I would probably start with education, experience, results, constant reevaluation, and empathy. The last one is likely unexpected, but the idea of a teacher being good without being empathetic is misguided — a teacher may be able to pull this off, but not a tutor. To clarify, the difference between tutor and teacher has to do with the direction of the relationship. Teachers instruct in a one-to-many relationship, while tutors instruct in a one-to-one setting. What that setting allows, and tutors’ entire benefit, comes from the ability to customize an approach and adapt it in real time — what I’ll call constant reevaluation. Without this, a student would be equally served via a youtube video.
As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Matt Larriva.
Matt Larriva is the founder of Powerful Prep and is an expert in test-prep, test-taking, and the pre-college process.
In addition to publishing three books on test prep, Matt runs Powerful Prep, a leading concierge tutoring firm, dedicated to transparency, massive point gains, and customized curriculum. Powerful Prep hires only Ivy League grads, offers industry-leading point gains, and has the highest reviews of any college program in Southern California. The program has been featured multiple times on CBS as the premier test prep program in the LA area.
Matt has passed two of Degree Library’s 10 Hardest Exams in the World including the Mensa admissions exam, and the CFA exam — the test The Wall Street Journal called the world’s hardest test. Matt completed his undergraduate degree at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and has a Masters in Applied Statistics from UCLA. He is a semi-competitive powerlifter, and has played oboe at Carnegie Hall twice.
Feel free to reach out with any questions about test prep or the pre-college process. Matt loves to see students succeed regardless of whom they prep with.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I’m so glad to be speaking with you and sharing my thoughts with your readers. I love this column!
I wound up in education somewhat by chance. In 2009, I graduated from The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania. I focused on real estate, but if you recall, 2009 was pretty much the worst year for property markets and finance in the history of the world, so I couldn’t find anyone hiring in that space.
At the time, I was a huge poker player, and all the trading firms saw a lot of similarities between the skills needed to be an online poker player and a trader, so I was recruited by a bond-trading firm in Chicago.
When you begin as a bond trader, oftentimes, the senior man on the desk will have his junior member cover the European or Asian trading hours while the most senior member covers the US trading hours.
So, I covered the European shift, whose markets are open from about midnight (Chicago time) to 7AM. In that kind of environment, you make some really strong friendships with the other traders–the only other people awake at that time of night–and you see some interesting profiles of the city. But getting out of work at 7AM means you stay awake until about 2–3PM, then go to sleep from 2PM-11PM. There’s not much to do between 7AM and 2PM, and as someone who always liked staying busy, this amount of free time started to get boring. I decided I’d get a second job to use up some of the time.
I had taught financial seminars to under-served populations for 6 months, and I liked that, so when I saw Kaplan was looking for ACT tutors, I thought it would be a good fit. I’d never taken the ACT but had done quite well on the SAT, so I applied. The application process consists of giving a 5-minute presentation wherein you teach anything to a group of interviewers. I decided to give my presentation about how to successfully skydive. At the time, I was pursuing my skydiving license, so the knowledge was fresh. The higher-ups liked it, and I got the job.
For the next couple of years, I traded bonds during the graveyard shift and taught ACT during the day. A few years later, I missed Southern California, where I was raised and where my family still lived. So I relocated, started working in the finance group of a geo-location start-up, and applied to work at one of the Kaplan satellite offices in LA, but as I was working during the day, I couldn’t make the schedule work.. I still loved teaching, and I had that need to fill my nights and weekends with something productive, so I decided I’d start my own company.
When I started doing market research, I noticed that the space was totally commoditized. People were thinking of test preparation like they thought of plumbers: either you can fix the leak or you can’t, so you should just choose the cheapest one. But, that’s not an appropriate market framework in the test-prep space where your outcomes can vary wildly: you can gain 10 points or you can gain 1000 points based on the quality of education and the method of delivery. Still, you can’t fault people for not realizing this, when all the companies only highlighted how inexpensive they were and had very thin point-gain claims that customers weren’t able to understand: you might know what a good ACT score is, but it’s very unlikely you know what a good ACT point-gain is.
I started Powerful Prep with the sole focus of creating the highest point-gains possible for our students and publishing all of them for transparency. My thought was, if you give people context to understand what a good and bad outcome was, and then you offer them a method to a great outcome, this would be enough of a market differentiator to produce a strong business.
I soon realized why other companies didn’t do this. First, it is extremely hard to get an accurate baseline. Students would come to us saying they had a 1400 on the SAT and were looking to do better, but when we got them in a real testing environment, they couldn’t crack 1300. Then the parents would ask why their son or daughter’s score went down. What we didn’t realize is that the “1400” was scored when they took the test at home, at their leisure, in the quiet and familiarity of their bedroom, with lots of breaks and maybe unlimited time. The second reason companies don’t disclose scores is because it’s just as hard to find out what your student scored on the actual test after they’re done prepping with you. Some disappear, some take the test months later, others end up switching tests. So it’s extremely hard to collect data, and even when you do get it, you sometimes run into the situation where the student’s score behaves worse than it did in any practice test. We then realize that the student has severe testing anxiety that we didn’t flag because they never came to a proctored practice test with us. It’s an uphill battle, constantly. Now, we’ve collected hundreds of true baselines to true final scores, and we publish them anonymized on our site to try to make the process more transparent. This should not be a gamble.
Those scores are our goal posts, and everything else was built around optimizing those outcomes for our students. To do that, I realized we’d have to be very selective in our teacher hiring. So, we only hire graduates from the nation’s top 20 schools, as ranked by US News & World. That’s made a lot of applicants very frustrated, but we want teachers that can serve as mentors who understand the pressure of competitive academic environments. We also only hire teachers who have 99.9% scores on their tests. That’s the highest in the industry. We pay our talent very well, and as such, some of our teachers have been with us for basically their entire PhD program, and then stayed on after. So, we have a few PhD tutors, too. There are not many companies where you can get a PhD SAT tutor. We also offer bounties to our tutors for different point-gains that their students achieve: a perfect score earns the tutor a thousand dollar spot bonus. I love paying those.
I personally review all student progress reports every month to ensure that they’re on the right track and inline to produce the kinds of point gains we expect from our teachers.
Somewhere in between publishing test prep books and proctoring practice tests at 8AM on Saturdays, CBS named us a top provider of test prep and the BBC named me an “elite super tutor.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching/education career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My most interesting story combines my favorite and least favorite outcome, and they are flip-sides of the same coin.
In addition to managing Powerful Prep, I’ll occasionally tutor if there’s a VIP situation. A couple years ago, I was in a very high-stakes arrangement where I was working with the child of a well-known billionaire. There were pictures of the family with presidents all over the house, which was something out of Architectural Digest, literally. At that same time, I had just hired and trained a new tutor and paired her with her first client. So we were each working with a student preparing for the same test date, and they incidentally had the same starting score.
I was in a contract situation where I would have a very large payoff if my student could achieve a certain score, and I was spending basically every other day with my client trying to maximize their score. My tutor was conversely running our standard 90-minute once-a-week program, which we’ve always done. Both students’ scores were increasing nicely as the test approached, and both were really great students.
I began to get to know the family I was working with, and we really clicked. They were some of the kindest, most gracious people I’ve ever met, and their kids were warm and intelligent. The whole thing made me work even harder, and we were making strong and steady progress, but then we hit a snag. There was a very nuanced concept of reading comprehension that I could not explain in a way that resonated with the student. As a result, the student’s confidence was shaken, and progress stalled right on the cusp of our target score. I tried everything to help: I consulted colleagues in the industry, I found all the test problems in that domain. I tried every strategy in my arsenal, but I couldn’t find the right one before the test date. When the scores came back, my student scored 1 point under their target score. My tutor’s student scored a perfect 36 (this is a 0.195% occurrence).
It was the oddest mix of emotions. I was so disappointed in myself and heartbroken for my student, who had tried so earnestly. At the same time, the other student had scored perfectly — using the curriculum I wrote, the lesson plan I developed and the books I published, with a first-time tutor. I don’t know what the takeaway should be from this experience, but it sits with me still and gives me that bizarre sense of pain and pride.
Besides the memory and getting to know the family, the most impactful part of that situation was a phrase that I used in the email to the student, consoling them after the test. I said basically: Look at your parent (the billionaire who had never taken the ACT) and realize that these tests are shortcuts, that’s all. They can open doors that lead to outcomes you want, but they don’t close doors to anything. If you want to be a doctor, then a good ACT score can get you into a good undergrad school that might position you better for a strong medical school. A bad ACT score does not prohibit you from being a doctor, you just might need to find a different path.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re in a highly transitional time in the test-prep space right now. There are numerous schools that are choosing testing-optional policies, while college enrollment is falling dramatically. There are other factors that could be interpreted as harbingers, such as the UC system lawsuit that disallowed the use of the SAT and ACT scores for admission, but was later overturned.
The best thing we can offer right now is clarity, so we’ve been keeping on top of all the developments, answering questions on Quora, sending out updates, and preparing some infographics to help answer “do I need to take the SAT or ACT?”
We’re also in the process of translating our site into Vietnamese, German, Russian, Mandarin, and Arabic. That’s a bit of a longer play, but here’s my thought: it’s not surprising to see college enrollments hit a cliff, and we forecast next year will see an even sharper decline if SAT and ACT enrollment is a reliable indication.
The universities are desperate for students, but the potential freshmen are understandably uninterested in having a first year spent taking online classes in the isolation of their parents’ basement. Combine that with the headwind of even trying to find an open testing center (to take the SAT or ACT), the cluster of mixed messaging around testing-optional/testing-blind policies and the inability to further one’s extracurricular profile. There is an environment where prospective students are saying, “no thanks; we’ll take a gap year and wait for clarity.”
Now, interestingly, this stands to be very beneficial for international students who 1) can pay full tuition and make up for the enrollment gap 2) can still find testing centers, and 3) who would be thrilled to attend remote classes from the safety of their home country. With a fully translated site, we’re hoping to help with some of this excess demand, as we foresee schools relaxing their international student quotas in the near future.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I love this question, but I would encourage us to take it out of the realm of “viewpoints” and into the space of what we know objectively. I think that if, as a country, we want to make any progress, we need to be able to discuss this issue from a set of commonly accepted facts. So when we talk about the rating of the US education system, we can look to the data and see that unfortunately the ratings are weak.
Per the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States is not in the top 10 in any of the 3 categories (reading, math, science). We’re 13th in reading, 37th in math and 18th in Science.
It’s actually far worse than that. The only reason we’re not even lower is because the wealthy public schools and private schools are skewing the average upward.
We’re really not doing well, and it should be a bigger topic of discussion, so I’m glad you asked.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- We have the most elite university system in the world. Seven of the globe’s top-10 universities are in the United States. [Source]
- We have Title IX which protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.
- We have strong laws in place to ensure students receive education regardless of disabilities or special needs.
- We have one of the highest mean-years-in-school figures, and we have a GDP per-capita that correlates nicely with this. [Source]
- Minority high school drop-out rates are plummeting. [Source]
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- What can I say that adequately conveys the grievousness of the school shooting problem? The U.S. has had 1,316 school shootings since 1970 and these numbers are increasing. Everything after this seems trivial. [Source] What good is it to live in the wealthiest country in the world if we cannot figure out how to provide safe education to children?
- We have a massive disparity of outcomes issue. The fact that we fund schools with property taxes from their own districts doesn’t help. This essentially ensures that the rich receive the best-funded education and the poor receive the worst-funded.
- We’re wasting money: The United States spends more than 107,000 dollars per student from age 6 to 15. Latvia spends 65,000 dollars and outranks us in all categories by a wide margin. [Source] This is important because it dispels the notion that lack of funding to education is the problem. It’s certainly a problem, but we’re using it as a scapegoat to a higher issue: we haven’t yet found a system that works. Said differently — there are low-cost or no-cost changes that we can make right now that only require adopting some best-practices from other nations.
- According to the peer-reviewed literature, teachers unions are not helping. Now, let me say that half of my family are teachers — my mother taught high school English before becoming a school district defense attorney; my aunt taught high school in the California Correctional system; two other aunts teach at the university level. I have the utmost respect for teachers and I feel that many are grossly undervalued and undercompensated. I get how teachers’ unions attempt to mitigate that situation. That said, the real literature on this subject — I mean the peer-reviewed, recent, unaffiliated, and the metastudies — is not positive. In 2007, in The Future of Children (published by Princeton University), Eberts found “The effect of unions on student performance is mixed. Students of average ability who attend school in union districts perform better on standardized tests, whereas low-achieving and high-achieving students perform worse. However, the overall gain in achievement does not make up for the higher cost.” [Source]. Then in 2013 in Economics of Education Review, Lott and Kenny found “[R]emarkably strong evidence that students in states with strong teachers’ unions have lower proficiency rates than students in states with weak state-wide teacher unions.” [Source]. Again in that journal in 2016, Cowen and Strunk found “The evidence for union-related differences in student outcomes is mixed, but suggestive of insignificant or modestly negative union effects.” [Source]. Most of the work that has suggested that unions are accretive to student outcomes is 20 years old, and even that is mixed, suggesting that unions are good for middle-achievers but bad for very low and very high achieving students. [Source]. So you have this costly instrument in place that, at best, improves outcome for some, while harming others, and it makes low-performing teachers nearly impossible to replace. I’m very familiar with the positive arguments for unions, but the evidence of efficacy is just too thin to substantiate this cost in an already ovespent system.
- We don’t have good avenues for people who don’t want to go to college; that is, education is seen solely as collegiate education while it should include job-training and trade-education, as well. This gap bodes very poorly for an already crumbling middle class, so should be prioritized. Other countries have very robust tracts that will help young people learn trades which offer relatively high rates of compensation and high job security. Coding bootcamps and nursing-specific colleges are good solutions to this, but we should focus on growing this offering.
Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.
I’ve never taught in a traditional school setting, so I might answer more specifically and say what you need to know to be a highly effective tutor.
For that, I would probably start with education, experience, results, constant reevaluation, and empathy. The last one is likely unexpected, but the idea of a teacher being good without being empathetic is misguided — a teacher may be able to pull this off, but not a tutor. To clarify, the difference between tutor and teacher has to do with the direction of the relationship. Teachers instruct in a one-to-many relationship, while tutors instruct in a one-to-one setting. What that setting allows, and tutors’ entire benefit, comes from the ability to customize an approach and adapt it in real time — what I’ll call constant reevaluation. Without this, a student would be equally served via a youtube video.
The reevaluation is necessary to get feedback on whether your message is being decoded and integrated. Without the ability to empathize and simulate your student’s point-of-view, then you bring nothing to the table, and the other three things that make for a strong tutor are useless: education and experience alone cannot translate to results.
From a position of empathy, a good tutor should be able to run through a host of methods to aid a student’s comprehension and to choose one that best suits the situation, adjusting as appropriate. Every tutor who’s been in the industry for a few years is going to teach the same algebra concepts, use similar books and teach similar “tricks.” The difference is, an average tutor will be thinking about reciting the lesson, while a strong tutor will be constantly evaluating a student’s performance, engagement and comprehension levels. They will be evaluating trains of thought, asking themself: does the student’s answer to this question change what I want to teach next? Would additional practice be valuable here? How does this relate to their performance last week? Given their preference for a kinesthetic learning style, can I have them write the answers to this problem instead of discuss it? This is the second time they’ve made that simple mistake, and I notice it doesn’t come up as much when they’re talking more, why is the student not being more honest about their lack of comprehension in this topic? Do I need to adjust how I’m giving feedback?
The education, experience and results are table-stakes in this space. If you’re not educated in the subject you’re teaching; if you haven’t been trained to teach and if you haven’t found a way to combine those elements into positive results, then there’s no foundation for your practice.
As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?
Here’s the simple answer: every time you want to say the word “teacher” replace it with “teacher outcomes.” Let me explain.
Do you know what it’s called when a doctor or lawyer makes a mistake in their work, to the detriment of their client? This isn’t a setup to a joke; it’s called “malpractice.”
We have the concept of malpractice insurance, and we tend to require it in the US, for professions that provide essential services to human welfare. Think doctors and lawyers — professions that are absolute requirements to our societal stability, whose practitioners have the power to grossly alter their patients outcomes, for better or worse, through their methods. We, as a society have no other option but to place disproportionately high trust in certain professions. Because of that, we require them to bond themselves, via insurance mechanisms, so that we have methods of equalizing outcomes should a bad actor or a negligent practitioner cause harm or produce a negative result.
If you look at this through an economic lens, then you’ll see that it’s actually in the public’s interest to structure a system this way. If society cannot trust its attorneys, then it is incentivized toward vigilantism to normalize outcomes — not having trustworthy access to reparations in court — which is a net drain on the public good. If society cannot trust doctors, then it is disincentivized to seek medical attention until the situation becomes grave, which results in unaffordable medical costs, which are ultimately paid for by the public — again creating a negative externality.
Now ask yourself, why are teachers not included in that group? While we have the option of not using a lawyer or a doctor — serve as your own lawyer, choose homeopathic treatments — we do not have the option of not going to school. As such, we as a society, really must trust our teachers unequivocally. If we do not trust our teachers to produce positive outcomes, then we have to ask if our time would be better spent outside the classroom. When your society has to answer that question for itself, and when it wavers in its trust of educational outcomes, then we end up where we are today. We end up in a place where the United States’s high-school completion isn’t even in the top 10, where our place is below Cyprus — a country whose GDP is one one-thousandth of ours. [Source]
Now, I understand that many — not all — school districts and unions provide professional liability insurance to their educators. This covers, among other things, a domain called, “failure to educate.” Let’s see how well that’s working:
Guess how many medical malpractice suits there are in the US annually. There are about 12,000 [Source]. Guess how many education malpractice suits there are per year. About 2, there have only been 80 in 40 years [Source]. Want to guess how many have been successful?
Why so few? In part, it is because we don’t know what bad teaching looks like, because we don’t know what the difference is between a “teacher” and a “teacher outcome”. Said differently, we don’t know what good and bad teaching is.
Now, what does this have to do with attracting better talent? It’s simple: to attract better teachers, we need to clarify our desired teacher outcomes.
The profession of teacher is a sacred one, and we need to treat it accordingly. That starts with clear and high expectations from it. Luckily, we know how to do this. Let’s take the paradigms we apply to doctors and lawyers, and apply it to teachers. Their jobs are as difficult and their success is just as essential to a productive society.
When we think about what we expect from, and are willing to provide to, levels of professionals, we usually talk about it in terms of 1) transparent, accountable outcomes produced by 2) extensive preparation for which we accept 3) the higher compensation potential.
The accountability and outcome side is the most difficult to tackle. No one seems to be able to agree on what accountability in the education system should look like, and often bureaucracy adherence is substituted for outcome accountability. We know so-called high-stakes accountability (judging teachers based on their students’ performance on tests) is flawed, per most of the research [Source].
There are many ways to increase accountability, namely: evaluation, identifiability, reason-giving and the mere presence of another [Source]. Few attempts seem to be made at incorporating any of these methods. The issue is further complicated by the fact that accountability is a concern at all levels of the education process, from district to the teachers, so it’s hard to implement or try solutions across all parties. I would propose a combination of 1) frequent test-based accountability [evaluation], which would serve to lower the stakes and reduce the variance; 2) frequent team-teaching where two teachers teach together [that would address the presence issue]; 3) reason-based curriculum planning, where educators have to substantiate their curriculum plan and delivery based on research [reason-giving], and; 4) publication of a teacher’s student outcomes [identifiability]. This is all subject to a number of factors, but might be a good start. Perfect seems to be the enemy of the good in this space, and in the absence of a perfect method of accountability, we seem to have accepted no accountability instead.
On the preparation side, we are woefully behind. Right now, you can be a teacher without a teaching degree, and it’s almost a selling point for the profession [Source]. Can you imagine a lawyer who hadn’t gone to law school? Similarly, there are a huge number of teachers who teach subjects that they did not major or minor in [Source]. This is akin to getting heart surgery from a dermatologist.
We’re actually moving into worse territory here because of teacher shortages, which causes states to hire unqualified teachers, diluting the entire profession. We have a physician shortage in the US as well, but we’re not about to let hospital orderlies see patients just because it’s convenient and they’re in the same building. [Source]
Make the process to become a teacher similar to the process of becoming a doctor or an attorney: similar undergraduate education, mandatory post-graduate entrance exams, advanced degrees, adequately challenging licensure exams followed by stringent continuing-education requirements, and positive standing in a professional board. Opponents will say this will deter people from becoming teachers. I hope so. I would hope it would filter out the ambivalent. On the whole, I bet there would be more people trying to become teachers because we’re not short on people wanting to become lawyers or doctors (the physician shortage is a function of the availability of med school seats, not demand for them). Now of course, part of that will rest on the compensation potential.
We should be ready to compensate teachers on the order of doctors and lawyers. The argument of affordability is garbage. All professions rank somewhere between societal utilities and investments. Societal utilities are things that are required in a society but whose returns we don’t ask for, like firefighters. The house is still burnt to the ground, and that’s a societal loss, but no one was hurt. You don’t try to calculate a return on this; it’s a utility. Teachers are on the other side of this spectrum: a good education is an investment — not in an abstract concept, but in real terms, as more educated societies have better economic outcomes. More years in school produces higher GDP per capita [Source]. The countries that pay their teachers best incidentally have a higher GDP per capita (Switzerland and Luxembourg standout here). So if we demand more from teachers, we should pay them more. We should see this as the investment that it is, as higher paid teachers help produce higher per-capita GDP values, through the mechanisms of either encouraging more years in school and/or producing more competitive workforces.
So, you asked how to attract good teachers to the space, and I gave you a long answer starting with malpractice insurance and ending with per-capita GDP comparisons. My point in one sentence: to attract good teachers, we need to clarify what a good teacher outcome is and recruit for that position, offering compensation to match. The profession will then self-monitor and self-filter, just as the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association do.
It will be difficult, but if we make those changes, I’m confident we would see a flood of stellar talent that would, in turn, produce stellar outcomes. This will raise the bar on the entire process and put our country alongside its rightful place in the rankings, with students who go on to make massively positive impacts on society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I wish I had something more profound, but the biggest strength I think a person can have is persistence/grit/consistency. It’s amazing how many ‘impossible’ things become doable when you just break them down and stay consistent.
There are many good quotes on this. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Lao Tzu. “If you’re going through Hell, keep going,” Churchill. “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones,” Confucius.
I think Dory from Finding Nemo put it best when she said “Just keep swimming.”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
David Soloman aka “DJ D-Sol” — CEO of Goldman Sachs — is something of a personal hero. I was always unsure if having a full-time career in finance and a side business was somehow dividing my focus. Then Rolling Stone did an article about how David Soloman was actually a successful Electronic Dance Music DJ, and it telegraphed the legitimacy of the side hustle to me. I have a ton of respect for him.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!