SAT Tutoring and Morality

To begin with, let me reiterate that I have run an SAT prep company for 23 years.  Obviously, I believe that taking an SAT course is beneficial, but I’m sure I have some bias.  However, since SAT prep is such a big business, I think it’s reasonable to assume that most people agree that it’s helpful.

I discovered many years ago that, not only is private SAT tutoring more effective than group instruction; it is vastly so.  I found that score increases for my private students dwarfed those of group students, and I have offered only private tutoring since.  Of course, making that decision also meant that I’ve made less money than I would have.

So I chose quality over profit. How altruistic of me! But hold on.  Private tutoring is more expensive for the student, even if the teacher earns less per hour.  And that means that only families that can afford private tutoring have access to the largest score increases. Is that unfair?



Image by yomanimus via Flickr


My best answer is: sort of. I’ve thought about this issue for a long time, and there are all sorts of easy rationalizations that can cloud one’s thinking. “I’m helping students. I can’t spend my time thinking of those I can’t help.”  “That’s how the world works.” And there’s always “if I don’t do it, someone else will.”

But it isn’t hard to find the fallacies in any of those statements. So let’s look a little deeper.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with SAT prep per se. When SAT teaching as a business took off in the 1980’s, there was plenty of backlash.  Part of that negativity arose from The College Board/ETS’s long-standing claim that the SAT couldn’t be taught. When change is afoot, complaints are never far behind. But clearly the SAT can be taught, just as the MCAT, LSAT, or GMAT can, and you don’t hear a lot of complaining about prep courses for those tests. But in those days, a lot of students simply lacked access to effective SAT courses, and they found themselves at a disadvantage.

Today, a student can easily find an SAT course, regardless of where he lives.  Online courses are an option. Some students rely only on prep books.  Very few go in “cold.” So I think we can put “prep is evil” thinking to bed. If everyone has access, and it’s effective, what could be wrong?

No – the question isn’t whether SAT teaching is unethical; it’s whether more effective, expensive teaching is. And that’s exactly what I’ve been offering for over two decades. To be sure, not every student we’ve taught has made a mammoth score increase. But our average increase is much larger than that of other SAT teachers in the area (brag, brag!), and it is easy to argue that we’re merely giving an advantage to those who have the bucks to spend.

As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have a definitive, self-serving answer to this question. I am motivated by offering the highest quality education that I can, and I have employed a half-baked solution to this moral dilemma.  Yes – our tutoring costs more than most SAT classrooms. But we also charge a lot less than many other private tutors do. That makes our course available to the middle class, even if it’s more of a burden that a group program would be.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best I’ve come up with. Thoughts?


7 comments on “SAT Tutoring and Morality

  1. […] SAT Tutoring and Morality ( […]

  2. Alexis Avila says:

    Excellent blog post. I really appreciate your candor, and thanks for backing up the good private tutors out there!

  3. As a private tutor in LA I have also dealt with the same inner battle. When I was at the age of preparing for the SAT I could not afford private tutoring….. What about the students out there who cannot afford the service I provide? This is the only reason I continue to do small group tutoring privately and with non-profit groups where the students/families do not directly pay. The score increases can be as great but I’ve never had an entire class improve the way I’d expect a private one-on-one student to improve. I’m always thinking about this and appreciated reading your blog. I don’t feel alone now 🙂

  4. Shahar Link says:

    Thanks Jon. Really enjoyed your thoughts here.

  5. Dennis Schulman says:

    Well said Jon. I have been teaching SAT prep for over thirty years. For a few years I was hired by a local university to give SAT classes for low economic students at four high schools in Sacramento . There was no cost to the students, but very few took advantage of it. For my classes, I advertise that scholarships are available for students who can’t afford the cost, but over all the years only a handful have asked for a scholarship. So, unfortunately, the greatest motivation for high SAT scores lies with the middle and higher economic class.

  6. SAT Prep isn’t as omnipresent as you might believe. We service small schools in upstate NY and my experience is that before we arrived those students did NOTHING to prepare. Even in our middle class, suburban districts it is safe to say that a third of the students go in cold. The other two thirds take courses with Kaplan, Princeton Review, and smaller agencies like ourselves. Prep helps immensely, as you have pointed out, so this presents an ethical dilemma with a test that touts itself as an ‘aptitude’ test. However, I do not see the dilemma as ours, rather it is with the stance that the College Board takes.

  7. Marie says:

    I’ve been fighting this morality issue more than ever lately. I work for a national tutoring company and our “cash cow” is the SAT and ACT prep we offer. Our tutors are excellent. They are educated, experienced, and really love what they do. They deserve way more than they are paid and the fact that we charge students (parents) quadruple what we pay, really troubles me. What is just as bad, if not worse, is when we get calls from parents whose students really need the prep and absolutely cannot afford it.

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