Issue #10

This summer's math program is moving along at a slow but productive pace. We're slowly gearing up for school.
Issue #10

We spent the first half of the summer with projects and outdoor activities. After a brief hiatus, it took exactly 5 minutes of complaining to get back into math practice. We're also looking ahead a few years to college to get the worrying out of the way now.

From the Editor
Issue #10 is all math

Our next big math project is the SAT. As usual, my definition of math arbitrarily includes reading comp. This exercise will be the only test prep we do for the MAP test in 7th grade, but it won't be the only At Home math we do in the next two years. We'll use the same approach we used to crush 2nd grade math in Kindergarten - a few problems a few times a week, mainly incorrect answers. Real learning is both counter-intuitive and magic, as in it magically gets done if you stop trying.

There are two articles in this issue to help those who wish to follow along - one hard skills and one soft skills. Feel free to comment with questions. There are 2 articles on college, one for the budget and one for my favorite resume building activity.

The SAT Test Prep Report

There is a gem waiting for the college application that any child can start now...

The SAT test prep report

In my previous blog, I spent 7 years researching cognitive skills and filling gaps in curriculum to produce these skills. There are big gaps to fill, starting in 2nd grade, because school curriculum is designed to crush cognitive skills before 5th grade so that the child is completely unprepared to navigate pre-algebra. If you have a child in 2nd grade, read my curriculum page from the old blog and get to work. If you have a child in 5th or 6th grade, just read the basics of the approach and catch up in this issue.

The approach to developing cognitive skills is mostly age independent. As I wrote, tested, and fixed the cognitive skills material, my cognitive skills increased tremendously. If a child learns these skills at a very young age, the child is labeled a genius. While the child slogs through 3rd, 4th and 5th grade totally bored out of his mind, the child is labeled an underachiever. Kids who work super hard and get A's without cognitive skills are labeled overachievers. Kids who catch up by high school are labeled bright and capable. Kids who master cognitive skills by age 18 are labeled MIT freshmen.

What we're doing now

It should come as no surprise to readers from my previous blog that we're plodding through an SAT test prep book 5 or 6 problems at a time. The summer before 6th grade, we're doing math. In a few months, we'll start the reading comprehension section, only one passage and 10 questions per week. I doubt will ever pick up the pace. We might do a full math test or 2 or 3 reading comp questions in one day. No time management, no endurance tests, no outside reading. I think this will be good enough for 1100 or 1150 by April of 7th grade.

5 questions is usually the magic number. Since most of the material is new, we're just plodding along learning. Occasionally, we'll come across something like p(t) = t2/2 -300t + b, and solve for b if p(1) = 100. What is p(5)? This question involves a 20 minute discussion of what p(t) means and why we use this notation.

We spent a bit of time in 4th grade learning some pre-algebra. Mostly we just skipped it, because practicing pre-algebra for the sake of pre-algebra is really boring and pointless. When we get to a pre-algebra topic required for an SAT question, we take a break to back-fill the skill and do a little practice if needed.

What we're getting out of it

We're no where near actual SAT preparation. Instead, we're settling for more important skills, like figuring out what a really complicated question is asking, organizing a solution strategy, devising general approaches to minimize wrong answers. One pass through the question to realize we don't know what it means, one to five more passes to understand it, a few passes to organize the solution strategy, and then a few attempts to get the correct answer.

Each week, I repeat my open offer to do the questions with my child, and each week my offer is politely rejected until the questions are completed and many answered incorrectly. By the way, at a pace of about 10 questions a week, the math section is quietly being completed. At this pace, we'll subject 1,000 SAT questions to thorough analysis in the next 2 years.

I'm not concerned that we'll end up way ahead in school even though that is the direct result. I'm focused on picking up a full range of skills to tackle new, tricky, confusing material. Once these skills are learned, there is nothing in school that will cause anxiety or stress. It will just be the usually challenge with the learned responses to over come it.

A note on anxiety

I'm very careful to stress an environment for this exercise that is devoid of time constraints and the need to get correct answers. We never, ever look at the solutions. We spend time with each question identifying the element that makes a wrong answer likely, why each question is formulated with many confusing parts, and how we can lay out different approaches to the same answer. If we can't solve a problem while reviewing the work in 15 minutes, we'll take 30 minutes. Sometimes this happens.

As a direct result of this approach, test taking is a stress free activity. We never break from this approach.

My kids are notoriously slow test takers in school. This 'slowness' skill helps a lot with the untimed MAP test, which is our biannual challenge until 9th grade. The SAT practice books are our only study aid for the MAP tests. Please note that the older child did in fact finish the SAT in 7th grade without learning or practicing time management skills. He also met his MAP score goals in 7th grade. I suspect that the second child will do even better. Regardless, the 'big' tests that this child will face in the coming years are not as hard as a 12 year old spending 4 1/2 hours on the SAT. The PSAT is only 2 1/2 hours. The MAP tests only have 50 questions each.

A note on the competition

There are quite a few books, websites, and forums on the SAT. I've begun reading them. I have seen no indication that any of the 'experts' have the slightest idea how to steer a child toward a better score. All I see is platitudes and short cuts disguised as advice. While I steer my child toward mastering the Big Five academic skills, the skills that are fundamental to success on the SAT, I may start expounding on these in the context of the SAT on later articles.

The College Budget

It's a bit early to be worrying about college applications. Instead, I'm worrying about laying the groundwork...

The college budget

My oldest is about to start high school, and we have begun budgeting for college.

The reason I had to sit down a 14 year old to explain budgeting is that he announced he was only taking one AP course because his high school mandates entering freshman with a certain level of test scores have to take an AP course.

Apparently, I have to undo the damage from my previous father-son lecture entitled "AP Courses are Stupid Because You'll Catch Up in Graduate School". I generally see AP courses as a race to burn out. We need to peak around junior year of college, about the time my son wants to start thinking about a graduate degree in something really challenging.

Anyway, here's the step-by-step college budgeting process and why my 14 year old owns it.

Eliminate universities

I'm not saying a 4 year $250,000 university degree is out of the question, just that it's an overpriced waste of money. It's not a waste of money if my child says "I want to study astrophysics at Stanford" and means it. The likely hood of this happening before age 22 is near zero.

For those of you who have already chosen a short list of Universities and a short list of boring dead end careers for your child, you deserve to have your child drop out to study art and never call you again. If your child doesn't drop out, there's a high probability that your child's classmate will be my son, and your child will desperately need friends who are emotionally well adjusted because his parents didn't choose anything for him. I'll explain how that happened in a future article.

In the meantime, my job is to figure out the cheapest mix of college credits that keep all doors to the future open. This is not hard. Look at the vitaes of graduate students or top professors or CEO's. There are a few Harvard's and a lot of other paths.

AP Courses

The sad fact of the teenage job market is this. My son can make $10 an hour working at a hot dog stand or knock of $60,000 of college tuition just be getting AP credits. Even better, community colleges have the same credit hours for cheap. Your child can take the classes in the summer or at night during high school, it's less work and less pressure than studying for the AP test, and his classmates will be serious older kids who are there by choice.

Now that Chicago and Illinois will raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, those hot dog stand jobs will be much harder to come by.


Our minimum scholarship requirement is $10,000. I picked this somewhat arbitrarily, but an amount greater than this is equivalent of putting lottery winnings in the budget.

In preparation, I asked him to start writing essays that he thinks one of his overly dramatic middle school friends would write on a bad day. So far, he's written zero essays. I'll have a lot more to say on this topic.

The Sheriff of Stuff

The biggest impact on our budget is buying stuff. Every dollar we spend on stuff is a dollar on which he'll be paying student loan interest after he graduates. Therefore, I made him Sheriff of Stuff.

When we want to order a pizza because it's late and all we have to eat is tortillas, he has veto power. When he needs a black pair of shoes for the end of the year concert that he'll never wear again, he has veto power.

His decision making skills are improving based on the number of "No's" we're getting, and my parenting skills are getting better based on the time I remember to ask him if he wants to buy me a new computer via future student loans.

As the Deputy Sheriff of Stuff, I try to mitigate bad decisions, which is why I wore a cheap black pair of shoes to work one day to see if anyone noticed (they didn't).


If things go well, he'll end up meeting his future goals for 1/2 to 1/3 of the price, and he'll be a much more responsible, non-spoiled adult that everyone likes because of our efforts.

The College App Star

There is a gem waiting for the college application that any child can start now...

The college app star

Now that Scouts, formerly known as Boy Scouts, is finally open to girls, I can explain why the Eagle Scout rank is a permanent advantage on any college or job application.

If your child is in 5th or 6th grade, you're also at step zero in the process and haven't missed anything. If your child is in 7th grade, they can get up to speed quickly, because a 7th grader can do twice the work of a 6th grader twice as quickly.

I'll give you 3 reasons that illustrate the Ah-ha moment before hitting you over the head with the punch line.

The boring reason

Scouting is made of two sets of activities. One set is all the fun things that scouts and their parents like to do. This is a long list that includes camping and hiking in the summer, luging and physics disguised as aircraft maintenance in the winter. The other set of activities is showing up to the weekly meeting and getting ready for the fun activities. The weekly meetings vary in their entertainment value from not at all to slightly, but this is the value driver of the Eagle Scout rank for admissions officers and hiring managers.

The value proposition that I put in front of my kids for the boring part is this: You are going to take a 90 minute break once a week from sitting around with screens and sit around with other scouts actually talking face to face. Non-negotiable. The fun things that will keep them in Scouting for another year? They discover these activities on their own. I just need to get them over the immediate hurdle.

The less boring reason

At some point, the kids have to learn how to tie knots and which knot is used for what. When this training is presented to adults, we're usually confused and frustrated and politely voice our concerns without expletives (another useful skill). Then we promptly forget everything we learned until the topic comes up on a camping trip and ask the scouts for help. Scouts aren't so lucky - they need knots, and dozens of other skills because in Scouting, the adults don't help with setting up tents, cooking, or the other activities.

Multiply this experience times 50 and you can imagine how it would impact a difficult subject or work issue.

For those parents who were involved with Cub Scouts, I stress that parents aren't really involved with Scouting. (Scouting is the term for the big kids.) The kids do all the planning, management, leadership, chopping wood, building fires and everything else. Adult volunteers are always welcome, but my presence on hiking trips is because I like cheap family vacations, and I like to hike. I'm just in the way when I try to help.

The More impactful reason

One day at camp last month, my 10 year old announced he had to pack for the Survival Skills Survival Test. The kids hike into the wilderness, build a shelter, and return the following morning. Each year, a new story is added to our lore: The night it poured, the night it was freezing, the kids who tried to fit 8 kids under a tarp for 2, the kid who just rolled up in a tarp and woke up the next morning like a soggy burrito. Three hours of sleep is about the max. My son knew all of these stories, but he desperately wanted to get over the hurdle that separates newbies from the veterans.

An hour later, I asked his partner in this training whether or not he was packed. "I'm not going", he replied. Coincidentally, this child fit the profile of a child of most of my readers from my previous website, in other words a privileged only child of devoted, over involved parents. "Yes you are", I replied.

It was the older scouts who actually changed his mind. Being exceptionally bright, he was the first one to ask "What can I bring?" Survival Training is all about answering the question, "What do you do when you are unexpectedly stuck in the middle of no where with nothing?" For this reason, most kids bring a sweatshirt and a tarp. This kid brought a sleeping mat and a blanket. The only reason he had to suffice with 7 hours of sleep is that the older kids on the excursion were complaining all night. More importantly, he learned something about himself he didn't know the previous day. He is capable of more than he once thought.

The punch line

The entering class at every University has high turnover. At top schools, it can be 25%. A student that quits after 1 or 2 years, for any reason, is $150,000 to $200,000 in lost revenue. The same thing applies to job applications at every level. The cost of hiring starts at about $75,000 and gets much higher up the ladder; any indicator that reduces risk carries weight. All things being equal on a college application, and in today's environment grades and extracurricular activities are usually equal, "Eagle Scout" on an application says 'you're not going to lose money on this child'.

Most people would say that an Eagle Scout shines because of all that training, skills, communication, etc. I would say there is a much more powerful factor: The Eagle Scout doesn't quit. Learning not to quit is built into the program from the beginning. Surviving four years of high school is great. An Eagle Scout typically survives a 7 year program. Staying up late eating cheese balls and drinking Mountain Dew to pass an AP test is commendable. Forgoing sleep in the freezing rain in the middle of nowhere because you can is fortitude on a much grander scale.

FYI, a child can start Scouting in May of 5th grade.

Some useful skills

In this article, I explain how we actually conquer the math SAT practice problems...

Some useful skills

In the other SAT related article of this issue, I mentioned that we go slow, spending a lot of time with the problem in a no pressure environment. That approach only goes so far toward productive work, especially with a 10 year old.

It is possible to work productively toward a solution despite having a tool box that is missing most of the tools. The majority of the questions on the SAT math test are basic algebra and geometry, so we'll start there.

Choosing the problems

When we first open the book, I ask my child to do any 3 problems that he thinks he can solve. Finding these is worth 2 problems (making 5). I don't care which 3 problems are chosen. The hard ones aren't going anywhere and can be solved later.

For the next few months, we'll skip hard problems, skip from test to test, and generally just skip around. Eventually, we'll move to the next level which is 'the next 5 problems on whichever test you're on', unless these are hard, in which case we'll do the first 5 problems on the next test, which are generally easier.


The first step in tackling an algebra problem is not understanding the problem. The first step is to write down the problem and simplify it with pre-algebra. We've found that the "minus minus", as in y = 25x - (5x - b) has been put there by the SAT authors to make a wrong answer more likely. Thus we decided to eliminate the headaches upfront.

In the coming months, the 'simplify' step will involve the range of pre-algebra basics. Certainly, parenthesis have to go.

There are a class of SAT problems wherein if you leave the parenthesis there, the problem solves itself. For example, (x - b)(x - 3) = 0 has a solution of x = 3 if you keep the parenthesis. The child will figure this out for himself. Instead, we'll spend a bit of time working quadratic expressions between the long form and the solution form.

Once the problem is simplified, it's back to the work of understanding the question. At this point, I've got a kid working the SAT. Much more gratifying than letting him struggle and be baffled. Next week, I won't bother to mention that the first step is simplification, he'll forget, an incorrect answer is likely, and we'll do it over.

With all things algebra, I usually recognize the form of the problem and remember a solution method. This is not true of a newby, not even if he sees the same form 3 problems in a row. A little pre-algebra goes a long way toward getting him in the game.

Algebra word problems would be solved very quickly by crafting the equation. Since we skipped pre-algebra, my children have devised algorithms to solve word problems mentally. If they get the wrong answer, we go back and produce the equation to be solved. If you short cut the step that pre-middle school and early middle-school children take trying mental gymnastics, and skip straight to formula's and the mechanics of algebra, they do not invent these algorithms and their cognitive skills are lacking for the rest of their lives. Kids with out the algorithms reach their max potential early and quit math early.


Unlike algebra, where the child will slowly become adept at pre-canned solution methods to problems from a pre-canned class of problems, when when we see a geometry diagram, the first step of solving the problem before reading the question is mandatory and will not change. Any time we see a diagram, we always solve it first and read the question later.

There are a limited number of geometry identities required: a line has 180o, a triangles angles add up to 180o, a right angle is 90o, opposite angles at an intersection are the same, etc. When presented with a diagram, the first order of business is to solve everything that can be solved. With any luck, one of the missing elements is the answer. At some point we'll take a bread to prove each one of these in order.

The diagram solving step prevents the paralyzing confusion that results from reading the question. Sometimes the diagram is full of variables and the values are in the question, so we'll pull these out and go back to solving.

This approach is on average quicker than reading the question first even for older kids. It is unlikely my children would waste time on a test doing this step first, even though I've carefully trained them to follow this approach. On a test this becomes the fallback plan. Having a fallback plan is much better than having anxiety.