Your Zip Code: Better than an SAT Score

“One does not fight corruption by fighting corruption.” —Daniel Kaufman, writer


The right age to begin prepping for the SAT

I’m a fan of the old Bogart/Bergman movie classic Casablanca. In the hub-bub over the newest college admissions scandal, I’m reminded of the scene in which Capt. Renault is shutting down an illegal casino while being handed his winnings.

“I’m shocked—shocked—” he says, to discover gambling going on.

What? Cheating to get into college? My God, I’m so shocked. I’m stunned to the marrow of my being. How could it be? You mean, the system isn’t fair? You mean, cheaters can game it? With money?

What’s most shocking to me is not the fact of corrupt practices in our institutional life but the idea anyone could pretend to be surprised and dismayed. Bribery, test-taking ringers, cheating, legacy admissions, parents working webs of connections with other parents to get their kid into the right Pre-K—no one noticed these things before now? We subject children to an unhealthy level of competition, which is a tool and not a way of life.

How could people be so shocked by such a grand old American tradition? Have they been asleep? Do they not care? Or are they too busy taking advantage of inequalities built into the system to say anything about the corruption?  It’s just another case of the wealthy taking care of the wealthy. Like bees to the honey, money-making schemers and racketeers cluster around education–a good reason to keep privatization out of it. If affirmative action is based on the color of your skin, then legacy admissions are based on the color of your money. And money in our culture is white.

In the US, it’s no longer merit and ability that get you where you want to go (if it ever was), it’s money. And the goal of education is not enlightenment or tolerance or anything human: the goal is just more money. This has been the case for some time, now. The paradigm has undergone a shift. And what makes us believe money is the answer? It’s that significant shift in the meaning and purpose of our society. The goal, I thought, was to get an education so you could give something back, not so you could manage the country club dues or the payments on the Land Rover or those SAT Prep classes for the kid.

Why are people going to such lengths to get their kids into college? Why are people apparently so surprised by the wrong-doing? Why does a college education cost so much? How do we level the playing field? Do we want to level the playing field? One of the first things we could do is stop emphasizing SAT/ACT scores by making the tests a graduation requirement for everyone. If everyone has to pass one to graduate, then no one will any longer think the scores are important.

The scandal over the corrupting influence of money in US college admissions is another example of short-term goals winning out over long-term purpose. I’m all for goals; they get you to tomorrow. But purpose—understanding the meaning and reason for what you’re doing—is what gets you through the whole year and beyond.

It’s no news that education in America has been on shaky ground for quite awhile. Chronic underfunding and inequitable funding methods (like property taxes) are a serious part of the problem, but so is that loss of purpose. College today is a fund-raising enterprise and has little to do with education. The short-term goal of higher ed is to build buildings. The long term purpose is—what? building more buildings? Ask a random college kid why they’re on campus and you’re likely to hear “to get a good job and make lots of money.” If you find one who says “I’m here to learn,” alert the media.

Here’s the bitter truth: your zip code plays a bigger role in your admission than any other number.

Here’s the bitter truth: You aren’t getting much of an education from an adjunct professor (a part-timer) who is being paid a couple grand to teach and grade your 16-week course that meets three times a week. I’m not saying adjuncts don’t know what they are doing, but someone making $10K a semester (for teaching five classes) is focused on a lot of other things besides quality teaching.

Here’s the bitter truth: Getting straight As is nice, but it’s not an indication of the ability to think critically. It’s an indication of conformity; after all, you have to conform to a standard to get an A. Not much emphasis on innovative thinking. Lots of emphasis on obedience to authority.

Here’s the bitter truth: A few years after graduation, no one will care what school you went to. My degrees and five dollars will get me a free ham sandwich anywhere in town! Fancy diplomas from fancy schools can get you in the door, but those diplomas won’t keep you there if you are an incompetent or a cheat. I believe that cheaters eventually catch themselves. Thus, if you do obtain a degree through bogus devices, sooner or later someone will notice those vast realms of nothing inside your head and call you on that.

Here’s the bitter truth: probably one-half of what entering college freshmen are learning today will be outdated, obsolete information a year after they graduate. And there will be new jobs we know nothing about, at this point. This means that the ability to think and discern will be much more valuable than the ability to memorize information. Information is meaningless unless you understand how that information is being used.

Kids are off to college today to get their parking validated. They should be demanding to be taught and to be taught how to teach themselves. That’s what you get from an education. Not status and prestige, but the ability to think clearly. Not a lot of facts, but a lot of methods for getting at the facts. Not a lot of information, but the ability to interpret information through multiple lenses. It’s why it’s possible to get a first-class education at a community college—you’ll just have to work a lot harder because you won’t get anything resembling the support given to failing students at top tier schools. Their wealthy parents wouldn’t accept anything less.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.