Interview with Author Debbie Stier - Kumon

Interview with Author Debbie Stier

We had the opportunity to speak with Debbie Stier, author of The Perfect Score Project, which chronicles her quest to motivate her teenage son to do well on the SAT. Over the course of one year, this journey led Debbie to take the SAT seven times while discovering tips to ace the exam along the way.

In the book, she highlights several resources that aided her journey. Among those featured was Kumon, in the chapter Kumon: Get ‘Em While They’re Munchkins. She describes Kumon not as a “quick fix” but as a tool necessary to seal learning gaps and fully grasp the fundamentals. Like most parents, Debbie simply wanted to help her son maximize his true potential. We’re excited to share Debbie’s insight with you! Her advice, which you can read in greater detail in The Perfect Score Project, is full of valuable tips any parent would appreciate.

  1. As a working mom with two teenage kids, what motivated you to immerse yourself so deeply in preparing for the SAT?

The project was initially an attempt to motivate my teenage son, Ethan, to care about the SAT enough to study hard and reach his potential.

Since I had no idea what that would entail, I started my research by subscribing to the College Board’s SAT Question-of-the-Day – which, to my surprise, I found myself enjoying. The questions were like a little puzzle first thing each morning, and a week or so in, I got hooked. In a moment of unbridled enthusiasm, I declared I was going to try to get the perfect SAT score. After that, “training” for the SAT became a personal challenge, like training to run the Marathon (which I did in 2004).

Not too long after I decided I would take the SAT myself, my personal project became a book project, for which I took the SAT every time it was offered in 2011 (7 times in all), the year before my son would be taking the SAT. At that point the project turned into a kind of “consumer reports” on test prep and the test itself.

  1. In The Perfect Score Project you expressed the need for “a pencil or pen and paper to feel like something is sticking.” How did the process of writing by hand as opposed to keyboarding help you prepare for the SAT?

While preparing for the SAT, I discovered that I dislike online learning, which surprised me because I love computers. I felt a need to write by hand in order to make what I was learning stick.

Subsequently, while writing the book, I discovered research that substantiated what I had felt: there is a connection between handwriting and learning.

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, finds that handwriting differs from typing in that it requires executing sequential strokes, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. Her research shows that handwriting increases brain activity, hones fine motor skills, aids memory, and can even predict a child’s academic success in ways that keyboarding cannot.

  1. During the project, you enrolled as a student in your local Kumon Center. What did you learn from your experience as a Kumon student?

First of all, relearning grade-school arithmetic was easy.

Remembering what I’d learned was hard!

The SAT is a test of speed as much as reasoning. There is no time to pause and try to remember or reconstruct a familiar piece of knowledge. Facts (vocabulary, grammar, math) must be ingrained to the point of automaticity in order to do well on the SAT.

According to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, proficiency is achieved only through extended, repeated practice.

My experience at Kumon taught me that automaticity takes far more practice than I had ever imagined.

  1. Although your children weren’t introduced to Kumon until their teens, your chapter on Kumon is titled Kumon: Get ‘Em While They’re Munchkins. Can you tell us why?

According to developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, “it takes years to consolidate a memory. Not minutes, hours, or days but years. What you learn in first grade is not completely formed until your sophomore year in high school.”

In addition, if you wait until high school to enroll your child in Kumon–as I did–you’ll meet much greater resistance. It’s harder to instill work habits at that age. Best to start early.

  1. How important is having a strong foundation in reading, writing, and math when it comes to preparing for the SAT?

Great test prep works only if you have a solid foundation in math, reading, and writing. Good test prep programs assume students have already spent many years learning the basics.

None of the tricks in the test-prep books can compensate for a weak foundation. This was a painful lesson for me when it came to math. I spent the most time on the math section, and my scores went nowhere.

My critical reading score, on the other hand, went up by 80 points and my writing score by 110. Those are enormous gains, according to the research. The average score gain after test prep is 5-10 points on reading, and 10-20 points on the math.

My score gains are explained by the fact that I had spent 23 years in publishing before starting the SAT project. Two decades of professional experience marketing and editing books left me with a rock-solid foundation in all things verbal.

My score gains were the result of expert test prep on top of a solid foundation.

  1. What do you want parents to take away from The Perfect Score Project?

I hope parents will see my experience as a ringing endorsement of equipping their children with a solid academic foundation. “Practice” is often denigrated as “rote memorization” or “drill and kill.”

But as I often remind my daughter, “You won’t get to Carnegie Hall with a great teacher alone. It takes a great teacher and great practice.”

Encourage practice.