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.

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  1. iamreddave says:

    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.

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  2. frankenduf says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. Jack says:

    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?

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  4. Mark says:

    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?

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    • Q says:

      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.

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      • Mike says:

        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).

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      I would say that it depends on what you are trying to maximize for your child lifetime earnings, knowledge, flourishing, hedons?

      1) Yes there are social costs to skipping grades
      2) The education you get may not actually be that much better
      3) Make sure you instill discipline and a work ethic in your children it is at least as important as intellectual ability
      4) At the same time I could have mastered calculus in grade school, instead I was stuck taking pre-algebra 3 years in a row because my school didn’t offer anything better and had to take geometry and world history from teachers who demonstrably understood it less well then me in 9th grade. It was very frustrating and led to me not taking school seriously at all.

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      • Reid says:

        John Hattie has done a meta-analysis of all of the studies comparing enrichment (giving more detail in existing classes) compared to acceleration (moving to higher grade levels). The research indicates that no study exists in which enrichment provides a greater benefit than acceleration, and that accelerated students did just as well as the bright students in the grades into which they moved. The effect size for acceleration is 0.88. As well, the general effect of the enrichment program is to “defer boredom”.

        As well, Kent (1992) found that, in terms of social impact, that there were net positive impacts – the negative social impacts of not being accelerated outweighed some negative effects of the acceleration process.

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      • Amar Patel says:

        I call shenanigans on that research. I teach Accelerated Alg2 in a suburban high school with very challenging curriculum. The junior highs are “accelerating” more and more students so that they start my course as freshman instead of sophomores. The increase in the number of students has resulted in more drop outs and lower grades, more parent frustration and student tears. Acceleration is fine if the student is exceptional compared to his peers but not as a general rule.

        Educational research is so easily misinterpreted by “experts” in education that cannot see a lurking variable to save their lives.

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      • EW says:

        The research on acceleration was specifically for children who had been identified as highly gifted, where acceleration was found to be superior to enrichment across the board. What you are describing is quite different — a general pushing of students regardless of interest and ability — and I wouldn’t expect that to do anything but cause frustration.

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  5. Kip says:

    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.

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    • Quin says:

      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.

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  6. David says:

    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?

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    • Marty says:

      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?

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  7. Quin says:

    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?

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  8. RGJ says:


    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*.

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    • John B says:

      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.”

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