Who are they? | October 31, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - October 31, 2008

Who are they?

Tutors and counselors speak up about background, motivations

by Michael Hamada

When Lisa Jacobson graduated from Stanford University in the spring of 1981, little did she know she would one day take the talent she had honed in the fifth grade to help define a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Jacobson began tutoring classmates in elementary school and went on to tutor fellow students while attending Stanford, but only found her true niche in test preparation after graduating from college.

"It wasn't until one of my students approached me with questions about the SAT did I really see the opportunity to create a business out of test-prep," Jacobson said.

According to Jacobson, when she first started Inspirica, her New York-based tutoring and test-preparation company, almost nobody received tutoring for the SAT or ACT tests — making Inspirica one of the world's only test-preparation companies in 1983.

Fast forward a couple decades and tutoring services are now a ubiquitous sight in Silicon Valley.

The test-preparation industry was estimated to be a $3.3 billion industry in 2007 by IBIS World, an industry market-research company. It includes international corporations as well as independent tutors and has seen a giant increase in revenue over the past five years.

The trend towards growth is clear locally. The Palo Alto branch of Kaplan Test Preparation — the industry-leading test preparation company — saw a 20 percent increase in students from 2004 to 2005.

There is little or no regulation of such companies, however. The state has no oversight of private firms, according to David Kopperud, an education-programs consultant at the California Department of Education.

Anyone can anoint herself a college-preparation coach or tutor, or join the major firms that have arisen. But who actually does?

In fact, among workers who have flocked to the booming pre-college industry, many followed a path similar to the one Jacobson took more than 25 years ago. 

Most tutors are highly educated graduates of the "elite" schools to which today's high school seniors are attempting to gain acceptance. They scored well on the SAT or ACT and recently went through the college-admission process — including years of tutoring themselves.

Kaplan and fellow industry leader Princeton Review recruit from universities near test-prep centers for temporary teaching positions. They require tutors to have scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT or ACT. Then they train teachers in instruction based on company-branded, standardized workbooks.

Simply having an elite education is enough of a qualification for Allen Koh, a 2003 Stanford graduate who founded Cardinal Education shortly after graduation.

Koh calls any requirement for degrees higher than a bachelor's "a sham" and hires only recent graduates of prestigious schools for his tutoring and consulting service. Fliers to become a tutor litter Stanford campus.

The formula seems to be working — in less than four years, Cardinal Education has flourished throughout the Bay Area and even opened up an office in South Korea. It now employs up to 100 employees and part-time tutors, Koh said.

Despite the jobs' perhaps cookie-cutter qualifications, the incentive for bright, young tutors to join the firms is clear. Tutoring is an easy way to gain work experience, earn extra money — and help peers with whom the recent graduates closely identify. 

"I was used to helping others with their SAT math problems, so being a tutor came naturally to me and I wanted to make some money on the side," said Akshay Udiavar, a former tutor for Fremont-based Excel Test Prep. He had just gone through the process himself, including taking classes at Excel during his junior year of high school.

His own earlier experience with tutoring helped correct mistakes and raised his standardized testing scores, Udiavar said.

For Palo Alto High School graduate and current Stanford University student Mackenzie Lee, tutoring is a way to support distressed peers.

"Being a graduate from Palo Alto High School, I understand the stress students are going through and I want to help out," Lee said. Lee tutored in more than four subjects during high school and later for Ivy Insiders, a test-prep company that guarantees higher SAT increases than Kaplan and Princeton Review.

According to Jacobson, Inspirica takes a different approach than others, employing

tutors who are considered experts in their fields and flying each tutor to the student for one-on-one tutoring sessions. 

Beyond larger firms and their frequently standardized materials — often focusing on individual tests — private tutors offer personalized college preparation. They say they enjoy the close bonds they form with students, and many have a background working in schools, such as Kay Van Der Burg, a teacher-advisor in Paly's in-school mentoring system, called advisory, as well as an Advanced Placement English teacher.

Van Der Burg said many students prefer private counselors over larger companies because they develop a one-on-one connection with each other.

"I get to know the students so well because we talk a lot about what their goals are," she said.

College counselor Barb Reis was drawn from teaching to counseling by the special connection it builds between student and teacher.

"I was an English teacher, but it was frustrating to have big classes in public schools and not really relate one on one with the students," she said. Reis has been a college counselor for 14 years, worked as an AP English teacher and journalism advisor and has a master's in educational counseling.

Although individual tutors speak of the rewarding feeling of helping their charges by boosting confidence and test scores, some argue the college-preparation industry as a whole is harmful. Preying on insecurities and fears, it disproportionately amps up the importance of test scores and turns the focus from finding the right college to getting into the best college, goes the argument.

Not so, according to tutors and even parents interviewed by the Weekly. Rather, preparation eases the stress inherent in the application process, they argued.

"There's a certain emotional security in taking a prep course," according to Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter. Mathews compiles an annual — and well-publicized — list of the nation's best, most competitive high schools. "But good pressure can come from the kids themselves, and can often be motivational," he said.

Van Der Burg said parents don't want to deal with stressed-out kids, so they hire college counselors to take some of that stress away from the home.

And Jacobson's position is simple. Stress is inevitable, she said.

"It's come to a time when students are coming to us for tutoring after getting 700s in each SAT section." There are too many kids applying for the same college seats and Inspirica helps sort through the intense competition, Jacobson said.

"Because of the demographic bulge, there's nothing anybody can do to change the increasing competitiveness, so we've instead taken the opportunity to educate our families as to what they should and should not be worried about."

For Koh, the emphasis on achievement — particularly in Palo Alto, where many parents are affiliated with Stanford University and three-quarters of the population has a college degree — isn't a matter of placing the bar too high. Instead, it's a way to show teens what they are capable of.

"Education is such a huge investment and parents want the best for their kids," Koh said. "I love my business because it's more than just tutoring; I get to show children that they have more potential than they think they do."

Michael Hamada is a senior at Palo Alto High School and editor-in-chief of school's newspaper, The Campanile. He can be e-mailed at Mhamada09@paly.net. Kaytee Comee contributed to this article.

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