Bring Your Questions for Peg Tyre, Author of The Good School

Peg Tyre is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who specializes in writing about education policy. In her 2008 book, The Trouble with Boys, she delved into the growing academic achievement gap between boys and girls to examine why boys are falling so far behind in the classroom. In her new book, The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids The Education They Deserve, Tyre mines education research data to find out which programs and strategies give kids the highest probabilities of academic success. The result is a concise handbook for parents, one that applies a macro-economic view of education in an effort to create a more rational market around school choice.

As another school year kicks off, Tyre has agreed to answer your questions about The Good School, and anything else education-related. So fire away in the comments section. Before you do, take a look at the table of contents from The Good School printed below, and also read Tyre’s adapted excerpt from the book on the merits (or lack thereof) of teaching to the test.

Read Peg Tyre’s answers to your questions, here.

Table of Contents:
Chapter One: The Preschool Scramble
Chapter Two: Testing
Chapter Three: Class Size
Chapter Four: Reading: What It Takes to Succeed
Chapter Five: When Mathematicians Get Angry
Chapter Six: The Right Balance
Chapter Seven: Teachers Matter
Chapter Eight: The Perfect School

What’s Really Wrong With Teaching to The Test

By Peg Tyre

For as long as there have been standardized tests, there have been people who’ve complained bitterly about instructors who teach to the test. But let’s ask ourselves: What’s wrong with that? I learned about the ancient Greeks in fifth grade. My teacher outlined his curriculum, and then gave us a test at the end of the year that consisted of harder and harder questions about those democracy and toga-loving people. Some of us did well, others less well. If your fifth grader is going to have to sit for a state mandated test on ancient Greeks, then it seems logical that the teacher should teach the material that he’ll be tested on.

But let’s take a closer look at the test itself. Since policy makers want to keep the test brief so that it’s easy and inexpensive to score, maybe they’ll choose three questions about, say, the formation of democracy. What do those questions consist of? One approach would be to ask three questions that reflect an increasingly more sophisticated grasp of those ideas. With this kind of test, each answer the child provides would help determine a two-pronged question: do these middle-schoolers know about the formation of democracy in ancient Greece? And how well do they know it?

But that’s not how standardized tests work. When state education authorities want to find out if your child knows a particular standard, they hire a group of test assessment professionals – mostly researchers and statisticians with a background in education. These test builders use chunks of the course material to fashion their questions. But the question or questions will never be able to test the depth of kids’ knowledge. It’s not meant to. Test builders design questions with one aim: to have roughly 40 to 60 percent of students answer it correctly. When they get those results, the test builders believe that the test question is a legitimate proxy for the material the kids learned. Why this quirky criteria? According to their statistical models, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of kids are likely to understand any given material. So when they ask a question and about 40 to 60 percent get it right, it is (in the land of standardized testing) a legitimate, statistically defensible question.

If you can hold that in your mind, then teaching to the test starts to seem like a very bad idea. Standardized test questions are being pulled from the lower part of the middle range of what kids should be able to do. If teachers at a school are encouraged to “teach to the test,” they can probably show you test scores that are going up, but that means they are focusing instruction in the most basic part of the material. And that is not a particularly ambitious goal for a school.

The other and slightly more subtle problem with teaching to the test is that it disrupts the natural distribution of correct answers. If the teacher teaches to the test, all the kids might answer the question correctly. But remember, answering the question itself was not the point – it was just a small chunk of course material acting as a proxy for a bigger chunk of course material. And if a teacher successfully gets all kids to answer a test question correctly, it moves from a good, valid question to being statistical “noise.”

Which doesn’t stop schools from encouraging teachers to shape their instruction around getting kids to score well on tests.  These days, standardized test scores are being used for far more than they were ever intended—schools with poor test scores are being reorganized, while teachers who can produce high test scores are being given more pay. And politicians (I’m talking to you, Michael Bloomberg) are making rising tests scores part of their political campaign. The corruption of this delicate and specific form of measurement, most experts believe, is almost inevitable.


How do you feel about Bryan Caplan's "selfish reasons to have more kids" theory that parents do not matter much? Every one year of extra school by the mother only gives a few weeks extra in school to a child for example.


do you believe the adage "u dont know something until u can explain it to someone else", and do u feel oral exams are more functional than written?


How does homeschooling compare in terms of "The Perfect Education" ? Who/what families are likely to give a better education at home that at a public (or even private) school?


Does the book include anything on "gifted and talented" programs and whether they work or not? As the father of a profoundly gifted son, how do I talk to teachers/administrators about if they have what is needed to teach such a student? Just as there are differences between kids who have trouble reading and grade level readers, there are very big differences between typical children in gifted programs and the profoundly gifted. How can we make sure the school knows the difference and can teach accordingly? It is difficult to find a school that actually can live up to what they promote on "gifted" education. Also related, have you seen any research on acceleration in middle/high school students and what that research shows?


I'm also very interested in whether there is research on acceleration out there. I skipped a grade myself and still believe it was the right choice, but my wife is an educator who is convinced it's a bad idea (mainly for social reasons). Of the others I've known who've been accelerated, the results were generally positive, though I know of some exceptions.


I "advanced" my child since day after day the answer to did you learn anything today was "not anything I didn't already know". The school also wasn't very successful, IMHO, in improving the situation.

So, I'm also interested whether this is a good idea. My child does well in school and is challenged by the older classmates (but is somewhat socially behind the others).


How important is preschool, and how much variation is there between preschools? Having just enrolled my 3-year-old daughter in preschool, I think the opportunity to get out of the house and socialize with other children is the main benefit to her development--not such much the topics that they learn about.

As for you comment that "teaching to the test" tends to emphasize a lowest common denominator: separating students into standard, honors, and AP versions of courses tends to alleviate this a bit, doesn't it? While the teachers may still be teaching to the test, the higher-achieving students will be taught to a harder test, and usually on a more specific discipline (i.e. "Calculus" rather than "Math"), so they do get that more in-depth knowledge.


Thinking that this is how it works, parents then push to get their kids into higher level classes than they can handle, which in turn effectively lowers the bar in those upper level classes.


Speaking of standardized testing, how do you feel about the (presumed) decline of American students test results (particularly mathematics) compared to other countries, even developing countries? Does this mean the other countries are just teaching to the test better, or is the overall teaching (or learning) better?


What do you make of adolescents who perform poorly in high school but excel in college? Or students who performed well in high school and struggle in college? And what does this mean for our school systems?


The solutions put forward will depend on the goals at hand. For instance, what should be the goal(s) of grade school -- Creating a responsible citizenry? College prep? Life prep? General well-roundedness? Teaching technical skills? Instilling a love of learning?

How can the humanities (art, music, foreign languages, etc.) have a place in a test-driven/data-driven school culture?



One of the most hottedly debated topics in my state is teacher evaluation. While I understand that test scores alone or student year-to-year improvement are problematic standing alone as measurement, it drives me nuts to hear a teacher's union resist testing/grading -- it is the entire cornerstone of their industry!! Kids are graded from the first step onto the kindergarten school bus to the graduation ceremony.

I don't really have a question, I just wanted to say this. There are 3.2 million teachers in the US, and I have actually talked with union officials on more than one occasion who say there isn't a single bad one. Apparently they don't follow the Bell Curve.

To me, we adviocates of testing put the teaching profession on a pedestal, underlining the importance of making sure no kid has a poor teacher. The unions seem to say the exact opposite, but only because they care about the welfare of the *adults* in the classroom not the *children*.


John B

As for teachers unions, Albert Schanker, the long-time head of the AFT, said it all, when he declared:

"When students start paying union dues, then I will act in the best interests of students."


Any thoughts on the current state of textbooks.

I recently looked through my child's high school physics textbook. It seemed to be designed to be all things to all people (from advanced to the "phyics"-challenged). It had all sorts of distracting side-bars, readiness pre-sections, test-prep post-sections ... It was difficult to find the actual physics. And this made the book much too heavy.

Joshua Northey

What should have been done with a troubled/gifted case like myself?

In "knowledge bowl" I could as a HS freshman beat our 5 best students by myself. I would stay up drinking and partying the night before a standardized test, sleep through half of it, and still get perfect scores. But I also grew up on the poor side of town and was being raised by a drunk single parent. So I had a ton of attitude and behavioral problems. I had zero discipline and only wanted to learn and get laid. I refused to jump through hoops.

My sophomore year one teacher mentioned going to college instead of the staying in HS, but no one tried to convince me to do so, and I did not do it because I didn't want to be separated from my girlfriend/friends/hockey buddies. So I stayed in a HS and got a 2.3 GPA and the best test scores they ever saw.

As a result no good universities wanted to take a chance on me. After a year in the real world I sucked it up and went to state university X. It was a good experience and I got good grades, but my attitude problems were not entirely gone (I refused to kiss ass) and no amount of excelling at state university X will give you the life prospects that the networking at elite school Y provides.

I sit at 30, with a decent upper middle class job, but with a work history that involves taking orders from many people who whose decision makings skills and intellect are a joke. I could have done interesting/demanding/valuable work, instead I have mostly diverted that energy to maximizing my own happiness, reading, and playing strategy games with a few gifted friends.

I have greatly enjoyed many parts of my life, so I am not sure I *regret* my decisions, though in retrospect a lot of them were extremely poor (I am pretty sure I could have got a 4.0 in HS and gone to whatever university I chose if I had I done 1 hour of BS work every day during time I instead focused on learning as much as possible).

There has got to be a better way to handle gifted kids then that right? Even with behavioral problems? Having me take classes from teachers who knew less about the subjects then me just exacerbated the problems and instilled a permanent lack of respect for authority, which while often warranted, is 99% of the time detrimental.

Anyway please tell me there is a better way? I would hate for my children to go through the same things I did.



Why is it that given the Female dominance in performance in the educational field that schools continue to ignore the essential physical exertion boys need?

How is it that boys even survive in an environment where they are taught by people who don't know what it is like to be a boy (mostly women in primary education) and are teaching using a style that is grossly discriminatory against their learning interests?

Todd Sullivan

I've read your rationale for why 'teaching to the test' is bad, but lets agree that the testing is going to stick around and teachers and school systems will continue to be judged by test results. More of the masses are happy with this configuration than others available. They want a tool to be able to develop critical thought about their local school system and the teachers in it. How do we improve the system? Do we develop the test differently? Do we grade the test differently, collectively. Do we grade the test differently between communities (based on socio-economic factors, for instance)?

Navneet V.

Being a sophomore in high school and the son of parents who immigrated from India, it's easy to see that my parents fall in to the typical "Asian Parent," stereotype stressing education over everything else, and, it hasn't failed me yet (I'm proud to say that I'm a straight A student). But, my question is, what makes Asian parents so apt to push their children to the extent that there's a stereotype on Asian children being smarter than their Caucasian classmates? Is it the education system in Asia or something else?


I'm a physicist with several degrees and an extensive background in math, but always had a lot of trouble in grade school, middle school, and high school, with math and science classes. In my field, I have lots of friends and colleagues who've had similar problems as I've had, and have told me in detail about their school experiences. It's always the same story, and always leads me to the same conclusion: teachers are incompetent.

More times than I can individually recall, as a student, I asked basic questions that the teachers simply could not answer. I was given explanations that were misleading or incorrect. I asked "what can I use this to do?" and they didn't know (which happens with alarming frequency, given that math and science is so pervasive, they could just pick something at random and it would be a correct answer!) Teachers just do not know the basics of their subjects.

It seems to me everyone discussing how education can be improved misses this point. It doesn't matter how much money your school has, how many "teaching methods" your teachers know, how many conferences on different "learning styles" they have attended, or anything else. It's all for nothing if they don't know the subject!

Why do our students fail at math?
They aren't taught by mathematicians.

Why do our students fail at science?
They aren't taught by scientists.

It's shocking to me that people would suggest these subjects be taught by anyone other than mathematicians or scientists! In my entire education carrier before college, I did not meet one teacher with an MS or PhD, and most who had BSes (well, BAs) had them not in the subject they were teaching, but in education.

People try to suggest that, at a grade/middle/high school level, you don't really need actual experts to teach. Well, yeah, to teach the garbage that's taught now you don't; to do it right, you definitely do! (I'm an expert, I know!!)

The question people should be asking (but aren't) is:
What can we do to attract actual experts to teaching?

My question is:
Why aren't people asking this obvious question?