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“Tips and tricks”With Matthew Pietrafetta

The billion-dollar test prep industry has operated on the same principle for years: teach “tips and tricks” that high school students can use to boost their scores. We’re turning that principle on its head. We give students an academically-enriching form of test preparation, ensuring that the skills and knowledge they gain while preparing for these […]

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The billion-dollar test prep industry has operated on the same principle for years: teach “tips and tricks” that high school students can use to boost their scores. We’re turning that principle on its head. We give students an academically-enriching form of test preparation, ensuring that the skills and knowledge they gain while preparing for these tests continues to serve them as they progress through college.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Pietrafetta. He founded Academic Approach in 2001 and currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer. Since 2001, Matthew has supervised the organization’s instructional services, curriculum, and technology development. Whether working with lead trainers to provide high-quality support to Academic Approach’s tutors or collaborating with educators to deliver instructional support that drives higher student achievement, Matthew is committed to improving the quality of Academic Approach’s instructional practices and services.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in Boston’s Mission Hill, a diverse neighborhood, and attended both public and private schools, developing an early appreciation for learning among a diverse student population. A third-generation Italian, I was the first in my family to attend a four-year college and went on to earn my PhD in English Literature from Columbia University in New York.

It was as a graduate student at Columbia that I had two crucial realizations that eventually led me to start Academic Approach. I was working as a tutor while attending grad school, helping competitive New York City high school students prepare for the ACT and SAT.

The first realization was that standardized test prep typically involved simply telling students to memorize a list of clever tricks. However, the tests were actually assessing skills necessary for success in college-level coursework — critical reading and reasoning, essential grammar skills, and mathematical problem solving. These were skills students needed to master in order to be successful in the college courses I was teaching undergraduates. If students were just learning to game the tests, they’d miss a valuable opportunity both to raise their scores and to prepare for their college courses.

So I decided to create my own rigorous instructional curriculum. One that wouldn’t emphasize tips and tricks but instead focus on raising students’ test scores while also developing vital college-readiness skills. I called it my “academic approach” to test preparation: a high-quality instructional service committed to personalized, academically enriching test preparation.

The second realization was that the most rigorous, effective test prep was available primarily to the affluent because of how much tutoring cost. There had to be a way to open equity and access to test prep — and maybe I could be the one to do it.

Now, Academic Approach has 51 full-time employees and 121 tutors in over a dozen states around the country, and we serve a broad demographic for students, promoting equity and access for thousands of students every year.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The billion-dollar test prep industry has operated on the same principle for years: teach “tips and tricks” that high school students can use to boost their scores. We’re turning that principle on its head. We give students an academically-enriching form of test preparation, ensuring that the skills and knowledge they gain while preparing for these tests continues to serve them as they progress through college.

Though our method is unorthodox, it’s quickly gained in popularity. I’m proud to say that last year, Academic Approach worked with over 170 schools around the country, delivered on-site classroom instruction to over 6,000 students, and helped high schoolers achieve a six-point growth average on their ACT scores, and a 150-point growth average on their SAT scores. The Academic Approach to test prep is more rigorous and extensive than merely teaching tips and tricks, but it works: it raises both scores and skills.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember my first year tutoring in NYC. I went to a family’s apartment for a tutoring appointment and was chatting with my student’s mom and a few of her friends, who were visiting. We were talking about something in the news that was particularly sad. My student’s mom said, “I felt so badly when I heard that news.” Always eager to correct and serve as a committed member of the grammar police, I corrected her: “You didn’t feel badly; when you say you feel badly, you mean literally that you actually cannot feel, as if your fingertips are numb. What you mean to say instead is that you felt bad when you heard the news.” Suffice it to say — she did not feel happy. Lesson? Don’t correct people’s grammar in public, if you want to win friends and influence people.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Judy Dimon, one of my very first clients, was someone who believed in me. She understood my education ideals. After working successfully as a tutor with her family, she encouraged me to come out to Chicago and carry out my mission of creating a test preparation service with a robust and integrated academic curriculum that could be deployed to reach a broad range of students.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruptive is good when it drives higher quality, greater access, and improved efficiencies. Communication technology is a great example: smartphones and broadband access become cheaper and more reliable, which leads to more reliable access for a broader demographic of citizens. However, we need to be wary of this same logic when it comes to Ed-tech. Myriad Ed-tech solutions enter the market every year, offering convenience and affordability (some are free), but the question is, do they actually drive quality outcomes? Important education decisions can often be driven at the school or district level by budgets, so a cheap, well-marketed, convenient Ed-tech product can be disruptive by simply pricing right and messaging well — and therefore gain a huge market share suddenly — but that does not mean the product drives higher-quality outcomes. Without quality, disruption in Ed-tech is a distraction from the long-term goal of driving higher student achievement by really improving teaching and learning.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Just keep moving. Go narrow and go deep. If something comes too easily, it’s not worth having.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Unlike most providers in our space, we’re committed to bring high-quality test prep to students who wouldn’t normally be able to afford it. For years, we’ve offered pro-bono tutoring, scholarships, and in-school tutoring services for school districts in low-income, underprivileged communities. Our work with school districts has grown to be nearly half of our business. We also run a summer academy that’s attended by high achieving students in the Chicago area who have been nominated by their school principals to receive free test prep. So, we’ve done a lot of work to extend our services to underserved students, and plan to do this even more in the future.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher got in front of the class and recited The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. I wasn’t super academically engaged at the time, but seeing him do that inspired me intellectually in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It was so impressive to see his mastery of something esoteric, something I had never had access to. He lit that first spark of a passion for literature and language that remains to this day, decades later.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I deplore all attempts at developing us which obliterate the most effective means of education by forcing us towards the endpoint instead of giving us a sense of satisfaction along the way.” Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister

Students do not get to their goal score without truly embracing the journey to get there. What does that mean? It means asking great questions, taking genuine interest, and cultivating real curiosity and passion for mastering academic material, truly investing in the process of learning. In this sense, the means to the end of a higher score is, in truth, the end in itself: to become a serious-minded, skilled, and prepared college ready student.

Whether it’s teaching, learning, parenting, or business, end goals follow from a thoughtful consideration of your means — how we get there, what we do every day to get there, what intrinsic value the process itself has. Be present in the moment, take a long view of progress, stick to your values, and take joy in the process of learning and improving incrementally.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I hope to inspire young people to take ownership of their education, to embrace every opportunity — even failure — to learn, and use those opportunities to develop long-term successful learning habits, resilience, and the capacity to adapt and evolve. I don’t believe in static definitions of students — that someone is “not a math person” or “not a reading person.” Every student can learn with the right personalized feedback and direction. Your capacity to learn is boundless. Believe in it!

How can our readers follow you online?

Our website is https://www.academicapproach.com/. We’re also on Twitter at @AcademicApprch.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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