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The Evolving Business of Tutoring and Test Preparation

The Evolving Business of Tutoring and Test Preparation

The tutoring and test preparation industry is growing up.  It’s about time and it represents a great opportunity for existing companies willing to become more professional and improve their services.  It also represents a great opportunity for people looking to start a tutoring or test preparation business.

Historically, the barrier to entry in tutoring and test preparation has been very low.  Anyone that had subject matter expertise or demonstrated testing competency could claim the title ‘Tutor’ or ‘Test Preparation Professional’.  Decades ago, the process was usually parents hiring college and high school students directly.  Tutoring looked like a student who had received A’s in a subject helping a younger student with the same subject.  Test preparation was very informal and amounted to the student taking practice exams and getting help from someone who had previously scored well on the test.  The lack of professionalism matched the informality of the relationship and the relatively low cost.

Today, tutoring and test preparation is a multi-billion dollar industry with companies receiving very professional level fees for their services.  The reality is that for the majority of these companies, the practice has largely remained unchanged.

Look a bit deeper into the reality of most tutoring and test preparation companies and this is what you will find:

  • Step one: Hire instructors who possess strong communication skills and who have demonstrated mastery of the subject they will be teaching.
  • Step two:  For tutoring; meet with the parent to understand the student’s needs and match them with a tutor.  Despite what companies claim about “advanced” or “highly tailored” tutor matching, matching almost always boils down to finding a subject matter expert with the right availability. For test preparation; have the student take a practice test, meet with the parent to review the test, set goals,  have the student take practice test sections, and then have the instructor help the student with the problems the student missed.  Training is almost non-existent.

Rinse and repeat.

This has been the model for the past forty years.  A few larger companies claimed to develop unique and comprehensive approaches and curriculums, but much of this is lost in practice.  Tutoring has continued to default to tutor matching. Curriculum for most test preparation companies amount to repackaging of a standard canon of test taking “strategies”.  The industry has seen very little in the way of practical evolution.

I believe that there are several reasons why the industry has resisted evolving in professional practice.  First is that tutoring and test preparation basically works without standards of best practice, training and development, and comprehensive research-based pedagogical approaches.   Tutoring works in that when a student is matched with a personable subject matter expert, the student most often receives a jump in his or her school performance.

Results have been more difficult to come by in test preparation as demonstrated by two national studies that have shown little improvement after test preparation courses.  Still, many students do achieve results after test preparation courses.  Particularly if they are receiving one-on-one instruction.

So why is the industry beginning to evolve?  What’s wrong with the status quo?

Let’s look at the basic tutoring and test preparation model.  A student has difficulty with a subject and does poorly on tests.  The student receives help, feels better about the material, and does better on exams.  By default, and without proper training and support, well intentioned instructors explain what the student fails to understand.  What could possibly be wrong with this?

The problem is that this model largely does not solve the underlying cause of why students struggle in the first place.  Students learn that they can do well if they get help from the expert. It largely does not support the knowledge, skills, and insight that develops the student’s own intelligence and ability to learn independently. Students receive a message that there is something fundamentally different about them and their instructors while reinforcing the student’s core problems.

In short, this model fails to help students learn how to learn.  If we are not teaching students how to use their intelligence and how to become independent learners, then we are missing the point of an education and doing the student a large disservice.

Companies across the country are beginning to realize that with the right training, support, and curriculum, their instructors can make much larger impacts on their students’ achievement. They are developing pedagogical approaches that actively engage their students’ intelligence in profound ways.  They are providing their students with research-based approaches which develop the skills, insight, and knowledge required for powerful critical thinking and problem solving.  Rather than simply helping their students to survive their education, these companies are helping their students to thrive.

LearnSpeed has been an integral part of this movement.  Beginning in 2004, our first objective was to address issues related to data management.  Doing this has helped companies to reclaim significant resources while at the same time provided efficient ways for administration to gather valuable data about their student and instructor performance. Together, we are helping companies to develop cost effective instructor training and development programs.  In addition, LearnSpeed is licensing SAT, ACT, and ISEE test preparation programs backed by research and over twenty years of practical experience.

We are seeing that the bar is raising in our industry, providing significant opportunities for the companies with the most experience.  Opportunities are also created for new companies willing to adopt higher standards and best practices.

Ultimately, it’s the students that benefit.