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

College admissions is not a meritocracy. It’s a game.

Antonio Buehler is a college admissions consultant and cofounder of Abrome, a unique online learning community based in Austin. With degrees from Harvard, Stanford, and West Point and experience working in top-tier admissions, he has plenty to tell you, especially if attending a highly ranked college or university is your child’s goal. Many thanks to Antonio for sharing these valuable and timely insights.


College admissions is not a meritocracy. It’s a game. Those who know how to play the game began years ago. They’ve donated consistently and substantially to their alma maters, they’ve provided their children with ample opportunities to stand out in the admissions game through their experiences, they’ve provided the support necessary for their children to get top grades, and they’ve paid for SAT prep courses.

The college admissions season is nearly one month in; the Common Application went live on August 1. Those who know how to play the game have already paid an admissions consultant to help their children craft their essays, and their kids are cozying up to their recommenders and getting ready to submit an application to their dream school (or their strategic reach school) via Early Action or Early Decision. If your child (or you) plan on attending a highly selective college or university next year but have not started the application process, you’re already behind the curve.

This past year, only 2,145 out of 42,167 (5.1%) of Stanford’s applicants were accepted.  Of Stanford's applicants from 2008 to 2012 with SATs of 2400, the highest score possible, 69 percent didn't get in. Over 24,000 of the applicants vying for one of Stanford’s 2,145 offers had a 4.0 or higher GPA.

The odds at Harvard weren’t much better; only 2,048 out of 34,295 (6.0%) of the applicants were accepted. It is said that Harvard rejects four out of every five valedictorians who apply, and this past year over 3,400 applicants who were vying for one of the 2,048 slots were ranked first in their class. While most colleges don’t have the benefit of having 20 applicants for each available spot, even state schools such as the University of Texas now reject more applicants than they accept.

Many guidance counselors will claim that the admissions process is random and that every applicant who wins a spot at one of these coveted institutions is extraordinarily qualified for admissions, but that is a lie. There is nothing random about admissions, and the process is not fair.

Many people mistakenly believe that where the process is the least fair is that athletes and underrepresented minorities have an advantage in the admissions game. Schools need to balance the need to field winning sports teams and to ensure that their classes are sufficiently diverse, but athletes who are among the best in the country (e.g., Stanford football or tennis, Harvard crew or squash) and also are outstanding students can hardly be considered unworthy, and while underrepresented minorities get a small benefit in the admissions game, the ones who are admitted are typically well qualified. The average SAT score of black students in the Harvard class of 2017 was 2107. (Diversity is measured in many ways, not just along ethnic or racial lines. Diversity can also come in the forms of family circumstance, socioeconomic status, geography, nationality, religion, sexual preference, life experiences, and academic and extracurricular interest.)

Where the process is less fair is in the advantages it offers children of professors and alumni. These connected students are essentially double dipping, having benefited from their parents’ education and/or source of income, and then receiving the added bonus of gaining admission to elite schools over better-qualified applicants. However, where the process is least fair is in the benefits that underqualified children of the very wealthy, corporate elites, and the politically connected receive. This benefit is so large that “[r]esearchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America's highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions' minimum admissions standards.”

So what can you do, now that it is almost the eleventh hour, to play the game well and ensure that your child gets into her dream school? Sadly, if you haven’t been giving your child the opportunity to lead a remarkable life by allowing her the space to dive deep into areas of interest, to develop and demonstrate her intellectual curiosity, to attain excellence in ways that are relevant to her life, you are behind the eight ball. However, I have specialized in helping students who are behind that eight ball get into top colleges and universities for years, and there is plenty of gaming that can be done even at this late stage.

First and foremost, your child must be able to tell a story that convinces the admissions committee that he has led a remarkable life filled with excellence based on what he has experienced. He may not have started a company, done graduate level research, or started a social movement, but he should have unique interests that he can speak to. The process of doing an audit on one’s life experiences and then organizing and presenting those experiences in a compelling way through the essays is time-consuming but necessary. In the admissions game, packaging is as important as substance; without either, the chances of getting into a top school are zero, but with one, there is a chance.

Second, applications to the elite schools must be as perfect as possible. GPA (if the student goes to a traditional high school) is set, and SATs are unlikely to shift much. However, the candidate has full control over her essays (her story) and significant control over the recommendations. Those essays must be perfect because they are the most important part of the application. Unlike law school, where a perfect GPA and LSAT will get you into Harvard, a perfect GPA and perfect standardized test scores are no guarantee that you will get into a Top 5 undergraduate program. The story that comes through in the essays (and to a lesser degree in the recommendations) must accompany the numbers in a way that convinces the admissions committee members that they need a particular applicant in their incoming class. That story is much simpler for the children of senators and Fortune 500 CEOs than it is for a middle-class or upper-middle-class child, but not even Harvard or Stanford can completely fill its incoming class with development cases, legacies, children of professors, recruited athletes, and diversity candidates.

Third, your child must begin working on her applications today. Creating those perfect essays and ensuring that the recommendations are just right takes time. It is not uncommon for my clients to do up to 20 turns of an essay before they are ready to submit it. Every single word must add value to one’s story, even articles and conjunctions. And the candidate must begin today because she must submit an Early Action or Early Decision application this fall, before she submits the bulk of her applications by the regular decision deadline for most schools.

Those who play the game know that the chances of admission skyrocket through Early Action and Early Decision. At Harvard, for example, a candidate had a 21 percent chance of being accepted through Early Action, but only 3.1 percent of regular admissions candidates (which included deferred Early Action applicants) were accepted. Stanford, meanwhile, accepted 10.8 percent of their Early Action candidates, compared to only 4 percent of regular admissions candidates.

The time to act is now if you want your child to get into Harvard, Stanford, or another top program. The time to act is now, as well, if your child wants to attend a competitive state school or a more local private college such as those listed in the table above. If your child is applying this year, he should be working on his essays each day, working with his recommenders, and continuing to excel academically and at extracurricular activities.

However, if your child is not applying this year, and has several years to prepare, then she can play the game by simply focusing on living a remarkable life, today. Those clients are the ones who are always the easiest to get into top programs.

Antonio Buehler

Preparing for the SAT by means of alternative education

Michael Strong is co-founder of the Khabele Strong Incubator, a new 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 guest post, Michael addresses an issue I hear often in my consultation work with parents considering alt schooling for their kids: What about the SAT?

Many of those exploring alternative education models do so in part because they are repelled by the lockstep curriculum and testing regimen associated with traditional schooling. They are committed to a “follow the child” philosophy, according to which educators support student interests rather than test prep.

While I am committed to personalized education that nurtures a child’s interests, I am not hostile to the SAT. In fact, I find that, under some circumstances, an alternative education can result in superior SAT scores.

This perspective is based on my own experience. I was raised on a farm with a 1.5-hour bus ride each direction. Our small black-and-white television received two channels occasionally; my siblings and I had to be pretty desperate to try to watch TV. Within this context, I became a reader—a voracious reader. In sixth grade, a friend and I recorded the books we were reading. I was already reading a 200-page book every night.

At the same time, he and I would play chess on the long bus rides to and from school. Because the chess pieces would often fall off the board as we went over bumps, we became good at remembering where they were on the board from memory. Eventually we quit using the board entirely and played chess games with each other in our heads as we endured the long rides to and from school.

My real learning took place during reading and chess. I also did well on “memorize-and-forget” tests at school, doing almost no homework. I was admitted to Harvard without ever studying for the SAT (really without knowing what the SAT was). My parents, good working-class people, had no idea that Harvard was hard to get into; all they knew was that I was going to college back East somewhere.

Thus my own experience was dramatically different from that associated with children of angst-ridden “helicopter parents” today. All I did to get into Harvard was have fun reading and playing chess. What’s the big deal?

As an educator, I’ve focused on creating schools at which kids mostly have fun. But because of my natural intellectual bent, the form in which the “fun” tends to manifest itself is largely intellectual: we read and discuss intellectually serious articles, we play around with mathematical and scientific ideas, etc. And it is all a natural, spontaneous process based on engaging students’ authentic interests.

Not all students will necessarily obtain high SAT scores. But high-level academic performance does not require tedious studying. If one can create an environment in which students have fun engaging in intellectual activity, then high-level performance on the SAT is often a natural, spontaneous outcome.

There are a couple of reasons why the SAT is associated with stressful studying rather than spontaneous joy:

  1. Conventional schooling provides little intellectual development. The majority of class time is devoted either to classroom management or to “memorize-and-forget” activities. If we were able to monitor blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of most students during most school days, we would find little activity going on there. Most students most of the time are bored, flirting, joking, or goofing off in school. Insofar as much school activity is nonlearning, of course students are stressed out by a measure of cognitive functioning—their brains have been turned off for years, and now we ask them to turn it back on?
  2. Some parents place their own anxieties related to social status onto their children. In some cases they force children into competitive college admissions when such a direction is entirely inappropriate for that particular child. The result is anxiety and resentment toward the competitive process itself.

Young people are sponges who absorb their environment. If they are placed in an environment in which others are trying to avoid learning as much as possible, most will also work to avoid learning. If they are placed in an environment in which the play is primarily physical, or social, then most will become excellent at physical or social forms of play. If they are placed in an environment in which the play is primarily intellectual, then most will become excellent at intellectual forms of play.

It is a bizarre artifact of coercive schooling that intellectual activity is the one domain in which people are least likely to understand the playfulness of it. For many people, the term “intellectual” has heavy, unpleasant connotations. Just as alternative educators would rejoice in supporting their theatrically gifted students to star on Broadway, or their musically gifted students to win on American Idol, we should rejoice in supporting those with intellectual appetites in achieving in the manner that gives them the most joy.

For me, play and excellence are intimately related no matter what a child’s gifts. When I work with young people who are brilliant theatrically or musically, I want to help them develop their gifts in a playful, yet serious, manner. When I work with young people who thrive on social engagement, I love showing them ways in which the world richly rewards their gifts when properly directed (such as sales), and encourage them to interweave play and the development of extraordinary skill.

My mission as an educator is to identify the genius within every child, and then coach him or her to a joyful expression of that genius. From such a perspective, taking the SAT for some is really no different from an audition for others—simply a natural part of their particular journey. Sometimes “follow the child” implies creating an intellectually rich, yet playful, environment that happens to lead to great SAT scores. Sometimes it means creating a dramatically rich, yet playful, environment that happens to lead to an extraordinary range of acting skills.

Someday all students will attend “school” where most of the time they are engaged in joyful, yet serious and demanding, activities. And we’ll all wonder about that peculiar institution of the twentieth century that resulted in teen rebellion and the mass drugging of an entire generation of young people.

Michael Strong