Four Improvements to our Educational System


By Mr. Justin Buffer, MSE, Founder, Owner, and Educational Director


As the Founder, Owner, and Educational Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey in North Brunswick, one of the area’s most successful tutoring organizations, people often ask me my opinion on education in America. When doing speaking engagements or interviews, I am often asked what we can do to make public education better in the United States. While I could write a comprehensive book on that subject, I want to talk here about four of many solutions that immediately leap to mind. The topic of public education is very complex, but these four broad themes would quickly point us in a better direction.


Self awareness

Self-Awareness: Number one would be to make students more aware of themselves. They are people with young minds, not a statistic that goes through the school system until successfully graduating. It is such a cliché, but they are our future. When I am saying self-aware, I mean they have to understand their own emotions. They need to have insight on why they do the things that they do and their motivation. Individuals who comprehend these concepts are better equipped to handle life. Sometimes we need to back away from the books and computers and help students in their maturity and personal development process.   This is often called “EQ” or “Emotional Intelligence” in the world of popular psychology.


How to think critically and constructively: Second, we need to teach our young people how to think. A great deal of schooling is preparing these kids for tests, whether for a particular class or the various standardized versions. Too often, this means having them learn facts or formulas without any practical application or context.   While rote memorization surely does have a role to play in the learning process, by training students to think through a situation or problem, they are going to be better equipped to avoid tripping over obstacles in their future.

A simple illustration of this is how we teach history, politics, and government, which I did for many years in a public school classroom and now here at Cambridge. You can see by the state of the country that many Americans do not really comprehend how our government operates. Often, classes related to this subject score lowest on a student’s interest. The conventional way of teaching them is to do readings and lectures starting with 1776 and working their way to the present. If a history class is lucky, it might actually reach the twenty-first century by the end of the term. Rather than such a linear approach, let’s shake things up in an interesting manner. Usually, a common segment of history is teaching about great American inventions. Show the class an iPhone. Actually, since most of the students have a smartphone of some type, have them take it out and place on the desk. Talk about all the wonderful things it does and then work backward on the various incarnations of the telephone for the last 150 years until you get to Alexander Graham Bell. This tactic will help them appreciate and remember the phone’s development and possibly develop a deeper sense of gratitude for those who came before us. A teacher can use this same technique in explaining how the three branches of government operate. Make it pertinent!

Writing Skills

Writing skills enrichment across the board: A third item we need to address in schools is writing. Communication is so important in this day and age. It is imperative that students know how to write naturally and correctly. You rarely can boil down a complex issue into 140 characters. Teachers of all subjects need to work with their students on their writing ability. If a science teacher asks for a report, for example, then he or she should also be correcting and coaching the student on the writing itself, as well as the content. Another option is to have writing specialists in schools read what students compose for all their subjects and provide the insight for becoming a better writer. I have a friend who is an editor, and he cringes at the state of people’s writing in academia and business. He doesn’t understand how leaders in business or people with college and advanced degrees are able to effectively function with their writing ability. The only way a student will improve is to receive constant constructive feedback on how they write. It needs to be a focus in school for the good of our country.


Learning Gaps

Filling in learning gaps/unifying the curriculum: Last, but just as important, is that educators have to realize there are gaps in their curriculum. Standardized tests matter so much in determining a student’s and a school’s future. It is impossible for a student in Wyoming to learn exactly the same thing as a student in California or in New Jersey and vice-versa. Learning centers like Cambridge and others fill in these gaps. School districts have to acknowledge this situation and then seek out and work with those entities to prepare the student for their future.

After all, isn’t that what education is about? We are not looking just to have students graduate high school and move on. We want them to be prepared for the adult phase of their life. That is how we truly rate the fruits of education – with young people successfully moving on to higher levels of learning and/or to their careers.


Our educational system is truly the DNA that will determine the qualitative nature of our country’s future.   We must not just “invest” money in this vital component of our culture but also time, energy, and effort to implement new ideas to help us continue to be the thought leader of the free world.

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests

Mr. Buffer (NJ Licensed Teacher), the Founder, Owner, and Educational Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey,  was recently asked by a group of parents at a lecture what the most important things to know about the SAT Subject Tests were.     So, he decided to synthesize his remarks, based on and combined with answers to the most frequently asked questions he receives, into 8 major points below:


  1.  SAT Subject Tests are also called the “SAT 2”  Tests.  They are 1 hour each, typically composed of about 60 questions each.

  2.  SAT Subject Tests (SAT 2 Tests)  cannot be taken on the same test date as the regular SAT (known  as the SAT 1).

  3.  A student can take up to 3 subject tests on 1 test date.

  4.  The SAT Subject Tests are given in most major areas including Biology (Environmental and Molecular), Chemistry, Math I , Math II (PreCalculus and Trigonometry),  Spanish, French, Chinese,  Italian, German, Latin, U.S. History,  World History, Physics, and many of the foreign language tests listed also offer a Listening Section.

  5.  The SAT Subject Tests are not officially required for entrance to the vast majority of colleges, but some universities do require certain SAT Subject Tests to be considered for particular programs.  For example, many 7-year Medical programs do require the SAT Chemistry or SAT Biology (Molecular) test, and possibly a Math subject test.

  6.  Even though many schools do not require students to take these tests to be considered for Admission, great scores on these can be a very effective tool to help students make themselves more distinct amongst other applicants.   Mr. Buffer often tells parents the truth he has seen play out repeatedly that the Subject Tests can be the “Tie-breakers” between two students with equal GPAs, SAT Scores, and other indicators of high achievement. 

  7.  SAT Subject Tests are given all-year-round, when the regular SAT is offered, except for March.

  8.  School learning is not often enough to fully prepare students for a Subject Test because the content in school is not fully comprehensive.    Mr. Buffer often explains that the SAT Subject Test is a nationally-given test, which means the composition of the test is the same across the 50 states, but each state has its own curriculum.  So, inevitably, there will be necessary learning material omitted from a student’s education, or possibly not covered as in depth as is optimal for a stellar performance on the Subject Test.   This is why Cambridge Learning Center has become so successful at preparing students for these tests, because we teach the material that students don’t yet know, often unbeknownst to them.

Preparing Middle-School Students Long term for the SAT and ACT

The following article was adapted from a recent interview with Mr. Buffer about how to prepare middle school students for the SAT and ACT.



Question for Mr. Buffer:

What can I do to help my middle school student prepare long-term for the SAT and ACT?

Mr. Buffer:

That’s a good question. And I feel to answer it fully, I have to give some relevant background information.

One thing we have to remember is that when students take the SAT and ACT it is assumed that they know or have learned certain things. The tests are not meant to throw material at them that they weren’t supposed to have learned in high school. People often think it’s intended to be a special test that’s separate from what students are learning in school. Often, it is experienced just that way because learning across the nation, even across states, is not pedagogically or curricular unified. One major problem, for example, is that most high schools can’t cover, in depth, every bit of math that students are supposed to learn. They can’t cover every grammatical concept to the level they should, with students learning imperative, specific, and necessary vernacular, either. They might cursorily go over this required curriculum in middle school or even high school, but there is no time for students to learn everything as thoroughly as is needed to be fully prepared for what is to come in their future, high-stakes standardized tests. This impasse is where, I feel, our learning center has been so helpful because we have helped to fill in these gaps. Having worked and taught in the public schools, having a Masters Degree in Educational Theory and Practice, and founding, owning and directing, the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, I am keenly aware of what students are often not getting and learning in school.

Additionally, students go to very different high schools. Some high schools are more rigorous than others in the books they read. Some high schools are much less stringent than others in the books they read. Because this is so varied across schools, and even in individual classrooms, and the level of exposure to different material is so varied for middle school and high school students, not all students come prepared equally for the test. Or, they are part of an education system that is not super rigorous or where they aren’t urged to read a lot of nonfiction books, or maybe the particular teacher the student has isn’t inclined to want to read certain kinds of material because they as educators don’t have a strong preference for it.

So, not every student gets the same education all the time. Some students, many who are highly performing in schools, are often shocked when they come here (to Cambridge) for enrichment and for SAT/ACT prep, how much they don’t know. For instance, when a high school student goes to take the SAT Math II subject test, it is assumed that they have comprehensively learned laws of sines and cosines. Some high schools don’t cover trigonometry as well as others do, though, so we often find ourselves filling in many learning gaps on such topics.

So, now that I have given you some valuable background information, we will get to your core question of: “What can middle school students’ parents do to prepare long-term for the SAT and ACT?” Here are some ideas parents can keep in mind and start to integrate, and in our next segment I will expand upon these further:

Reading Varied Material: First, urge your child to be reading varied material. They can read grade-appropriate fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biographies, and science books. Many parents do not advise their children to read outside of the child’s comfort zone. Don’t be complacent with this! Push them into their discomfort zones! It is not always best for students to get comfortable with one kind of genre because when it comes time for the SAT/ACT they will have to be used to reading multiple types of material. I think the Harry Potter series and other series are great, for instance, but students can get so hooked on particular content or styles of writing, that it can hinder their academic and personal growth, including language and vocabulary acquisition.
I have seen many students held back because of their not varying their reading, thus keeping them lacking in important foundational knowledge. At Cambridge, we vigorously strive, in my Reading Program, to regularly diversify students’ reading exposure as part of our Reading Program.

Newspaper Reading: I also recommend middle-school students begin to read a local paper daily, if possible. This practice can be a very helpful way of them not just being informed but also learning new vocabulary and interesting facts regularly. Additionally, students should strive to read some op-ed articles that are at their reading level, in addition to news stories. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey is an excellent choice for this activity. This student practice can also be a great impetus for family discussions.

Summer Upkeep, Maintenance, and Foundational Strengthening: It is an unfortunate fact that just because students were promoted to the next grade level, it doesn’t mean they fully learned the material. Students, whether on vacation or at home, should study and review their learning from the previous school year, and if possible get summer tutoring help to plug needed holes in fundamentals understanding. At Cambridge, our Pro-Active Summer Program helps with this, but even if students can’t attend this, I always urge parents to get them review materials and to have them regularly study and review. Unfortunately, if students are moved on to the next grade level without fundamentals correction, the adverse effects can be cumulative and will affect their high school and SAT/ACT performance, and thus these students’ futures.

Implementing this tip each summer, though, will help students be more prepared for the SAT and ACT by keeping their Reading, Writing, and Math skills sharp.

In closing, let me just remind you that the SAT and ACT tests are assuming students will have learned certain things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is so. Varied reading and bringing them for enrichment outside of school to mitigate the effects of overcrowded classrooms can be very helpful. Whether fair or not, the SAT and ACT are important parts of the college admissions process and integrating these tips and other helpful advice will help prepare students for their future.

A few things to know about the New SAT coming in 2015

Many parents and students have been asking me about the new SAT that the College Board will roll out in 2015.   Here are a few important things to know about the test.   I will be posting a lot more about this topic as the release date comes closer.


1)  Content Consistency

The test will still test Reading, Writing, and Math skills as it always has.   These skills still form the core and fundamental skills that prepare one for college and for a lot of effective work in the world.    Many parents have asked me for the best way to prepare their younger students for the new SAT, and my reply is always the same:   There is no getting around and no question that the best way to prepare, both short-term and long-term, for the SAT and for college is to have your children read often, enhance their vocabulary,  enrich their math skills, learn and practice core grammar and writing rules beyond what they learn in school (where time is limited and depth is often not permitted), and to adopt rigorous study and work habits.  While the SAT will change its face and appearance, the content of what is being tested will remain the same.

Hard work

2)  2400 to 1600 / Elimination of the SAT Writing Section

Yes, the SAT will return to its original 1600 scoring basis that most of us over 30 remember.   The section that is being removed is the SAT Writing section, which many colleges view as irrelevant.    One thing that is significant to note about this section is that girls have done tremendously better than boys have on it, thus taking away one section in the competitive college admissions process that girls clearly outshone boys on.  Whatever the reason for this, it is important to take note of because there has been an achievement gap in overall SAT scores.

It is also important to note that the skills and knowledge that were being tested in the SAT Writing section- grammar, sentence structure, etc.-  will not go away.   Rather, they will be integrated into the test in a different format that is combined with the reading section.   What this shows is that the original reason for creating the section- to integrate writing and grammar skills (which are also still a big part of the ACT) is still of interest.

Lastly, the SAT Essay assessment will not exist in its current format, in which students write an essay 1and two graders’ assessments are combined for a total score.  Like the ACT (topic for a different post), the SAT will now make the SAT Essay optional.


3) Reading Passages and vocabulary to be more relevant

One of the most difficult things for many students about the current SAT is the arduous Critical Reading passages, which often use excerpts from seemingly archaic sources:  19th- century novels, a comparative essay from a social science journal from 1982, etc.   One of the core arguments against these passages is that they are unrelated to what students are learning in school.   The College Board will now make the Critical Reading Passages very relevant to students and take excerpts from primary sources that they are very familiar with, such as the ones they are exposed to in Social Studies class.

The same thing will happen with vocabulary.  Words like lugubrious and vapid will be replaced by words that students have had more exposure to.   It has become commonplace in education talk and in our culture in general for people to use the term “SAT Words.”   It has always seemed partly off that students would have to newly learn and then study words that were supposed to be part of an assessment of what they had already learned in high school.


While the SAT format changes, it doesn’t really change a few things.   First, that there will still be a natural bell curve and spread of scores that will reflect student ability levels.    Second, the SAT is still and will still be relevant for college admissions.   Tests such as the SAT and ACT are one of the only common denominators for comparing students from different regions who have different levels of rigor in their high schools.   And lastly, there truly are no shortcuts and no substitutes for hard work, rigorous study, and commitment.  As I alluded to earlier, the SAT has always required students to be able to analyze complex material, to be strong in Math, and to know how to perform under some pressure.  None of this will really change.