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Points For Sale

By David C. Newman, Crimson Staff Writer

WAYNE, N.J.--Seat belt guru and presidential hopeful Ralph Nader says a strong democracy doesn't tolerate a culture of everything-for-sale. Though innocuous by itself, the statement's implication--in the context of Nader's anti-corporate rants--is that American democracy is in the crapper.

I used to disagree with this implication, navely beholden to the pious claim that the best things in life are free, or as the Beatles put it, money can't buy me love. Then I realized that 20 years after John Lennon's death, it's Michael Jackson who owns the lion's share of Beatles memorabilia (not to mention the Elephant Man's skeleton). Still, I clung to the belief that not everything in America is for sale.

Then I took a summer job with The Princeton Review.

For a generous $17 an hour, I participate in what is essentially a numbers racket, an enterprise that boasts enough coded charts, spreadsheets and Scantron forms to lure Ace Rothenstein (DeNiro's Casino character) out of retirement/hiding. But the bottom line is this: For about $1,000, my employer guarantees high school students a 100-point improvement on the Scholastic Assessment Test. If they don't get it, they get to take the class again for free. And again. And again.

The Princeton Review was founded around the time of Lennon's shooting by some whiz kid who combined Mark David Chapman's obsessive personality with sound business sense. This lunatic registered for every SAT the Educational Testing Service offered, learning the test inside and out. Upon realizing that it was a huge load of crap, our hero went back to his parents' Manhattan apartment and started tutoring. Twenty years later, his business has effectively ended Kaplan's monopoly on test preparation.

The company exists in a strange paradox. Our credo: The SAT is a worthless test that discriminates against women, racial minorities and the poor. We hate the SAT. Long live the SAT.

Somehow the good people at The Princeton Review have smilingly accepted this Orwellian state of affairs. And after a few weeks on the job, so have I.

My job consists of walking fairly intelligent 16-year-old kids through junior high school math problems, which sounds a bit like teaching sex ed at Amy Fisher's high school.

We figure out how much you save by buying two CDs together rather than separately. (The trick is to read the question carefully; the test asks for the discount per CD.) We add up the distinct prime factors of 60. (Remember, distinct means different; the answer is 2+3+5, not 2+2+3+5.) We find the areas of oddly shaped figures. (Ballpark! Eliminate outrageous answer choices!)

Finally, we channel the spirit of Joe Bloggs--the fictional character created by The Princeton Review to teach high schoolers how not to take the SAT. An average student, Joe nails all the easy questions (except for the ones he makes careless mistakes on) and misses all the hard ones. Once students are armed with this knowledge, "What would Joe do?" becomes a question rivaling the familiar bumper sticker query in cosmic importance. On hard questions, you probe the answer choices for the likely Joe Bloggs answer--that is, the most appealing (read: wrong) answer. When you identify the answer Joe would pick and eliminate it, you can guess from the remaining four choices, statistically upping your score.

The image that comes to my mind is John Dewey doing a 360 in his grave. (Which, by the way, is the sum of the angle measures in a quadrilateral.)

The SAT represents everything that's wrong with American standardized tests, and SAT prep represents everything that's wrong with American education. Forget teaching to a test. I'm teaching inside a test--living, breathing and eating the SAT, stretching for a precious 10 points here, squirming for another 10 there.

Thinking is discouraged. I typically respond "I don't know and I don't care" to most questions beginning with "why?" (such as, "Why isn't one a prime number?" and "Why aren't we allowed to smoke during break?"). Nothing I teach will help students in school or life, with the possible exception of the work ethic they might develop through dutifully completing the monotonous homework sections I assign directly out of a manual. The learning process is nothing. The end goal--raising scores and deceiving college admissions officers--is everything.

Then there is a moral problem: I'm perpetuating the socioeconomic disparity in education by improving the college prospects of those who can afford my class. Of course, The Princeton Review does have a touch of social conscience. The Princeton Review runs free programs in inner cities and reveals its trade secrets in books you can buy for under a grand. But The Princeton Review is a firm, and as I learned in Ec10, firms are profit-maximizers. They charge whatever they can get, and it turns out that they can extort obscene amounts of money from enough people to make unintentional class warfare worth their while.

Yet it's the best job I've ever had. I get to hang out all day with kids who are about my age, many of whom are pretty decent people. In between the stupid math I get paid to do, we eat lunch, joke around, talk about college and life in general. While I admit this might not really be educational per se, it's also undeniable that the time they spend with me is time that they're not smoking crack or watching Pokmon re-runs. I feel like I'm being a good role model...or something like that.

As for class issues, my dream is that one day in the near future, something will happen with those supply and demand curves that will drive down prices, and just about everyone will take SAT prep classes. When that happens, SAT scores will be so volatile that they will no longer be useful to colleges, leading colleges to throw out the test in favor of a more humane measure of an applicant's worth.

Of course, that would destroy the SAT prep industry, which is probably not something The Princeton Review would actively encourage. Maybe this is another one of those existential paradoxes. Or maybe I'm just happy to be making 17 bucks an hour.

Go, Ralph, go.

David C. Newman '03, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator in Quincy House.

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