education.” In that article, I explained how I had gotten high SAT scores that helped to get me into several Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth) by means of extensive reading and chess playing. At the time, Khotso Khabele and I were just launching the Khabele Strong Incubator, which is now known as the Kọ School + Incubator (KSI).

It has long been my belief that if students engage in serious intellectual work that they love, it is possible for them to develop high SAT scores while also enjoying school. Because traditional schools often force academics on students in ways that are disempowering, many traditionally educated adults find it hard to imagine teens enjoying learning while also developing high SAT scores.

Because of my belief that our program develops SAT scores, we have administered the SAT several times per year at the high school. Although we don’t have data for all KSI students, for those for whom we do have comparable data, the results are remarkable.

  • Average SAT gains for KSI high school students for 2015–2016: 140 points (80 points verbal, 60 points math)
  • Average SAT gains for KSI high school students who have been with us for two full academic years, 2014–2016: 313 points (173 verbal, 140 math)

We only have two-year data for students who were with us for grades 9 and 10 and who were present at SAT administrations for both September 2014 and May 2016.

For comparison purposes, analysis of three large-scale evaluations of SAT coaching concludes that the average student enrolled in an SAT prep course gains 30 points (5–10 points verbal, 10–20 points math).

Students who have attended KSI for two years are averaging gains more than 10 times those of students enrolled in the average SAT prep course.

Yet KSI students do very little explicit SAT prep. Instead, we have a daily Socratic discussion in which students discuss complex texts while relating them to their personal lives along with weekly math problem-solving sessions that are often like brain teasers. How can such a program outperform SAT prep courses by such a large margin?

1. The College Board has always maintained that “SAT measures reasoning abilities that are developed gradually over the years of primary and secondary schooling that precede college.” That is, insofar as the SAT measures reasoning abilities that take years to develop, it is not surprising that two years of a cognitively demanding program would outperform short SAT prep courses.

2. Very little in conventional education is designed to develop reasoning abilities. KSI Socratic discussions and math problem-solving activities are far more cognitively demanding than is a conventional curriculum.

With respect to reading, the texts studied in Socratic are almost all college-level prose, whereas all conventional high school textbooks are necessarily written at grade level or below. Many students at conventional schools are never exposed to the sophisticated prose that is the essence of the SAT critical reading section. Moreover, the “new SAT” is even more focused on high-level reading than was the earlier version.

Our math problem-solving sessions, developed by Jeff Wood, our lead STEM guide, are a critical element that goes beyond the linear math curriculum that is standard at most schools. It is designed to train students to think mathematically rather than simply moving through the traditional sequence of topics in math. SAT math requires that students think mathematically.

3. There is a large literature on the activity of practice proving the age-old maxim “Practice makes perfect.” When human beings deliberately attempt to improve their skills by means of practice, they improve. Our students don’t merely practice the SAT test itself; they practice thinking verbally and mathematically.

4. There is a great deal of evidence that a lack of engagement is one of the most severe problems in secondary education. In essence, most students find the academic component of school boring and meaningless. Many students love the social life, and some may love extracurricular programs, but the substance of schooling is not interesting or relevant to them.

Gallup surveys show student engagement as high in elementary school, much lower in middle school, and even lower in high school. Not coincidentally, American students score fairly well on international exams in elementary school, worse in middle school, and most poorly in high school.

By contrast, most KSI students are intellectually engaged most of the time. Subjectively speaking, it does seem to me that on average those who are more consistently intellectually engaged showed larger gains than those who were less engaged. For me, our most successful classes are not those in which teachers are talking much. Our most successful classes are those in which the students are leading the conversations or problem-solving sessions, thinking, talking, questioning, joking, laughing, and being teens—all while actively engaging their minds.

Simply by focusing seriously on developing students’ abilities to think verbally and mathematically, day in, day out, while engaging them successfully, we can achieve extraordinary results—in most cases with very little homework.

From a scientific perspective, because of our small numbers, these results should be regarded as suggestive rather than conclusive evidence of the power of our program to improve cognitive performance and increase SAT scores.

That said, as we live in a world with so many teens disengaged from learning, with so many teens suffering emotionally and socially, with so many families frustrated with traditional homework loads, it is valuable to be reminded that when a school creates a healthy, engaging intellectual culture, high-level learning takes place spontaneously. The suffering and frustration of traditional schooling is entirely unnecessary to produce extraordinary results. For some students, breaking free from the structure of traditional schooling itself may be the most important step in achieving what they were meant to achieve.

Michael Strong