All posts by mbardin2014

Dear Zinc, Volume 2.

Dear Zinc is a regular advice column for high schoolers and their parents, written by Matt’s company, Zinc. To submit a question, email zinc.

Sign up to get Dear Zinc in your inbox.

Dear Zinc,

Our son is a 9th grader at a top California public high school. He swims for one of the better clubs in our area. We’re told he could be a D1 swimmer, but his girlfriend, who is determined to swim for Stanford, Berkeley or UCLA trains before and after school and has already placed at national meets. She’s on his case about not trying hard enough, and, frankly, she’s right. He has a 3.8 GPA, but in-state, UC Santa Barbara expects a 4.0. Also, he does what’s required of him but not one jot more. He spends hours and hours on social media or on Xbox. We both graduated from top tier colleges. We don’t need him to do that, but the game has changed. When we tell him to join a club or something, he laughs contemptuously. We definitely don’t wanna be those parents, but we also want to set our child up for success. Help!

Not Those Parents

Dear NTPs,

You’re in a tight but all too familiar spot. Here are some guidelines:

It’s his world. He’s the player. I’d love to say you’re the coach, but…you’re not even the coach. At the risk of over-extending the metaphor, on this team, you’re more like a cross between the owner and the facility. You’re the grass the game gets played on and the air the player breathes.

Anything positive you can contribute rests on the foundation of your unconditional love, trust, and respect for your son. Prioritize the relationship over the outcome. No matter how surly he may act, he wants only your complete approval. If he feels it’s beyond his reach, he won’t try. Lack of parental approval has driven many of us to all sorts of crazy efforts and many others into the abyss. Research shows that approval gets a lot more traction.

For your son, “Hey, why don’t you join a club at school?” may translate as, “We’re more concerned about superficial appearances — ie, where you go to college — than we are about who you really are.” At an age when it’s developmentally appropriate for him to seek separation, you risk alienating him.

At the same time, you’re correct that hiding out in his self-enforced gaming and social media dungeon dulls him and syphons off much of the richness you’ve hoped to provide. Joining a club or even seven clubs he doesn’t care about won’t help though. Colleges prefer candidates who contribute to their communities, but they find Tracy Flick-style box checkers almost as distasteful as slackers.

What will help your son in the college process is the same thing that will help him in life — a connection with what matters to him and an ability to effectively engage with the outside world. That’s an awful lot to ask of a hormonal teen, sipping at the firehose known as the high school curriculum, while navigating the digital assault on his dopamine coming at him from multiple screens, all under the conscious or unconscious pressure of impending adulthood.

Still, it can be done and should be attempted — most of all, for his benefit!

Yes. You feel the clock ticking, but time is also on your side. Remember how radically he changed during his toddler years? The teenage brain develops at least as much as the toddler brain. Efforts and abilities that seem inconceivable for him right now will become routine during the next year or two.

If his reply to your query about what interests him goes something like, “Well the main thing that really grabs me is Madden 18,” your answer is, “Of course! We love entertainment too!” Then, if you can do so in a non-confrontational way, get him thinking about what Call of Duty, Overwatch, Snapchat, or Instagram do for him.

Separate your fears from his. Cordon off any desire you might have to atone vicariously for failures you perceive in yourself. Take the long view, believe in your son’s intrinsic worth, and stay relentlessly faithful to your love for him.

Doing so will set him up to succeed no matter where he goes to college. You will feel a good deal of pain when he leaves home in three years. Spend those years in conflict or stony silence and you’ll experience only painful pain when he goes. Help him grow by providing a foundation of trust, faith, and love, and transform the sorrow of his leaving into the exquisite, beautiful pain that only parenting can offer.



Dear Zinc, Vol. 1

Dear Zinc is a regular advice column for high schoolers and their parents, written by Matt’s company, Zinc.

Sign up to get Dear Zinc in your inbox.

Dear Zinc,

I go to a small school so I’ve been hearing a lot about college and college counseling from the teachers and older kids for years. Plus, my brother already went through it and it was stressful to be around. I wouldn’t say my parents are college obsessed, but they are definitely involved and have pretty high expectations (though they would deny that). If I ask my parents for help or advice, they have a million opinions and suggestions. So do other kids and teachers. I’m already feeling overwhelmed by everything. My parents and I are going in to meet my college counselor for the first time next week. What should I be doing right now?


Already Overwhelmed

Dear A. O.,

Everyone in this process means well, including, obviously, you. It’s just one of those emotion-tangling times when the tides of life overlap and everyone needs all the help they can get to navigate the cross currents.

Put yourself in your parents’ shoes. They may have an odd way of showing it — like, by going to the office and working all weekend or yelling at you for neglecting to clean the cat litter again — but you’re probably more important to them than eating. And college will rip you from their lives (sort of) and launch you straight out into the world they’ve spent so much energy protecting you from for the last sixteen years. They’d really love to have all the answers for you. Of course, they don’t, so they’re compensating by talking a lot.

Put yourself in your shoes. It wasn’t that long ago you were filling your Club Penguin coffers with gems and rings. Now you’re juggling rinsta, finsta, SAT, stoichiometry and the Treaty of Westphalia, and you’re somehow also supposed to “fall in love with ten colleges” or find your life’s true calling. And all of this is meant to prepare you for that looming menace called “adulthood” when you’ll somehow be expected to make your own way in the world.

I’m exhausted writing that.

The writer Mo Ogrodnik has described coming-of-age as journeying into one’s aloneness. When we are finally left to ourselves, we notice paths meant only for us. Tough to do that while keeping up with teams and homework and social media, aka, being normal. Still, for many of us, the college process is the first of many opportunities to figure out what matters to us and act on it.

There’s a world of difference between freedom from — as in, “freedom from my parents telling me what to do all the time” — and freedom to — as in, “freedom to choose what to study or who to be.” Take stock of yourself and prepare to make choices.

You can start by making two lists.

Before your counselor meeting, make a list of any activities and experiences that have mattered to you. You need not make a formal “resume,” but writing them up in a form you can hand to the counselor is a good idea. They need to get to know you, and people love lists. Just make sure to include the color commentary. Instead of just “camper – Camp Sarsaparilla,” clarify that you spent your summers without electricity growing your own organic food.

The second list should be a very preliminary list of colleges. Look up some schools online. Your preferences may well change, but notice what appeals to you — big university with lots of graduate schools or small liberal arts college that emphasizes undergrad teaching? Major metropolis or tiny college town? Do you want to stay near home or go far away?

There will be many other factors to consider. What will your transcript look like? What test scores will you present? Where will you get the best financial aid package? No matter the answers to any of these questions, you will have choices to make, and, at the end of the day, some or all of these choices will be yours.

Take a deep breath, A.O. Give yourself a pat for asking this honest question. Put your phone in a drawer in another room. Go for a long walk. Free-write in your journal. Meditate. Visit a house of worship or a museum or a park. Look for other opportunities to tune yourself in.

And begin…

What Teaching and Tutoring Taught Me About Reading

Part 3 (of 3) in a series about what I’ve learned about education

Hannah Meacham had a problem. Her mother, a surgeon, explained that Hannah’s “learning difference” had not stopped her from earning mostly A-’s with the occasional B+, taking a demanding curriculum of honors and AP-level classes at the prestigious Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, widely considered one of the best prep schools in the world. Hannah (not her real name) had a tremendous work ethic. She managed the girls’ volleyball team and volunteered at the hospital on Saturday mornings but eschewed all other extracurricular activities in order to maintain her GPA. On the weekends, Hannah planned every hour, so as to cover preparation for all of her classes. Her parents worried about her sawed off fingernails, but all three of them shared a crippling fear: the SATs.

Classmates with comparable grades had scored in the high 600s or 700s on the PSAT already (scores for each section range from 200 to 800), but Hannah had landed in the low to mid-500s, a few ticks above the national average. Her grades at Dalton made Hannah a candidate for an elite college – not quite Harvard and Yale, but certainly an Ivy League or equivalent university. Her scores, however, were they to stay the same, would undermine her academic achievements. Hannah’s father, also a surgeon with gentle brown eyes and a firm-set jaw, had already written off a high score. You have to accept who you are, he told her. Just do your best. He hoped that with my tutoring she might raise some of her scores above 600. Hannah would barely look at him.

Hannah’s big knowing brown eyes dismissed the prospect of intellectual or personal curiosity. Her massive effort left no room for such frivolities. Maybe he wanted only to protect his child, but her father’s off-handed dismissal of Hannah’s abilities stung me too. She worked so hard! She deserved to succeed. I wanted to reassure her – promise her a victory, but her armored vulnerability had no use for my empathy.   

I had only recently left public school teaching, where I had had responsibility for five groups of thirty students every day. I had found that job impossible. Teaching one student all by herself seemed like a much more reasonable task. But student-teacher ratio wasn’t the only obstacle to my students’ and my success. Neither was family income.

Back in my first teaching post at Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School, I had taught a boy named Kevin Nicholls. Kevin, possessed of a sly but gentle mischief, was in my 9th grade ESL (English as a Second Language) class, which was odd for two reasons: at seventeen, Kevin had already done 9th grade twice, and, while all the other students in that class spoke Spanish at home, Kevin grew up speaking only English.

Kevin planned on playing professional basketball.

As the point guard on Bacon’s Junior Varsity, which I coached, he had an annoying habit of purposely dribbling the ball off his shin – a showboat move that conferred no advantage, sometimes lost the ball and didn’t even look cool. Though he often led the team in shenanigans, when I finally had too much and stormed out of practice, slamming the ball off the wall in a display of impotent rage, it was Kevin who showed up to class the next day with a goofy, over-sized “We’re Sorry!” card he’d gotten the whole team to sign.

I had already made several unsuccessful attempts to rectify the clerical error of Kevin’s English class placement when it dawned on me that he couldn’t read. Well, he could read – just not all the words. “‘Mr. Bumble wiped the per- pers-’ What’s that? What’s that say?” His demand would come so fluidly and the others chimed in so helpfully – “perspiration!” – that Kevin barely broke stride. Wait a minute, I thought. Why doesn’t he just read it? To avoid humiliating Kevin in front of the class, I kept him after the bell and confronted him. I offered to help. Sure, he said. He’d be happy to come for extra help.

I asked other teachers how to teach Kevin to read and was surprised to find no answers. At a school like Bacon, ranked as one of the ten worst high schools in New York City, illiteracy had to be a common difficulty. My friend, Cary, told me what I needed were high/low readers – materials designed for high interest and low ability – but the school didn’t have any. What did he do, I wondered, with students who couldn’t read? He grinned his cheshire cat grin: Nothing.

Reading, like walking or using the toilet, is a developmental skill. Some kids read when they’re three years old. No one teaches them. They go from singing the alphabet song to sounding out words on their own. Most children gain that wiring at age five or six. But others do not. Ultimately, we all read by recognizing whole words. We only decode each letter when faced with a totally unfamiliar word, like the name of a new Kyrgyzstani or Icelandic prime minister. For many children, the ability to sound out the letters presages sight reading (recognizing words). By the early ‘80s, researchers had established that kids should learn both phonics – sounding out the letters – and whole language – recognizing entire words.

But what about seventeen year olds who still can’t decode?

I tracked down a library on the Upper West Side with an adult literacy program. A librarian showed me the colorful, paperbacks they used – booklets really – with titles like, Grady Is A Janitor or Rhonda Wins the Raffle. There may have been other resources available, but I never found any.

Unsure how to proceed, I opted for the Hail Mary. I gave Kevin a big speech. This was serious. Reading held the key to his whole future. No matter how difficult the task, we had to find a way to figure it out. I asked him to come in early or stay late three days a week. Okay, he said.

Kevin came to exactly one such session. After a couple of no-shows, he reluctantly confessed that he’d missed work scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins to make our first meeting and could not continue. His mom had not found a new job since an extended hospital stay with asthma cost her her last one. He needed to help out with the rent and find his own money for things like dates with girls and sneakers.

Now, several years later, amidst the dark-stained oak floors, Shaker furniture and crisp white moldings of the Meacham’s Park Avenue apartment – a place tingling with polite, unspoken tension – I found myself confronting the same challenge. Hannah couldn’t read. Like Kevin, she could read most of the words, but almost every sentence contained a word or two that escaped her. “Illustrious” became “illusion.” “Financial” became “finatical.” If I asked her to reread, she would make the same error or become completely flustered.

I struggled to wrap my head around Hannah’s predicament on many levels. Kevin Nicholl’s difficulties followed a sickening logic. I remembered from my own childhood how my dad had asked me to read my first grade book to him. Not now, I had begged off. It’s boring. But my dad had insisted. I went to a large, public school. The teacher would ask who had done their reading homework, and I would raise my hand. But she had somehow suspected and ratted me out. I felt humiliated by my dad, but within a few weeks, I had caught up to the class.

No one had called Kevin out on his deficits – or, if they had, no one at home followed up. A couple of missed connections – like that butterfly flapping its wings in Japan – set a course for dysfunction through an apathetic school system, creating a young man with a missing mental limb. But Hannah Meacham’s predicament made no sense. How had her school, her parents – even Hannah herself – missed the elephant in her academic room? How had she managed to function and even succeed at Dalton, a school bristling with Ivy League-level intellectual rigor and competition? Was her inability to decipher words some kind of incurable and shameful condition that one simply must endure in secret? And how would I help her enough to raise her score?

This time, I got answers.

Francee Sugar, Dalton’s warm, sharp-witted Learning Specialist appreciated my commitment enough to set me straight on the basics. When you work with a teen who can’t decode, you just teach them to decode! Have them sound out the syllables and then put the words together. Teach them phonics. The missing brain wiring that had prevented them from mastering these skills in first grade had surely come in by now. School marched on without them – we learn to read until second grade, and, after that, we read to learn – but, with the needed hardware fully fledged in their brains, older children can pick up crucial abilities.

The social nature of school makes hiding one’s weaknesses both inevitable and natural. We all want to look smart or at least competent. Kevin got by on character and charm. Hannah outworked the competition. She knew how to scan a text for the terms she needed to memorize and learn them from flashcards. Her grinding determination drained all joy from her work, but she “succeeded.” I guess no one asked her to read aloud.

But decoding difficulties are the tip of the reading comprehension iceberg.

We think of illiteracy as a problem for indigenous people who still hunt with sticks or for the occasional middle-aged man in coveralls who knows which foods he’s buying by the pictures on the cans. The reality is more subtle and far more pervasive. The Hannahs and Kevins of the world comprise a very small minority, but the lack of comprehension they experience when trying to read is not only common – it’s ubiquitous.

Since 1970, the US Department of Education has tested thousands of fourth, eighth and twelfth graders and published a biannual “Nation’s Report Card.” The studies show significant improvements in math, especially for younger students. The reading results show real progress for fourth graders and a smaller uptick for eighth graders. Only one of the major indicators shows no progress at all – twelfth grade reading.

The good news is that, contrary to popular opinion, the numbers prove that SnapChat, Tumblr and Instagram have not made our children’s reading abilities worse. Nor is poor reading comprehension tied to class: A full third of the 12th graders with reading scores below the 25th percentile had parents who graduated from college.

The bad news: adult proficiency in reading has always been and remains a minority skill. While it’s true that math achievement ranks even lower, only thirty eight percent of twelfth graders display “proficiency” in reading. The average American adult reads on a fifth grade level. The math numbers are improving, but twelfth grade reading numbers show remarkable consistency over time at every ability level. Only about five percent have ever read on an advanced level.

In tutoring, we see many varieties of reading difficulty. While almost all students can sound out words successfully, many misread the small words. When “of” becomes “to” even a simple sentence can have no meaning. Others skip words or transpose a word from the line above or below. Still others lack basic vocabulary or miss transitions, and a solid percentage read confidently and fluidly but fail to process what they read. Some students, like Hannah Meacham, manage to succeed in school despite their weaknesses as readers, while, for others, lack of reading comprehension stymies them.

Maybe advanced reading doesn’t matter. A thriving publishing industry churns out thoroughly entertaining books and journalism that cater to the majority reading level. Youtube and Lynda offer video tutorials to teach you everything you need to know. Why do our kids need to read Zadie Smith essays, the Federalist Papers or Richard Feynman’s physics lectures?

For one thing, robots are coming for their jobs. Machines will soon outperform us in all work that involves repeating the same set of behaviors over and over – everything from driving to surgery – jobs that account for eighty percent of today’s workforce. The bots will have access to enormous quantities of factual information and will never make a mistake. Does everyone need to behave like Warren Buffet and spend six to eight hours a day reading complex news and financial analysis? No. But more people ought to at least have that ability.

In tutoring, we see all kinds of obstacles preventing kids from reading. What we almost never see are able readers who don’t love reading. For those of us who can, reading Toni Morrison or Stephen Jay Gould or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Emily Dickinson or William Faulkner makes the heart sing. I’m not sure how to quantify the value of these experiences but writing, from Hammurabi to Joan Didion, has served as our medium for articulating, preserving and sharing our most profound understandings. If reading these writers has no utility, we should just hand the planet over to the ‘bots.

English teachers and parents have tried to get kids to read for generations. Results have been consistent. Maybe everyone’s just not meant to read The New Yorker. That may be true, but for the Hannahs and Kevins of the world who are willing to make the effort, we can do better.

We live in the so-called Information Age, but the best of that info, though readily available for free online, remains inaccessible to the majority, locked behind bars of language and syntax.

Millions took gym class every day throughout the twentieth century, but almost everyone considered rigorous exercise a desirable but awful chore until about forty years ago. In the early 1970s, fewer than three hundred runners completed the New York City Marathon each year. By the late ‘70s, more than ten thousand did. Today, that number stands at fifty thousand, and they turn thousands of runners away.

We can do the same with reading.

What Teaching and Tutoring Taught Me About Reading

Part 2 in a series about what I learned about education
Warning: This post contains a line of explicit language that may offend some readers

I had scant preparation for my first teaching gig, but I knew I’d better “start out tough.” “You can always ease up later,” went the conventional wisdom. I was a little worried about that. I’m not exactly tough – really more of an empath – plus, the ebullience I felt at the prospect of helping so many cool, New York City kids learn – the difference I was gonna make in their lives – all of that wiped out the realistic possibility of a stern demeanor from me.

Still, sitting at my desk in the Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School Annex on my first day of teaching, armed only with class lists and a blue binder full of attendance cards, I expected I might get run over. Five classes of between twenty eight and thirty eight students each. All ninth graders, ranging from Honors to ESL to repeaters, who, I’d been warned, might be as old as nineteen. Despite the peeling paint and drab green and beige checkerboard floor tiles, I felt lucky to be in a large, generously-proportioned classroom with huge windows looking out onto stately sycamores on Fifteenth Street.

Turned out, I had nothing to fear. For the first couple of days at least, my students met my enthusiasm with friendly, open faces.

The idea of “education” fills the heart with hope. We hope to scrape off the barnacles and emerge transformed with new information and abilities. We hope for our children that their schooling sets them up for effective, satisfying, prosperous lives. And for our society, we imagine education not only improving the informedness of the informed citizenry needed for democracy, but also providing ladders out of poverty, thereby making our world better and more fair.

The first few days of almost any class hover on the updraft from all that hope. Some innate instinct about possibilities buoys us like an eddy of calm in the rough torrent of ordinary experience. A great teacher nurtures that moment – channels those aspirations into meaningful action. Instead of “be tough,” someone should have told me to make those kids work hard and succeed right from the first day.

I went around the room and had each student tell the class something they liked – the Knicks, Dominican food, Whitney Houston, Biz Markie, football. Many of them struggled with this request. They turned beet red or repeated what a neighbor had said. Still, I made a big impression the next day when I remembered every one of them by name – first and last: Hermelio Velasquez, Keisha Goodwin, Terran Van Exel.

Good will ran out by the third or fourth day, however, and I found myself running on fumes.

New teachers get assigned to the least desirable classes. I taught only 9th graders, and two of my sections were repeating that year for at least the first time. Reading obviously mattered, but the school mandated a reading list that had next to nothing to offer these kids. I had plenty of copies of The Miracle Worker and even more of the abridged version of Oliver Twist but no copier access. If I found a poem or short story I wanted to use, I paid for copies at Kinko’s or projected the text with an overhead projector.

I can’t recall how long my students tolerated my tedious lessons, but other impulses soon – often jarringly – superseded basic decorum. Lisa Sweat who won effusive praise from me one day for her sharp insights about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, inexplicably rebelled the next. “Suck dick mother fucker Bardin dick,” read the note she tossed in my bag.

My supervising Assistant Principal, I’ll call him Albert, had firm convictions about how to help me. Cooperative Learning, an educational technique where students worked in groups, would solve all my troubles. Albert had the zeal of the uninitiated. He was completing his PhD dissertation on Cooperative Learning at Columbia but hadn’t done much actual teaching himself.

I had my doubts. No matter how thoroughly I planned it, group work accelerated the chaos that occurred naturally when I led whole classes in discussions. Albert offered to come in and demonstrate. I discouraged him, but he insisted.

His lesson began badly and quickly devolved. Someone sniggered during Albert’s explanation of the process, and he pulled rank: “I am an Assistant Principal, young lady!” Things degenerated from there. My class found this small enraged man with self-consciously unkempt hair and a three-piece, herringbone suit hilarious. When Vance Dean, a tall, elegant, formal boy with a history of impeccable behavior, threw a wadded up ball of paper at Albert, the future principal stalked out of the room, leaving me to clean up the mess.

I desperately consumed teaching stories, but the books I read ignored the part I needed. The I-was-a-teacher-for-a-year-or-two-and-wrote-an-important-(or, at least, best-selling)-book-about-it genre focused more on the authors’ outrage than on the students’ learning or progress. Their depictions of crumbling schools and children growing up in squalor read like lite versions of today’s reality TV. I noted the distinct lack of success stories.

Stand and Deliver, the one tale that reflected the kind of triumph I envisioned for myself and my students, was about a Latino AP Calculus teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles named Jaime Escalante. Miraculously, every single one of Escalante’s students ended up passing the extremely rigorous, nationally-normed AP exam (AP stands for Advanced Placement and passing scores confer college credits).

Escalante refused to acquiesce to the low standards everyone else accepted for inner city kids. He challenged his students to excel and backed up his talk with hard work.

Right on! Now how could I do the same?

I decided I’d better focus on writing. The books I had been given to teach were all but useless. Writing would allow me to connect directly with each student. Most English teachers complained about grading papers and with good reason: every assignment produced hundreds of pages of reading. But how else could I succeed? I asked every student to write an essay about something that mattered to them. They could write about anything they liked. Anything at all.


“Yeah, but what’s it supposed to be about?” someone wanted to know.

“Anything you want. Something that happened to you. A person you like. An event. Anything.”

More silence.

“How long?” they wanted to know.

“As long as you want- “ then, sensing the unfortunate intent of the question: “At least two or three solid paragraphs, though.”

“Well, Mr., which one? Does it have to be three or is two enough?”

Most of my students tried. They really did. I stayed up till all hours writing detailed comments. What is it exactly that you love about the Knicks? Why is your grandma so important to you? I get that she cooks every day and buys you clothes, but what makes her different from other parents or grandparents who raise children? What makes her special? Describe her. Elaborate. What does she look like? What kind of work does she do? Give me details.

To the extent that my efforts elicited a response – only my Honors students stayed with me for more than one draft – the rewrites quickly lost the scent:

The Knicks has the best colors and they players is the best ones for all New York City and they is known throughout the league for playing hard and beein the best. That what make them best teem and that why I chose the Knicks for a team cause no other team can compare. That’s it. Even when they loose Ima fan 4 them.


My grandma is the special one that always have a smile for me. And she have that same smile for even other people to. She is kind for all the people and is a good, good person. Her heart is the thing that make her so special and why she so special to me. Unlike to the other parent I see shouting at they kids, my grandma only shout if I deserve something.

My disappointment must have been obvious to them. I had no idea where to go next and lacked the teaching chops to realize how toxic my tepid responses would be to the shoots of new life that hid in these writings.

Even with unlimited resources, however, this was never gonna be The Dead Poets Society. You can’t teach reading and writing the way most people teach math. Escalante could go back to basics. He could break his subject up into dozens of discrete units of knowledge. He could test his students to make them demonstrate their abilities. To be sure, there are rules of grammar and English usage that matter, but knowing them does not make one a capable writer. The mental agility required for writing a compelling cover letter or reading a New Yorker or Economist article, much less scoring respectably on the LSAT, does not flow from a knowledge of comma use or dangling modifiers.

Knowing the rules is essential, but you only master and internalize them when you use them. No one ever excelled at writing without first reading a great deal. Because hardly any of my students read, expecting them to write well was as hopeless as expecting them to play polo well – here are the horses! Here are the mallets! Just follow the rules!

Learning to excel at reading and writing can and should be a lot more exciting than memorizing trig identities or solving over and over for x. My team and I at Veritas Learning Labs are building digital tools to that end.

At the time, I ascribed my failures to the system – too much poverty, too many incompetent teachers letting students fall through the cracks. Several more years of teaching in very different environments, however, would reveal a great and terrible truth. The elephants in our educational room do not discriminate by race, gender or socioeconomic status. The difficulties with reading and writing that stymied my students at Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School, though better managed elsewhere, undermine students at every school in the world. And these sorts of struggles are not the exception – they’re the norm.

What Teaching and Tutoring Taught Me About Reading

Part 1 in a series about what I’ve learned in education

“So. Mr. Bar-deen. From Princeton… to this.” Cody Silver, my colleague and (tor)mentor in my first semester of teaching at an inner city school revels in my predicament. He’s referring to way more than the peeling paint and worn asbestos tiles. We’re at the height of the crack epidemic at a high school selected as one of the ten worst in New York City, but Cody’s not worried about a drive-by shooting. The stories of kids bringing weapons to school make great tabloid headlines but feel arcane compared with what we’re about to face. It’s 7:20 AM. The calm emptiness in my generously proportioned classroom belies the impending torrent of humanity, the way sunshine might confuse a fly drifting toward a final encounter with a windshield on a freeway.

“What are you gonna do about it? Write an editorial in the New York Times?” Cody was mocking me, but, Yeah, I thought, my insights about this experience belonged in the New York Times. One problem: I didn’t have any insights. What would I write? That these awfully nice kids deserved a better chance? Better teachers? Would I share some great success story?

Given that I had recently graduated from Princeton, having been accepted there as a valedictorian, student council president, two-sport athlete and thespian with wonderful SAT scores, I felt certain something would come to me. Some great insight that would transform my students – all of them – or at least some of them – maybe just a few of them, from my two sections of 9th grade repeaters to my ESL section to my 9th grade Honors English to my decidedly mixed “Drama Majors.” My hard work and high intelligence would soon overwhelm the benighted ignorance and intellectual indifference of my students. Success had to be just around the corner. At the very least, I thought, there must be many, many others like me graduating from top universities who would prefer work with real social value to the suits and ties of corporate America. I could recruit them and together we would find solutions.

Surely my presence mattered and would make a difference, but my Sisyphean days disrupted my fears and hopes alike. My college friends who worked in banking could mollify their horror at my low-status job by professing respect for my courage. Others admired me for “making a difference.” But I wasn’t in any danger and I certainly wasn’t making a difference. In truth, I was a low-paid fraud.

The impulse to teach had come over me at Thanksgiving of my senior year in college when I met Tom, the older brother of a friend of a friend who was teaching at a high school in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. I had made no effort to join the majority of my classmates who popped up sporadically, crossing campus in new pinstriped suits on their way to interviews with Wall Street recruiters. I needed a job. At the height of the crack wars, New York City needed teachers so badly that a university diploma would all but entitle me to a license.

On a crisp January day, I left Princeton’s Gothic arches, generous lawns and broad bluestone paths and took the grimy New Jersey Transit train to Penn Station where I caught the even grimier C train to 50th Street. My heart racing with fear and anticipation, I walked through deserted streets to find Tom at Park West High School. When the bell rang and the empty halls suddenly surged with rambunctious, inner city teens, I had to tamp down my panic. Would the mob attack me? Would someone quietly slip a shiv between my ribs just for the heck of it? Though at 6’5” I stood a surprising head taller than all of them, I found myself invisible. They took about as much interest in me as they took in the wastebaskets.

Tom, a kind-hearted San Franciscan who’d played soccer at Williams, seemed to expend great energy in eliciting any kind of response from his half-empty classes. His students slumped in disorganized desks, doodling or offering one-word answers to questions like, Why do you think George wants to help Lenny?

Nothing I saw dissuaded me from wanting to walk in Tom’s shoes, but I felt even then the first tug of an unexpected disappointment. No one was pulling out a gun or a knife. I didn’t see any drug deals or violent behavior. Even that first day, however, my enthusiasm for righting the wrongs of racism, poverty and injustice took a slap from an unexpected yet pervasive foe: nothing.

What made Tom’s students so passive? How would I help such students succeed? How could themes and ideas – even those of the greatest works of literature – stand up to the abyss of emptiness and futility that absorbed Tom’s carefully worded provocations like a gale snuffing out candles.

Several months later, breathing the Now-or-Later and hair relaxer perfumed air of my own classroom, the downer feeling I’d felt in Tom’s class had metastasized. These were the good kids. The bad kids, as evidenced by the half-empty rolls of my 9th grade repeaters, stayed on the streets and rarely showed up to school. My students – many of them anyway – believed in “education”. Their parents worked long, hard hours at low-paying jobs with little or no future. These kids wanted only to follow the rules, stay the course, go to college and find well-paid work. They all wanted to be doctors and lawyers. They assumed that staying in school and off the streets led to that outcome. I didn’t dare tell them that no one from Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School had a prayer on the LSAT or MCAT.

But I was there to change that.

NY Times Misses Boat on International Admissions

The New York Times’ David Leonhardt took a deep dive into the impact of foreign applicants on admission rates at elite US colleges. Click here to read.

Leonhardt presents compelling data to support his main argument that admissions at top US schools have gotten much tougher because these universities have fewer spots available for native US applicants. Surprisingly, despite the current echo of the baby boom, the total number of college-aged Americans has only increased by about 8.5% – from 16.5 million in 1984 to 17.9 million in 2012. It’s competition from overseas, Leonhardt suggests, that has driven down admissions rates, as colleges have sought to add foreign students.

Leonhardt, however, focuses only on the supply side without addressing the demand side of admissions. Harvard offers 27% fewer places to American undergraduate candidates than it did 18 years ago, so they clearly admit more foreign applicants than they used to, as do about a dozen other top institutions. But Leonhardt ignores demand. The numbers of applicants for top universities have increased from all sources, but they’ve skyrocketed from abroad – especially from countries like China, India and South Korea where thousands of successful entrepreneurs now have college-aged children. Saudi Arabia sends 45,000 boys to the US for college every year.

Reading Leonhardt’s article, you might come away with the impression that foreigners have an easier time getting in. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Alex Tabet, the top college counselor in the Middle East, explains, thousands of international applicants with flawless credentials compete for precious few spots. MIT, which publishes its data, accepted 9.7% of their US applicants last year but only 2.6% of foreign applicants. Harvard has not accepted a single student from Abu Dhabi or Dubai since 2009. As tough as it is for Americans, international applicants face much tougher odds.

Why do all of these students feel so determined to study in America? Because US universities – contrary to what Americans who graduate with debt and can’t find jobs say – offer tremendous value. Unlike international universities where students must effectively choose a career before applying, US universities let you pick your major after a year or two of study. But US universities have another obvious advantage. 74 US colleges have endowments worth over a billion dollars. The rest of the world seems to have about 6. That money means better instructors, better research and better facilities.

Ironically, the biggest value at American universities may not be available to US citizens. A Japan-based client of mine oversees hiring at a major international bank. He explained that, given the transnational nature of their business, his bank only has use for employees with experience navigating multiple cultures. Studying the language isn’t enough. Even if they graduated from Yale or Cambridge, people who know only one culture have no value for his bank.

In order to explain the top universities’ increased attention to international students, Leonhardt quotes William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions: “It would be a lesser education for [American students] if they didn’t get a chance to interact with some international students.”

Does interacting with a kid from Pakistan at your Massachusetts university enrich your education? Not according to my banker client in Tokyo. He’d rather hire the Pakistani who navigated frat parties sober and in a hijab while maintaining her daily prayer routine.

Of course, given how much harder it was for her to get in to that elite college in the first place, she’s probably better qualified to begin with.

Big Changes Coming to the SAT (and why they matter)

by: Matt Bardin, President & Founder of Veritas Tutors & Test Prep
April 10, 2014

Current high school freshmen (9th graders who will graduate in the spring of 2017) will face a different SAT. The changes aim to make the test more relevant to learning and less susceptible to test prep. What they really do is demand a new kind of test prep.

Last month, David Coleman, President of the College Board, announced significant changes to the SAT. The new test will be shorter, as the Writing and Critical Reading sections will merge into Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and the essay will become optional. The scope of the Math section will narrow to focus on basic quantitative and algebraic reasoning (sometimes without calculator use) and possibly add select, more advanced topics from the high school curriculum. Every test will feature reading passages from either America’s founding documents or other statements related to freedom, justice and human dignity. All of the new test’s questions will focus on critical thinking and reasoning that relate to either the real world or what students learn in high school and need to know in college or both.

Student scores won’t change much. The current test strongly favors confident readers who feel at home with numbers and love solving problems. If your child understands math and loves to read, she will enjoy the same enormous advantages on the new test that she would have had on the old one. If your child learns math by rote, depending on a calculator for even the most basic calculations and/or reads only the minimum required assignments, he will face the same steep challenges he would have faced with the current test.

Still, these are far-reaching and wonderful changes. Like many important education reformers these days, Mr. Coleman seems to have scant experience teaching actual students. As a result, he doesn’t understand just what he’s up against, a challenge I’ll address below. His reforms, however, represent the kind of idealism that too much practical experience might have blunted. Coleman has blazed a brilliant trail through the murky mess of secondary education. He offers a beautiful and profound vision for what our kids should learn, and his redesign of the SAT gives teeth to his vision. You have no idea how hard kids will work for an SAT score. While the old test wasn’t as bad as most people think, the new one promises to unmask the flim flam of tricks-and-shortcuts test prep and harness all that energy for much deeper learning.

Coleman’s stated rationale for the changes is to better align the SAT with what kids learn in preparation for college and life. He also says he aims to eliminate both the enormous hours students devote to test prep and the unfair advantage such preparation gives to those who can afford it. But the subtext is so much richer…

Before taking the helm at the College Board, Coleman was the prime mover behind the Common Core, a set of national curriculum guidelines for K through 12 education, that began taking effect this year in all but a handful of states. Coleman grew up in Manhattan. His dad was a psychiatrist. His mom was the president of Bennington College. Young David graduated from Stuyvesant (highly-selective, test-in, public high school) and Yale, where his tutoring of poor kids in inner city New Haven helped earn him a Rhodes Scholarship. His animating educational idea seems to be that we must give all students high standards to shoot at. High standards motivated him. Passing kids along or celebrating mediocre accomplishments does them a disservice and cripples our future workforce. Set the bar high, argues Coleman, and we will discover that kids aren’t so dumb while giving them the opportunity to truly excel.

When Coleman took the job at the College Board in 2012, I thought maybe he had flamed out. For an educational visionary who just reshaped the entire national curriculum, becoming president of a venerable, some would say hidebound, testing organization seemed like the CEO of a car company becoming Ambassador to Italy – a dignified sinecure for an old lion who’d finished defending the pride. I was wrong.

The test prep industry began in the 1950s in the Queens basement of Stanley Kaplan, a teacher who’d throw a party after his students took the test to gather intel on the SAT’s content. His test prep consisted of teaching math and vocabulary and led to a solid business. Test prep exploded in the 1980s when Adam Robinson “cracked” the SAT and joined forces with the entrepreneurial Jonathan Katzman to launch the Princeton Review. Robinson discovered a set of simple tactics for the various questions on the test – plug in real numbers for the variables in math questions, eliminate reading answers with extreme words like ‘always’ or ‘never.’

The notion that these crucial tests could be beaten with a few shortcuts took hold with the public and test prep has become a major business with $4.5 billion dollars in annual revenues. For most, test prep has come to mean a reductive message – “The test is stupid! You can beat it with tricks!” – coupled with a brutal regimen of weekly, four hour practice tests. While no one can prove these efforts work (the College Board’s studies insist the average increase is only 30 points on a 2400 point scale), fierce competition for college admissions drives parents to invest money and students to invest time.

Coleman is a genius. He didn’t take over the College Board to free up time for his hobbies. In less than two years, he has completely rebuilt the SAT to align with his Common Core. Just as educators are beginning to seriously grumble about and predict the demise of the Core (states only adopted it so as to claim federal “Race to the Top” dollars during the recession), Coleman has lashed the test, the SAT, to the Core. He’s aligned test prep with what goes on in school and what colleges demand. With any luck, his new test may actually correlate with students’ college performance – a game changer if he pulls it off, as, amazingly, neither the SAT nor the ACT has ever fulfilled that obvious criteria for a college admissions exam.

Moreover, Coleman has thrown down the gauntlet to my industry. If, as promised, he has succeeded in eliminating the effectiveness of tricks and shortcuts, where will all that money, time and effort go? Simple. To survive, the test prep industry will have to devote itself to the values of the Common Core.

I had been dreading the day the SAT would change. I started Veritas Tutors, because, tutoring on my own, I had found that shortcuts and drilling failed most students. Over the past 14 years, we have built up a set of practices that use test prep to remedy weak quant skills, raise reading levels and make students better at thinking. I feared that, as the more rote, bland ACT ascended, the SAT would regress to the mean in a race to the bottom. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined that the redesign would instead make the SAT a better learning tool.

But Coleman’s plan needs help from the test prep industry. Setting a high bar does nothing to address the many obstacles to academic excellence faced by almost all students. Anyone who’s devoted a serious effort to changing an actual student’s performance knows that failure rarely begets success.

The vast majority of students are not David Coleman. When David Coleman and others like him whose success at school has led to positions of power take tests, the words come smoothly off the page. Their high-functioning brains process accurately and produce thorough understanding and credible impulses. Such people have genetic predispositions for book learning, grew up in exceptionally stimulating environments or, most likely, both.

The average high school senior reads on a fifth grade level. That’s not because everyone in high school is stupid or lazy. Most kids lack the stimulus to read the stuff Coleman wants them to read. Their parents don’t read either, so they’re not around much printed matter. Furthermore, from what we’ve learned working with students one-on-one, even those who are desperately motivated to succeed often face formidable cognitive obstacles. No one – not even David Coleman, reads like a barcode scanner. Our eyes misread or skip over words. Then, even if we read them correctly, our brains stumble trying to process them, either missing important details or embellishing based on prior expectations.

If the test prep industry can figure out how to back Coleman’s idealism with actionable resources for students, SAT prep will offer a huge, private-sector boost to the Common Core and to the nation’s overall academic success. The College Board’s pledge to offer free “test prep” – practice questions with explanations – through the Khan Academy website barely scratches the surface.

Effective test prep will need to go much further in three crucial ways:

  • Raise quantitative abilities – Too many students learn math by memorizing formulas they don’t understand and rely on calculators to do all the work. Test prep will need to provide all students with a second shot at the basics before college and adulthood.
  • Raise reading levels – If you understand what you’re reading, the test just isn’t that hard. Most students struggle with comprehension. We teach all of our students close reading and rhetoric skills and insist that they read widely and cultivate a passion for reading. To succeed, everyone else in test prep will need to do the same.
  • Improve thinking abilities – Is intelligence fixed genetically like height or can people get better at reasoning the way we can at running or jumping? For us, test prep has always been about big leaps in cognitive abilities through thinking efficiencies. I’ll need a separate post to explain, but suffice it to say that most of our students have been willing to work hard at these skills and even the most able benefit from coaching in the use of their big brains.

Veritas has a head start. We’ve always seen test prep as much more than tricks, but over the last couple of years we’ve been building web apps that get teens reading broadly and deeply. You can check out what we’ve built so far here.

The main thing that’s hard about the SAT right now – the fact that you cannot control the outcome by simply memorizing a limited set of data but must be able to read, think and understand numbers – that will not change. What will change is that, instead of a few tricks and tons of rote practice, test prep will need to squarely focus on both content knowledge and reasoning – big changes with the potential to make a big difference.

For more details on Coleman and the new SAT, read Todd Balf’s excellent NY Times Magazine article –

Balf interviewed me for this piece, but I can see how my message – that test prep could actually be a good thing – would have disrupted his narrative.