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Peg Tyre, Author of The Good School, Answers Your Questions

This week, we solicited your questions for Peg Tyre, education journalist and author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids The Education They Deserve. You responded quickly, and so has she, with answers to a handful of your education-related questions, ranging from textbooks, to No Child Left Behind.
This turned into a smart conversation on a topic that affects all of us. Education policy and reform is certainly something we’ll keep coming back to on the blog. Thanks to everyone for participating.
Q. 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 so much the topics that they learn about.
As for your 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. -Kip
A. Okay — there are really two questions here. First one: preschool is not, at its best, simply social — although there are many important social lessons to be learned. Preschool teachers also need to be embedding important early math and pre-literacy skills in age appropriate play. Lots of talking, rhyming, singing, clapping out beats of words in a sentence as well.
Question Two: Really important distinction here. I’m writing about standardized tests — the ones all our kids take to determine how well they are doing and how well the school is doing (and in some places — if their teacher should get a bonus). Not end of the year exams for classes — which are a different beast all together. Until people understand the difference, our efforts at education reform will go… nowhere.
Q. 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? –David
A. Good question. The international benchmark tests are built around standards which are not available to the people who give out the tests. (teachers and schools.) The state standards, which control the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top tests are not only available, companies sell workshops and products on how to teach to them.
There is no teaching to the test on the international benchmark exams.
Kids do better in Singapore because they have better instruction. I know… ouch. But accurate.
Q. 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? –Marty
A. Another great question. I would refer you to an oped I wrote in the New York Times about grade fog. What happens, especially in low and middle-income communities, is a horrible betrayal of students and their families. Students are given A’s for C work– and what seems like a harmless boost actually deceives parents into thinking their children are being well-prepared for college. They take out loans, send Junior off to college where s/he sinks like a stone. Tragic.
Q. I’ve read your rationale for why “teaching to the test” is bad, but let’s agree that 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)? –Todd Sullivan
A. Such a thoughtful comment and question. I agree with you wholeheartedly that we, the masses, have a deep desire to assign a clean clear number (test scores) to this complicated undertaking we call education. The thing is, we think we have it and we don’t. And that is very dangerous.
Plenty of smart people in Washington know this needs to be fixed. And the federal government has set aside $350 million and asked two companies to come up with a new generation of tests to measure success in teaching/learning called the Common Core (a set of national curriculum standards, for those of you who are not following this rather arcane matter.) They have said they are going to use what is called in test jargon as “authentic assessment” which means actually doing chemistry experiments instead of answering three multiple choice questions about a chemical reaction etc. They are going to supply real-time information (as opposed to take the test in March and get the results in Oct, once the kids have moved to the next grade.) I haven’t seen a prototype of the new generations of tests — I hear they will depend a great deal on a sophisticated technological infrastructure — and right off the bat, I”m not sure how our cash-strapped states will afford that. We’ll see.
Q. Looking back, what would you say have been the greatest accomplishments and failures of the No Child Left Behind Act? –Ernest
A Well, I’m not a NCLB hater. I know, I know. Everyone hates this law but me. But here’s the thing: it was a bipartisan effort to focus the nation’s attention on the achievement gap between low-income kids and middle class kids — which until that time was a much ignored problem — and once you really look at the numbers, a national disgrace .
That said, the limitations of the law grow more obvious to me every day. The standardized tests, which have become the litmus test for school achievement, are not the instruments of measurement that we believe them to be. We want to believe they measure academic achievement but they don’t. And these days, the tail is wagging the dog. Standardized tests are deeply flawed, though control our schools’ curriculum.