Teaching to the Test Is Not the Problem

It's a wonderful sentiment, but is that the job of the teacher, or the parent? And does the teacher have the time/capabilities of parenting 20-30 kids and still teach them the basic skills they need?

It’s a wonderful sentiment, but is that the job of the teacher, or the parent? And does the teacher have the time/capabilities of parenting 20-30 kids and still teach them the basic skills they need? image from

I’ve seen this image come up several times, usually posted by friends of mine who are teachers, and as you might guess from my post last week, I’ve got a problem with it.

Who appointed teachers to determine what kind of person my child is? It certainly wasn’t me; I think it’s my job. Sure other people in my children’s life will contribute to that outcome, but they are the minor players; they have other primary responsibilities. Teachers, for example, have a very specific job, although we seem to have forgotten that over the last couple of decades.

Go ahead, ask a teacher what their job is. Ask several. How many of them will come back with the answer “My job is to teach children the basic skills they need to further their education, to include reading, writing, math, history, science, and art?” On the other hand, how many will instead answer  “My job is to prepare children to fulfill their potential and become fully functioning members of society?”

Our schools are so Pavlovian they use bells to signal class changes!

On the surface, that’s not a bad thing is it? Both answers sound good; both answers seem to put the development of your child as the highest priority. So why don’t I like the second answer?

Well, there are a lot of reasons.

First, it is a meaningless answer. It can mean anything you want it to mean.

  • Master basic skills? Check.
  • Respond well to authority? Check.
  • Have a strong sense of self esteem? Check.
  • Fit in well with society? Check.
  • Instilled with civic virtue? Check.
  • Know their place and keep it? Check.
  • Allow their individuality to be placed beneath the demands of the state? Check.

I could go on, but you get the point. The phrase “member of society” means whatever the culture wants it to mean. After all, slaves had their place in Southern plantation culture. It wasn’t a very good place, but it was a place.

Second, even if we assume that not only are the intentions of modern education benign, and that they have the intelligence to design a system to successfully fulfill those intentions (two assumptions I’m not rash enough to make, given the current results of our educational system despite billions of dollars spent), there is absolutely no way that a school has enough time with a student to teach all of that.

Not to do a good job of it, at least.

And that leads to my third and most important point: It’s not the school’s job!

It’s the parent’s job. It’s my job and your job. As parents, we raise our children. We teach them how to be a member of society without being subject to it. And we know their potential far better than any teacher possibly could.

Now I know what you are thinking: “Teachers spend more time with out kids than we do. They have them in class for 8 hours a day. After we get home from work and handle chores and errands and stuff, we’re lucky if we get an hour or two a day with them!”

True, but you have to also remember that while your child is in school for 8 hours, actual instruction time is roughly 6 hours. And when you divide that among, say, 25 kids in the classroom, that means your child gets the equivalent of 14 minutes of attention. Sustained individualized attention is critical for kids to develop ethically and morally; teachers simply do not have the time. On the other hand, group instruction is perfectly suited for the conditioning of institutionalized conformity. Heck, our schools are so Pavlovian they use bells to signal class changes!

As for academics, do you really think that your child’s teacher knows more about your child’s potential than you do based on that 14 minutes a day? Don’t let anybody bully you into thinking that teachers know your child better than you do; unless you are spending less than 14 minutes per day with your child, you have more solid interaction with your kid than any teacher can possibly have. This isn’t a knock on teachers; for the most part, they are selfless, dedicated professional trying to do the best they can for your kids. The problem is that the system has developed where they are asked to do too much.

They can’t parent your child; you have to do that. Teachers can reinforce ethics/morality; they don’t have time to do a good job of instilling those qualities.

On the other hand, they have more than enough time to do their real job; that is, teaching. In my post last week, I mentioned research results that showed how much better home-schooled students performed, both on tests and in college, when compared to traditionally schooled kids of their own age group. Another interesting tidbit was that home-schooled kids were able to spend far more time actually learning and less time dealing with time-wasting routines. And while the NEA has complained that parents aren’t qualified to teach, the results have not shown that home-schooled children are at any disadvantage compared to public school children. My guess is that because parents don’t have to spend time on non-academic-mandated curricula, they are able to make up for any deficiencies in their teaching skills with additional time in instruction.

So consider what professional teachers could do if they had the same freedom?

The image for this post came from a teacher’s website run by Krissy Venosdale, and while I disagree with this poster, everything I’ve read on her site makes me think she is an absolutely awesome teacher. I just believe that the school must place as a first priority its most basic function: teaching skills mastery. If a student cannot read and write fluently, then he or she cannot think fluently either. By the same token, a solid grounding in mathematics is required for life, as well as being able to understand more advanced science. Without a sense of history, a student lacks the perspective to accurately evaluate his or her present circumstances, or to predict his or her future. Only after a student has mastered basic skills should the school begin to expand the curriculum to other areas.

Looking at the projects her students have completed, I’m betting that she would agree with me on this.

On the other hand, I don’t share her distaste for standardized testing because I believe that as long as the test measures the outcome you are trying to achieve, then it’s a valid measure of success. It’s important to remember, though, that students are not defined by the results of these tests; only their mastery of certain skills is tested. Students are more than their test results, but that doesn’t mean that the test results are irrelevant, unimportant, or meaningless.

So that’s what I think; let me know what you think. Do you want schools to raise your kids for you? Do you think a government school is the appropriate place to mold your child’s character? Some folks object to standardized testing because they think it somehow robs a child of his or her individuality, but the same people are okay with a government school enforcing a uniform mindset on their kids. Is this really what we want from our schools? Tell me what you think is good and bad about our schools.

Tell me how we can fix it.

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