Kaplan turns 80: Learn about our History
This year, we’re celebrating Kaplan’s 80th anniversary. Today with hundreds of schools across the world helping over a million students achieve their ambitions, it’s hard to believe that it all began in a Brooklyn basement.
“I started the day I was born – or just about.”
Kaplan, Inc was founded in 1938, but according to Stanley Kaplan himself, the story begins even earlier than that. He’d inherited a love of education from his immigrant parents – especially his mother, Ericka. Fiercely intelligent but denied a college education herself, she was determined all her children would go to university. Ericka filled their basement playroom with books: encyclopedias, as well as stories of inventors and adventurers, and at seven years old, Stanley started a tiny lending library for neighbourhood children – complete with handmade membership cards and late fees.
By the time he was nine, he’d moved on to teaching.
“Where other kids played doctor, I played teacher. If my friends complained about math fractions and percents, I would sit down with pencil and paper and explain to them how to solve the problems,” he remembered in his autobiography, Test Pilot. While some of Stanley’s classmates were grateful for the help, others weren’t always eager for extra lessons from a fellow fourth-grader. Stanley wasn’t deterred; he loved teaching so much he’d even pay his “students” a dime to sit down and listen to him.
The sign of things to come
The Great Depression brought the Kaplan family’s comfortable life to an end. The family plumbing business went under, and Stanley’s father never fully recovered from the anxiety and humiliation. But Stanley’s gifts as a teacher – and, by now, his years of experience –were beginning to be noticed. Despite working odd jobs to help support the family, he’d skipped ahead two grades at school. He was still tutoring his friends and worked as an unofficial teaching assistant in his algebra class. The school’s employment counsellor came to him with an offer that would change the course of his life: help failing students, for 25 cents an hour. Stanley was thrilled. He was just fourteen.
“There was no greater thrill than watching a student's face at that moment of revelation when he finally grasped an idea. Witnessing that was like hitting a home run.” – Stanley Kaplan
And yet teaching wasn’t the career Stanley was planning. He was going to medical school. While many second-generation immigrants might have felt pushed towards medicine by their family, all the pressure Stanley felt came from himself – his parents would have preferred him to pursue his passion for teaching. But Stanley wanted to stabilise the family finances and regain the social standing he was keenly aware of having lost during the Depression. Medicine seemed like the surest way.
But to Stanley’s astonishment, he was turned down by every medical school he applied to. He couldn’t understand it – he knew he had the brains, and after skipping several grades at school, he’d graduated from City College aged just eighteen. Finally, he came to a depressing conclusion. He was Jewish, and he attended a public school. Perhaps if he’d had the prestige of a private university behind him, his background might have mattered less. But the combination of snobbery and anti-Semitism had been too much. Stanley never forgot the rejection. But, in 1938, now aged nineteen, he committed himself to teaching, down in the basement where as a child he’d started a library. He hung a sign outside his parents’ house: “Stanley H Kaplan Educational Center.”
“To say you can’t improve scores is to say you can’t improve students, and I disagree with that.”
In 1946 a student called Elizabeth asked Stanley for help with a new test designed for college admissions: the SAT. Stanley was intrigued. Eight years before, he hadn’t been able to convince medical schools of his ability – the high grades from his low-status school hadn’t been enough. Perhaps a high score on a test like this would have helped him overcome the barriers prejudice had placed in his way. But he was puzzled by the test too. The instructions advised students that studying was pointless – the SAT would measure their innate intelligence rather than their knowledge. But the very idea of not studying for a test made no sense to Stanley, and he didn’t believe academic ability was set in stone: he knew it was possible for thinking and problem-solving skills to improve. He made Elizabeth practise mathematical and reading comprehension exercises over and over – helping her not only to strengthen her analytical ability, but improving her confidence. When they were finished, Elizabeth breezed through the SAT exam with ease. Word soon spread that Stanley Kaplan could help you get into college; and students eager to achieve their ambitions flocked to the tiny basement tutoring company. Of course, Stanley was pleased to have the business – but his success meant more than that. As he saw it, he was helping to level the playing field, giving students who could never have afforded to attend an expensive private school a chance to compete.
“People were coming from all over the country to study in little old Brooklyn”
Within a few years, the basement was overflowing with students and books. Stanley opened his first fully equipped school in 1951, and a second in 1957. By the 1960s, Kaplan Inc had seventeen centers, coaching students not just for the SAT but for a whole range of potentially life-changing qualifications, such as the GMAT, MCAT and GRE. Building deep familiarity with the material was a key part of Stanley’s teaching methods, so all the schools had a “test and tape” library, where students could spend extra hours reinforcing what they’d learned in class. Decades on, Kaplan schools still follow Stanley’s approach, with multimedia centers and computer labs equipped with materials designed to help you practice.
“Don’t worry. If you didn’t understand today, you can listen to the tape tomorrow.” - Stanley Kaplan
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The King of Test Prep
Not everyone was happy with Stanley’s success. Ignoring the huge numbers of Kaplan students who’d seen their grades improve, the College Board and the Educational Testing Service still insisted that it was impossible to study for the SAT and treated Stanley as little more than a con man. But vindication came in 1979 when the Federal Trade Commission investigated and confirmed that the Kaplan method could indeed raise SAT scores. The company grew across the USA and beyond, and in 1983 the College Board invited Stanley to speak at its annual convention. After more than 46 years of feeling like an outsider, Stanley was accepted by the educational establishment. It was overwhelming. “Never in my wildest dreams,” he admitted, “did I ever think I’d be speaking to you here today.”
Even after Stanley sold Kaplan, Inc. to the Washington Post company in 1984, he continued to work and teach for the company that bore his name. He retired in 1994 at 75, after devoting an incredible 56 years to education. In fact, just as the story of Stanley’s passion for teaching began well before he founded Kaplan, it continued even after he left it. With his wife Rita, he created the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, dedicated to healthcare, the arts, and of course, education.
Stanley died in 2009, at the age of 90, leaving an extraordinary legacy – millions of people across the world whose dreams of a better life he’d helped to come true. Today, Kaplan is proud to continue his work of opening up access to education, and transforming lives for the better.
"I dedicated my life to meeting the needs of students in ways that traditional forms of education could not, and Kaplan continues in that tradition today." - Stanley Kaplan
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