One-on-one Tutoring: Bridging the Achievement Gap
by AT President and Founder Arun Alagappan

September 30, 2005

Business Today

This article was adapted for publication in Business Today, the nation's largest student-run magazine. Produced for students entirely by Princeton University undergraduates, Business Today has an estimated readership of 200,000.

Evidence abounds to support the perception that Americans are underperforming academically. The most recent International Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) indicates that, in a test of math skills among eighth-graders from 46 countries, the United States-despite its unparalleled resources-ranked 15th. Yet Americans think they do better, ranking themselves 4th overall when asked to assess their own performance. Conversely, students from the five highest-performing nations rank themselves 28th, 38th, 41st, 44th, and 45th, respectively. American students reflect our national paradox: we speak confidently, even righteously, about the value of education, but our actions fall short. This problem demands a new educational approach. I propose a model that can be leveraged on a national scale, calling upon private enterprise with relentlessly high standards and a social conscience to offer a substantive contribution. Tutoring by exceptional tutors is the solution.

Tutoring, with its ineluctably low student-teacher ratio, may not seem like the most intuitive approach to improving education for the masses. But good tutoring is efficient, and stunningly effective. One-on-one instruction goes straight to the heart of education: the exchange between teacher and student. The mentoring relationship that can develop inspires the student to learn. Tutoring sessions offer nowhere to hide, confirming the student's preparedness or exposing the lack thereof. Outside the classroom setting, where academic responsibility necessarily disperses among the many, tutor and student must assume a greater individual obligation. Through custom-designed programs that meet specific goals, a tutor can impose rigorous standards while remaining sensitive to each student's particular strengths and weaknesses.

The effects of this type of teaching are astonishing. When working with outstanding tutors, students often perform better even in their untutored subjects. Many end up choosing majors in areas once considered their academic weakness. Why? Under excellent tutelage, students learn to break down material into discrete components, study systematically, manage their time, and develop the capacity for sound reasoning. Skills learned in a tutorial session for one discipline are transferable, whether consciously or subconsciously, to other disciplines. Tutoring provides concrete opportunities to instill academic common sense: practice extensively, reread carefully, revise written material, study in advance, sleep well, and eat well to promote the ancient Greek ideal of a "sound mind in a sound body." Most important, tutored students often learn to derive pleasure from studying per se. As they face and meet exacting standards, they become more intellectually sure-footed and their confidence grows.

Tutoring works. Evidence from various continents down through the millennia confirms this fact. While tutoring Plato and other leading thinkers of his time, Socrates perfected the classical Greek model. In theory and in practice, tutoring has always played a central role in European and Asian education at primary, secondary, and university levels. John Locke asserted its importance in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, exhorting readers to spare no effort or expense when seeking tutors: "I dare assure you that if you can get a good one, you will never repent the charge." Over the last few decades, the tutoring industry's considerable growth worldwide-in developing as well as developed countries-further attests to its value. After-school learning programs are common in Europe and as standard as school itself in Asia. In much of Asia, teachers and tutors are as highly valued as medical doctors. Is it any wonder, then, that in the aforementioned TIMSS study, the five highest-performing countries are Asian? Now a vast and growing field worldwide, tutoring displays the differentiation we would expect to see in a mature industry: some companies follow dispiritingly low standards while others aspire to, and attain, the highest.

While the industry evolves, the educational value of excellent tutoring endures. Oxford and Princeton, among other leading universities, make it a priority to expose students to one-on-one academic work through, for example, weekly tutorials, junior papers, or thesis advising. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal even went so far as to suggest replacing college altogether, especially the costliest college options, with a privately organized tutorial system. This radical proposition may be less than desirable, given the range of experiences that only traditional colleges can provide, but it does suggest that thoughtful individuals are considering both the efficacy of tutoring and original ways to deploy it. In any forum, educators, parents, and students value first-rate tutoring because tutorials pack a serious educational punch. They impel students to produce quality work in a way that group settings simply do not. Tutors can teach individuals not just how to master specific skills but, in a larger sense, how to learn.

This tradition of one-on-one teaching is what I had in mind when I founded Advantage Testing in 1986. Headquartered in Manhattan, Advantage Testing now has national and international locations that attract approximately three thousand students annually, strictly through word of mouth. We approach academics and preparation for standardized tests as powerful vehicles for first-rate teaching and learning. In setting the highest internal standards for teachers and students alike, we have found that rigorous, long-term preparation, earnestly delivered by accomplished academics, can in turn be a profoundly educational experience for students. To the best of our knowledge, our students achieve the highest median test-score increases of students enrolled in any tutoring organization in the nation. Even more telling, however, is the feedback we frequently hear from students that they have learned to study, think, and write more effectively. In January 1999, the New York Times Magazine summarized our approach in a feature article: "In the end, [Advantage Testing] is simply bringing to the SAT's the same qualities we most value in any teacher-passion, patience, clarity, inspiration." More recently, in June 2005, the New York Times described Advantage Testing as an opportunity for students not just to improve their test scores but, more significantly, "to gain a systematic approach to learning" itself.

While demystifying standardized tests, we should once and for all debunk the false dichotomy that has emerged between test preparation and academics. Students best prepare for standardized tests by developing math, verbal and logical reasoning skills, studying hard, and applying their learning independently. Tutoring spurs this process. As an approach to the problem of educational disparity, it has enormous potential. Of course, students must work very hard. But isn't that the point? As the New York Times reported in 1999, "At the heart of [Advantage Testing's] approach is the egalitarian belief that effort pays off." Far from being scapegoated as a threat to meritocracy, tutoring should be an active, integral part of the solution for bridging achievement gaps. As adaptable as it is effective, tutoring requires few investments beyond the right instructor and a quiet room, making this approach suitable for all students.

In teaching, as in most human endeavors, setting the bar high stimulates achievement. Essential to this process are the selection and training of bright, empathetic, and energetic teachers who have themselves scored in the top percentile of standardized tests and achieved the highest academic honors. If we blend the best of private enterprise with public service, we can create better teachers, students, and teacher-student relationships.

As effective as tutoring is, it must also be accessible. Through more than a dozen initiatives, Advantage Testing provides pro bono instruction and financial support to public service organizations, substantial financial aid to students with demonstrated need, and money for numerous scholarship funds. We are deeply involved with Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA), Prep for Prep, and the Princeton University Preparatory Program. These non-profit organizations nurture the academic and leadership potential of exceptional students of socioeconomic backgrounds that are underrepresented at selective institutions of higher learning. Along with leading educators including several university presidents, I serve on the Charter Board of Trustees of LEDA, a promising organization whose explicit mission it is to equalize educational opportunity. I also serve on the Board of Trustees of Prep for Prep, and Advantage Testing provides pro bono tutorial services and support to both these and numerous other like-minded organizations.

No matter how we regard it, economic disparity is a reality. 71% of America's wealth is concentrated in the hands of 10% of the population. Ivy League schools, themselves potential engines of socioeconomic mobility, draw 72% of their students from the top 20% of our economic ladder. Yet, with their high tuition, these schools provide outstanding academics along with financial aid and, increasingly, full scholarships-led by Princeton's groundbreaking decision to replace all student loans with outright grants. Advantage Testing also charges high tuition, but we too offer a valuable educational service coupled with numerous financial aid and pro bono options. This system is not perfect, but it is effective enough to implement concrete means of improving education among the less privileged.

Surely, it seems odd to address one of our nation's greatest public challenges by deploying a model distilled for more than two decades in the crucible of a private enterprise. But this model works. We urge others to consider doing what we do: draw from the pool of top academic achievers, train and compensate them well, and offer them realistic ways to teach paying as well as non-paying students. As a solution for the masses, tutoring can impose higher standards even when applied more broadly to schools to help American students improve their academic standing. While a smaller and highly selective group such as Advantage Testing can afford to draw from the top 1% of available teaching candidates, larger public and private institutions can themselves seek to attract the top 10% of candidates-candidates who might typically pursue their own education and careers in law, medicine, and other professions. Successful models are hard to come by, and we have one here. We owe it to ourselves and our nation to explore this potential solution for all those who need it most. In so doing, we can also bridge the achievement gap between American students and their counterparts around the world.