Students rely on outside help to stay at the top

A room no bigger than a large science classroom is where “mini Harvard-Westlake” operates, as the owner of a tutoring center in a Valley business complex calls it.  The room is separated by makeshift Plexiglass walls into a small waiting area and two one-on-one tutoring areas.  In the back, 10 desks are set up in front of a whiteboard.

Currently, roughly 16 percent of the students enrolled in AP Physics B pack into this cramped classroom for two hours weekly at $100 a session. Two groups, one on Sundays and one on Mondays, of about 10 students and 5 respectively, meet with Jared*, a physics teacher at a local private school. 

During the week before the midterm, Jared offered a 14-hour review package.  All his students turned up over the course of the week.

Over the past two years, about 45 AP Physics B students have taken this seemingly supplemental class; however, many of these tutored students begin to consider their school physics class to be more of the supplement.

“People who are tutored aren’t forced to pay as much attention,” Kristin Cole ’08, one of Jared’s students, said.  “I started off with a 67 percent on the first quiz and now I’m getting 95 percent on them with a tutor,” Cole said.

Alex Wittenberg ’08 has noticed a similar trend in his class, in which three students go to Jared.

“They don’t really have to [pay attention in class],” Wittenberg said.  “As good as the teachers are, the kids I know who go [to Jared] learn everything beforehand.  It actually helps me because when they explain it to me, they know great ways for me to learn it.”
Valerie* ’08, however, did not benefit in the same way. 

“At first I thought it was just me who didn’t get it,” she said.  “That’s why I started using a peer tutor because no one asked questions in class.”

Valerie found out that eight out of the 18 students in her class use Jared, while the other 10 she does not know about. 

Kurt Kanazawa ’07, one of Jared’s pupils last year, experienced a similar situation regarding the use of tutoring in his class during junior year.

“It was kind of unspoken at first,” he said. “Then we asked each other during class who was tutored and half of us raised our hands.”

Out of the juniors, four had tutors along with six seniors in a 20-person class.  Kanazawa noted that many students were upset that second semester was not weighted more, since many did not know they “had to get a tutor” early on.

“It was kind of upsetting that in order to do well you had to spend so much money,” he said. 

Daniel Yoo ’07 also went to Jared’s class once a week.
“[The class] started at, I’d say, 10 kids then easily went to 20 by third quarter,” Yoo said. “By the end of the year, it was like a huge lecture hall.”

However, many physics teachers are unaware that a large percentage of students in the course use tutors for a class the College Board has for two years in a row called the best in the nation among high schools with an enrollment of more than 800 students.

“In the past we have asked on our end of year course evaluation a question about tutoring,” Upper School Dean and physics teacher Jim Patterson said.  “I have always been under the impression that only a small amount of students are being tutored.”

At least 25 of the 95 students in AP Physics B have used tutoring services this year, according to Jared, Scholars in Progress, Peer Tutoring and a local prep school physics teacher who tutors students.  Last year, the paid tutors report the count was about 40.

It is the opinion of some physics teachers tutoring is unnecessary.

“I encourage students to see me or another physics teacher outside of class if they have questions,” physics teacher Karen Hutchison said.
Physics teacher Dr. Deborah Dowling believes tutoring can be harmful to individual students.

“A tutor can be an easy way out, so that the student doesn’t have to develop those new learning skills in order to get good grades,” Dowling said.  “You could say that tutors give students fish, and without a tutor the student has to learn to fish.”
That is not the case, Jared said.

“This is not helping kids to do homework. I teach the concept and they learn it differently,” Jared said. “Every student’s problem is they don’t understand the teacher. I start with concepts and then the problems get harder and harder.  I call it the ‘master key’ method.  So then they have the basics.”

The three paid tutoring services noted the primary problem students face with the course is the pace.

“In class, we didn’t do many problems, it was just lectures and expecting us to figure it out,” Kanazawa said.

“In AP Physics B we go from zero to the end of first-year university physics, and we do it in eight months,” Dowling said.  “That’s going to be tough however you look at it.”

Cordell Haynes, coordinator of the tutoring service Scholars in Progress, believes that the unfamiliarity of the material is what pushes many students to seek extra help.

“Students haven’t experienced something that abstract before,” Haynes said. “Typically [we tutor] a student who has never had tutoring before.”
Haynes did not say that success depends on having a tutor, but more on the student’s schedule. 

“The time one devotes to AP Physics B is, I think, about equivalent to two AP history courses,” Haynes said.  “Plus, the typical AP Physics B student is taking more APs than just that one.”

Despite the popularity of tutoring, some students find they are able to tackle the material on their own.

“I learn best by just figuring it out on my own,” Lizzie Barcay ’07 said.  “Everyone has a different way of processing information. It’s not like kids who are being tutored are working any less hard.”

Dowling believes students who sign up for the course should be able to learn the material on their own in order to challenge themselves.

“Many students find AP Physics B the hardest course they’ve ever done, and I think that’s great,” Dowling said.  “Wouldn’t it be boring if you could only enroll in easy courses?”

*name withheld on request