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"True Learning?"—Tutoring, Standardized Tests, And Academic Coaching

August 11, 2008

[Updated: 8/12/08]

To clarify a potentially suggested topic from this post’s title, this is not a piece wherein I discuss the British university system’s position of “tutor” or the “tutorial” means of educating undergraduates. That’s a worthy topic, however, for I wonder if American higher education needs to look backward for solutions to it’s adjunct problem. The positions of tutor and lecturer (used somewhat here in the U.S.) might give those on the treadmill toward a professorship a more defined sense of identity with higher education administrators? Then again, maybe “tutor” seems demeaning in light of how the term is used in the United States? I digress.

What I really want to discuss today is the distinction between a private tutor and an academic coach, and what that might mean for learners and the notion of learning. Some of these terms are defined in a quick-and-dirty way at Wikipedia. Here are some excerpts:

Private tutors

A private tutor is a private instructor who teaches a specific educational subject or skill to an individual student or small group of students. Such attention allows the tutor to improve knowledge or skills far more rapidly than in a classroom setting. Tutors are often privately hired and paid by the student, the student’s family or an agency. Many are used for remedial students or others needing special attention; many provide more advanced material for exceptionally capable and highly motivated students, or in the context of homeschooling.

Academic coaching

Academic coaching is an evolution of mentoring applied to academics. Mentoring implies the student is an empty vessel into which knowledge is poured. Coaching involves a more collaborative approach, assuming the student is already in the “game” of learning. Coaches help students learn how they best learn and how to operate in an academic environment. Coaches help students learn the material in individual courses while coaches help students learn how to be successful in school. In college, that includes such topics as: study skills, time management, stress management, effective reading, note-taking, test-taking, and understanding how to use a syllabus. …Some highly motivated, high-achieving students will have a coach to improve their learning efficiency. Academic coaching also occurs to help students prepare for entrance exams to gain entry to schools or universities.

These definitions are relatively fine with me. I cut a few redundant or implicit statements, as well as a few examples, but the distinction is here as laid out by Wikipedia.

The cause of my train of thought on this distinction, and the subject of tutoring in general, was instigated by this recent Chicago Tribune Magazine story. The article focuses on a fellow by the name of Matthew Pietrafetta and his tutoring/academic coaching company called Academic Approach. The piece was authored by Jessica Reaves and published August 3.

I want to ruminate on the story because the issues it raises range far beyond testing, test prep, and the distinction between coaching and tutoring. What follows is an orderly excerpting of the article interspersed with commentary.


“The Education of Matthew Pietrafetta…and the stratospheric rise of Chicago’s own test-prep empire”

By Jessica Reaves

For generations of high school students, prepping for the SAT/ACT involved little more than getting a reasonable night’s sleep, consuming something resembling breakfast and, if there was time, unearthing a functional No. 2 pencil.

TL: This is pretty much how I prepared for the ACT. I think I bought a test prep book for my second testing, but I wouldn’t call my use of that book “organized.” I also bought a test prep book for my GRE sitting. But I attended no organized course offered by a company like Kaplan for Princeton Review.

Today-thanks to record numbers of high school seniors applying to colleges-the game has changed. Cutthroat competition, once limited to students gunning for spots at top-tier schools, is a fact of life for anyone applying to college-or hoping to land one of those increasingly crucial financial aid packages. All of which means more weight than ever is placed on the alchemy that has come to be known as The Score.

This is the marker of how well one performs on college entrance exams: the SAT and the ACT. Thanks in large part to a systemic, unquestioning fixation on categorization and ratings, The Score is very important during the application process-after which time it fades into the background and eventually (it’s true, I promise) is completely forgotten.

TL: I’ve seen applicants mistakenly, and somewhat humorously, cite their ACT/SAT scores even on graduate school applications. Sigh.

But for a year or so, when admissions-related anxieties are at their peak, The Score has the power to drive people to do crazy things-including, but not limited to, forking over obscene amounts of money to test preparation outfits, such as perennial powerhouses Kaplan Inc. and the Princeton Review.

TL: I don’t know how much these cost in other areas of the country, but in Chicago a test prep course seems to run about $1500 or a bit more.

Exactly what students (and their parents) get for their money is a point of ongoing debate: Although no one has definitively proven that the courses are responsible for markedly higher scores, most test-takers do see at least some improvement, and many nervous parents apparently consider the fees (up to $2,000 for group classes and hundreds of dollars per hour for individual tutoring) money well spent.

TL: I concur. I’ve seen this with my advisees.

Take this as you will: The man whose Chicago-based company charges $100 to $240 per hour for private test-prep tutoring never used professional help preparing for his own entrance exams. The first person in his family to attend college, he did “OK, but not great” on his own SAT exam, and attended a good, but not great, school ( Trinity College in Connecticut), where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. It wasn’t until he attended graduate school, at Columbia University in New York, that he began to think seriously about test preparation methods-what worked for him, and what might work for other people.

When Matthew Pietrafetta decided to apply to Columbia’s English literature program, he knew he needed a strong verbal score on the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations). Rather than take a test prep course, Pietrafetta “took three *months and read an entire collegiate Webster’s dictionary,” he remembers. “I copied over into my personal lexicon every test-relevant word I did not know and its definition.” This novel idea-the merger of test preparation and legitimate intellectual enrichment-would become the cornerstone of Pietrafetta’s burgeoning career as an academic tutor, and, a few years later, of Academic Approach.

TL: What I know beyond this article about Academic Approach extends only as far as their website. That being said, I really like the last statement. In terms of the difference between tutoring and academic coaching, as laid out by Wikipedia, I would say that this leans more toward the coaching end of the spectrum.

Pietrafetta’s intellectual ambitions (“Test-taking can be a legitimate academic undertaking,” he insists) are captured in his company’s slogan, “Teaching Beyond the Test.” Yes, your scores will probably go up after taking an Academic Approach course. But that’s more or less incidental, Pietrafetta says. What you’ll never get from working with Academic Approach, he insists, is the feeling that you’re getting one over on the test. “I tell students, ‘Don’t game it. Don’t talk about tricks and tips. Don’t tell them, ‘When in doubt, pick ‘C.’ ” He laughs. “You’ll never hear that come out of my mouth.”

TL: It’s the incidental part of Mr. Petrafetta’s statement that self-identifies his company as a coaching endeavor. And I don’t mean this as a slight. I don’t believe that education institutions in general facilitate coaching skills in their teachers. Instructors of all types need to know how to excite people about–or promote—their subjects of concern. The inability to generate excitement about one’s discipline is perhaps the root of many misunderstandings about universities and even within them. I think that college and university historians, for instance, massively underestimate the amount of coaching they need to do in order make sure their subject, and the humanities in general, are “off the bubble” when administrators higher consultants to help with understanding institutional priorities.

Genesis: Academic Approach

When Judy Dimon first met Pietrafetta, she was, she says, “desperate” to find someone who could work with her then 14-year-old daughter, who had recently been diagnosed with an especially severe case of mononucleosis. …Her friends recommended an outfit called Advantage Testing, a boutique tutoring firm catering to many of Manhattan’s most demanding and exclusive schools. The tutor who showed up was Pietrafetta, who was supporting himself working as a tutor while he earned his master’s degree. The connection, Dimon says, was immediate. “I…saw,” she adds, “that rarest of things: a professional whose attributes are totally in line with his profession. It was an amazing sight, I have to say.”

That was 1999. In 2001, Judy and James Dimon (he’s now the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase) moved their family from New York to Chicago. After six years in Manhattan, Pietrafetta was ready for a change as well, and when Judy encouraged him to make the move-“She told me, ‘Come to Chicago, and I’ll help spread the word,’ ” Pietrafetta says-an idea began to percolate. Could he translate his obvious knack for tutoring into an autonomous business?

“Judy understood my educational ideals,” Pietrafetta says. “She knew I felt test prep could be a legitimate intellectual enterprise.” When he arrived here he found a city without a test-prep organization “with the ambitions I had-that sought to integrate test prep with an academic curriculum.”

TL: The problem isn’t test prep and whether it’s a “legitimate intellectual enterprise.” The problem with testing and test prep is when both become the foci or the sole intellectual enterprise of an educational institution. Life isn’t about one’s ability to pass event-oriented big tests, but about the ability to successfully navigate a million little “tests.” School should prepare you for everyday life and not just the big events. This is why people are not happy with how NCLB, the ACT, the GRE, and the MCAT have come to play such a big role in whether a student is “successful” in moving through professions. I digress…

And so, with what he calls Dimon’s “informal backing,” and armed with her invaluable introductions, Pietrafetta was ushered into the lucrative world of high-stakes test preparation services. His company, Academic Approach, was founded later in 2001. It has turned a profit, he reports, every year since.

The tutors [Pietrafetta] employs at Academic Approach’s quickly growing offices in Chicago (two here), Boston and New York are armed with their own laundry lists of degrees; students who are tutored in the Chicago office — comfortably situated in an airy Lincoln Park brownstone — might work with someone who holds a PhD in applied mathematics from Northwestern University, or a recent graduate of Stanford Law School.

Maybe it’s the historical tension between true academic achievement and serious financial success, but whatever the reason, it feels distinctly odd to jump from a conversation about high-minded tutoring technique to questions about capital infusions and expenditure rates.

Pietrafetta harbors no such qualms, befitting the man at the helm of a company that’s grown in seven years from two employees (Matthew and Lauren) to 75. In addition to offices in four locations, Academic Approach has an online tutoring program that allows students to take courses from just about anywhere with an Internet connection. The company has also partnered with The Economist; each student who signs up for an ACT or SAT prep course gets a subscription to the famously cerebral magazine. The articles, which touch on every aspect of foreign and cultural affairs, reports Pietrafetta, do more than boost students’ vocabularies in anticipation of a big test. “It really increases their comfort with unfamiliar topics,” he says, prompting them to turn an idea over in their heads, analyzing and probing until it becomes clear. This, says Pietrafetta, is the process behind true learning.

TL: Here are the keys to the kingdom: consistent engagement with challenging reading. This is the same principle that drove great books enthusiasts in their attempts to get great books read in college and after, in adult-oriented reading groups and post-baccalaureate programs.

As you might guess, this multifaceted, individual instruction doesn’t come cheap: One-on-one tutoring is Academic Approach’s most expensive option: The initial consultation, which involves two diagnostic tests, analysis and personalized plan of attack, costs $100. The hourly charge for actual tutoring depends on the instructor-his or her experience and tenure-but ranges from $100 to $240. Prices for online courses range from $699 for ACT and SAT combined, “comprehensive” classes to $149 for individual courses (SAT Grammar or ACT Science, for example).

TL: I once calculated that, after in-class time, grading, office hours, I was paid a bit more than $5 per hour for a course I taught at the City Colleges of Chicago. This was back in 2002, before CCC slightly increased it’s per-semester adjunct history pay rate.

Those prices, which are roughly on par with what is charged by The Princeton Review (which has 50 offices and 1,200 test-prep locations nationwide) and other test-prep behemoths, keep services out of reach for a lot of high school students. And until recently, Academic Approach seemed more focused on trumpeting its association with some of the country’s most elite schools-including Groton, Taft and Chicago’s own Francis Parker-than addressing economic accessibility issues. In March of 2008, however, the company announced a partnership with Hales Franciscan High School on Chicago’s South Side, which includes the donation of a “full suite” of online ACT test-prep materials for the junior class, as well as vocabulary and English “builders” for freshmen and sophomores.

The ABCs (yes, and Ds) of testing

In the crowded and often confounding universe of academic testing, there are two distinct categories: The “achievement tests” and the “aptitude tests.” While nothing about these tests-from their controversial roots as elitist yardsticks to their accuracy as predictors of academic success-invites easy consensus, most people can agree on one thing: Achievement tests (which include Advanced Placement exams and the SAT-II) attempt to measure students’ depth of knowledge in a particular area (say, French language), and aptitude tests (the SAT and the ACT) are designed more to measure students’ aptitude for test-taking.

TL: But I’m sure there’s a high correlation between achievers in both settings.

In 1926, responding to calls for a standardized college admissions test, Princeton University psychologist Carl Brigham recast the Army’s Alpha exam as the SAT. (At the time, SAT stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” Today, the acronym has no meaning). The ACT was introduced 30 years later, and for decades, the tests were administered along a geographical divide: The ACT ruled in the Midwest, while the SAT was de rigueur elsewhere. Today, although more students are taking both tests, registration for the ACT is climbing at a much sharper rate. This may be partly due to the fact that as the ACT gains national recognition and is accepted by more universities, students are no longer choosing one test over another. Instead, they’re taking both.

TL: Good research by Reaves. I had never heard of this geographical demarcation for the tests. And it explains why the SAT was not pushed in my high school—although we all took the P-SAT.

The SAT and ACT are very different tests. While the former measures reasoning and problem-solving skills, the latter is curriculum-based. A completely unscientific survey of the Web sites at the nation’s big test prep companies indicates that the SAT is still considered “the” test for anyone with designs on the country’s top colleges. The ACT is, however, an increasingly legitimate (and increasingly popular) choice for students who are interested in less competitive schools, whose math skills are stronger than their verbal skills, who don’t do well with time restraints or who would prefer not to write an essay- which is mandatory on the SAT, but an optional component of the ACT.

TL: This would explain, in part, why Midwestern students might’ve formerly had a hard time gaining entrance in East and West Coast schools. This is clearly just another from of past structural discrimination in education.

Reporting methods also vary: Historically, every SAT score was averaged and reported to colleges, while the ACT allows students to take the test as many times as they like (at $30-$45 a pop) before choosing which scores to send to colleges.

How important are these tests, really?

Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is outspoken in lamenting what he calls the “obsession, worry and expense” surrounding standardized tests. His 1999 book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, raised significant questions about the function and reliability of the SAT.

These days, he’s asking those questions as a member of the inelegantly named Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission, which is operated by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Charged with developing a set of recommendations for interpreting and using test results in the admissions process, the commission will publish its findings later this year.

But while most people agree that Americans get much too worked up about standardized tests, revolutionary change doesn’t appear to be on the immediate horizon. That’s partly because, Lemann says, there are no reliable studies that definitively prove or disprove the usefulness of the tests. Another issue, says Lemann, is the inherent inscrutability of the admissions process. “We don’t know how much attention colleges actually pay to scores,” he says.

Every college admissions committee weighs test scores differently; larger schools weed out applicants who don’t reach a baseline score, while smaller colleges, with a smaller applicant pool, can mull scores alongside grades, individual recommendations and essays. Some schools take it a step further; according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a non-profit group dedicated to dismantling the “biased” standardized testing industry, as many as 740 schools have bowed to long-standing criticism that the tests favor middle-class white kids (epitomized by the infamous “oarsman: regatta” analogy question) by removing the tests from their admissions requirements. In other words, they’ll accept scores, but don’t require them-a distinction that doesn’t send quite the same message as, say, eliminating scores from the process altogether. The 740 schools run the prestige gamut-from Bennington and Dickinson Colleges to the various branches of DeVry University.

TL: Agreed on the elimination versus accepting issue. If you’re not looking at them, don’t accept them.

Some educators also dislike the tests-which reward precision, speed and strategy-because they fly in the face of true learning. The SAT and ACT are, in essence, the antithesis of the Socratic method, that venerable educational practice of discussion and inquiry, in which “right” and “wrong” answers don’t exist, and the only goal is to expand students’ intellectual horizons.

TL: There’s that phrase again: “True Learning.” Those who know me will know my proclivity toward the Socratic, inquiry-based side of the debate. But I’ve also performed in standardized test situations. I think it’s because of this, and because I know what I haven’t known at those test times, that I favor the qualitative side of these debates. I was a successful test-taker but ignorant of the things in life that matter.

Are test prep courses worth the price?

Virtually any test-prep course, from Princeton Review to a few tutoring sessions with the neighborhood math whiz, is going to bump scores at least slightly. But Academic Approach claims to do more than that: The company says its courses improve SAT scores by an average of 386 points (out of 2400), and ACT scores by 5.4 points (out of 36). Clients, of course, are a more accurate gauge. Judy Dimon is unequivocal in her praise of Academic Approach (“If all teachers were like the tutors there, we’d have no educational problems,” she says) and of Pietrafetta. “To this day,” she continues, “every one of his students and their parents adore and respect him, and know he is there for them in the most holistic, meaningful way. His aspirations for these kids are high but realistic. He really is exceptional.”

TL: Well, we know without a doubt that Ms. Judy Dimon has no doubts. Pietrafetta can romance the parents with results. What of the students?

Will O’Shaughnessy, who took the Academic Approach ACT prep course in the fall of 2005, as a junior at The Latin School of Chicago, is slightly more measured. “I had a really great experience overall,” he says. “AA does a lot more individual work than Princeton Review or Kaplan. They’re really good at developing relationships with their students; they really take a vested interest.” He chose the course for a couple of reasons: His sister had a great experience with it, the office is close to his high school, and, he says, “it sort of has a reputation at my high school as the place to go.”

TL: How well would O’Shaughnessy have done without Academic Approach? Did he take the ACT on his own before working with the company?

O’Shaughnessy, who will be a sophomore at Yale this fall, says that while he’d recommend Academic Approach to other people, he actually did a lot of his prep work on his own, taking practice tests and getting a feel for the material. He reserves his only gripe for the culture surrounding standardized tests, which he calls “highly overvalued.” He goes on, “It’s really good to see some schools . . . getting away from standardized tests: They can only test so much. Who’s to say that one kid deserves to go to a certain school more than another because that kid happened to get a couple more questions right on a single Saturday morning?”

TL: Despite the fact that I agree with O’Shaughnessy’s assessment of testing overvaluation, I still have no answer to my before-and-after question.

There are plenty of people who agree with that sentiment-and it’s certainly possible that in 10 years companies such as Academic Approach will have shifted their attention to a new breed of tests.

What those new tests might look like is anyone’s guess. Nicholas Lemann favors a national achievement test. “Of all the current tests,” he says, “the one I like best is the AP, because it’s the most predictive of performance.” He, like Pietrafetta, believes tests should be based on curricular alignment, or, as he puts it, “the mastery of a course.”

TL: I too like the AP credit set up. And it’s value is more tangible in that you actually have AP credits for any college who’ll accept them. But if we shift to AP as our new ACT/SAT/admissions test, then we’ll get another numbers game: the number of AP credits you earn will determine your college. It’s well known, however, that poor and rural schools do not have the resources to offer AP courses. AP wasn’t even offered at the rural western Missouri high school from which I graduated in 1989.

Even amidst a growing chorus of questions and criticisms, the SAT and ACT clearly aren’t going anywhere. For the time being, they’ll remain firmly embedded in the American educational experience.

Which is just as well for Pietrafetta, because he has a dissertation to finish, the topic of which, fittingly enough, is the Bildungsroman (the genre of novel that follows a protagonist through his or her formation or development. Literally, it means “education novel”).

“Narratives of development-and what it means to ‘come of age’ -have always fascinated me,” says Pietrafetta. “I’m fascinated by how young people acquire the knowledge they need to succeed in the world-and how that knowledge, and that success, is measured.”

Pietrafetta expects the dissertation to be finished and defended by October. Then, he says, he wants to tackle a new project: writing a book about his experiences as the father of a special-needs child, and about being a tutor. In that order.


In thinking more about measureable gains, I visited Academic Approach’s “Results” page. Using a students’ “initial diagnostic score,” they track absolute student gains and what they call “Approach Points” (explained on their page). But there is no data there about their clients’ socioeconomic background, demographics, prior official test results, etc. I wonder how much Academic Approach can help a poor South or West Side high schooler versus those on Chicago’s relatively affluent North Side? Like any human system, I’m sure there’s an element of “solid kid in” equals “even better kid out.” But even with my critical question unanswered, I’m happy to know there are coaching/tutoring businesses out there that are focused on more than just test tactics. We might agree on a definition of “pure learning,” but who does? – TL


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