Pets or Kids: Which Do We Spend More On?

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering: What matters more to us in America, our pets or our children? We have a lot more pets, 217 million cats, dogs, gerbils, et cetera, plus another 150 million fish. We have only about 75 million children under the age of 18.

Education spendingHow would one go about measuring caring? I’m a big fan of trying to compare effort, not just amounts, so here’s what I came with. I decided to compare the percent of revenue that a leading pet company spends testing its goldfish food, puppy toys and flea drops to the percentage of our education spending that we devote to testing and measuring our children’s performance in school.

I decided to call Hartz, a well-known company whose products we’ve used with our dogs and cats.

I got a Hartz PR guy on the phone. My strategy was to soften him up first, before asking about how they spend their money. I told him about the cats in our office and our Labrador retriever at home. Then I said I knew that reliable companies like his invested heavily in testing and evaluating. Here I cited Bristol-Myers Squibb, which I discovered was spending $16 out of every $100 of revenue testing products like Enfamil and the cancer drug Erbitux and developing new ones. That’s a whopping 16 percent!

It was time to pop my question. Does Hartz spend a lot testing Spectramax Goldfish Food, Advanced Care 3 in 1 Flea and Tick Drops and other stuff? How much?

My strategy failed. He buttoned up completely. “We’re a privately held company, and we don’t release that kind of information.”

How about a ballpark figure, I suggested.

“We’re a privately held company,” he repeated, speaking a little more slowly this time in case I hadn’t understood.

I decided to put my cards on the table. What I’m curious about, I said, is whether Hartz spends more testing pet products than education spends testing students.

When he told me that his wife was an educator, I figured we were bonding and offered to trade information. I’ll tell you how much education spends on testing, I said, and then you tell me whether Hartz spends more that that. You don’t have to give me the amount, just whether it’s more or less than education.

I took his silence as a tacit agreement, so I told him what percentage education spends.

“Is that true? You’ve got to be kidding,” he blurted out.

Your reaction suggests to me that Hartz spends a larger percentage, I said eagerly. Am I right?

He flipped back into PR-speak. “We’re a privately held company, and we don’t release financial information.”

Truth is, it would be hard for Hartz to spend less, because public education does testing on the cheap. In Margins of Error: The Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era, Thomas Toch of Education Sector estimated that state spending on NCLB-related testing was less than $750 million, out of total K-12 spending of more than $500 billion. In other words, for every $100 we spend on K-12 education, we were devoting fifteen cents to testing and measuring. That’s 15/100ths of one percent! Even Massachusetts, which takes its responsibility as seriously as any state in the union, devotes less than one percent of its education dollars to testing.

Chemical engineering companies spend at least three or four percent on research and evaluation, according to Blouke Carus, a chemical engineer who is known to educators for developing the Open Court reading program and, with his wife, Marianne, the Cricket, Ladybug and Spider magazines for children. And, as noted earlier, Bristol Myers-Squibb spends 16 percent.

Educators are under pressure to raise test scores, and ‘teaching to the test’ is common. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if the curriculum and the tests were sufficiently challenging, so that passing the tests demanded a convincing demonstration of clear thinking, creativity and mastery. The exams that students in International Baccalaureate programs have to pass are all these things, and so IB faculty quite properly ‘teach to the test.’

We are now moving in the direction of national or common standards, which promises to be an adventure. But setting higher standards won’t be enough to solve our problems. Challenging curriculum is available, but that won’t solve the problem either. Let’s be honest and acknowledge that testing drives curriculum, which means that more money must be spent developing sophisticated testing instruments.

Creating really good tests is going to be a problem even if money suddenly becomes available, because education doesn’t have enough sophisticated test-makers. However, I can tell you where to find first-rate evaluators. They’re working for Hartz, Bristol Myers-Squibb, Gerber, Toyota and other places that take evaluation seriously.


6 thoughts on “Pets or Kids: Which Do We Spend More On?

  1. It drew me in, John. But I hope that you are not suggesting we spend an equal percent of our education budget on testing kids! I also suspect that part of Hartz’ research budget is on what sells bes–on PR.

    My brownstone in NYC was often used for 60 second ads, and I noticed that they spend more money just filming that 60 seconds (more than a full day) than the budget I had for my school, and more time in focus groups “researching” its impact than all the professional time we got paid for in our school. Is it any wonder that they catch the attention of their viewers more powerfully than the average teacher does?

    Deborah Meier, former CPE principal


  2. I’m not sure this is a good analogy. I think Hartz probably tests to see if our pets like what they create and whether or not it is healthy for them. I can already tell you, our students hate the bubble-in standardized tests that are created and I’m not so sure the testing is beneficial to their health. As a classroom teacher, I have seen major student burn-out on standardized tests, as districts give “practice” tests every three weeks to check student progress.


  3. Great column. Of course we want the additional funds to go to better teaching not testing…but if we want better teaching we need to raise the bar. Thanks for making us think about the problem of teaching-to-the-test from a new perspective!


  4. To Shannon: maybe we can’t get rid of bubble tests, but ‘good bubble test’ is pretty close to an oxymoron. Good tests actually teach while they challenge and stimulate the brain. Good tests cost money. Having students demonstrate what they know is time-consuming (and therefore expensive). Of course, we’re not merely cheap on this; we’re also reluctant to trust teachers’ evaluations, unfortunately.


  5. Dear John

    Much as I love and respect your work, I do believe you are asking a VERY WRONG question here. The question is not “How do we spend testing our students?” Testing our students doesn’t help. The question is “How much do we spend testing our SYSTEM?” For example, why are so many educational methods in use today never tested? What are principals never testes? Why are districts themselves never tested? We do no true diagnostic work on the people doing the work. Only the children who get worked on. And that’s what dangerous about testing.


  6. Steve, that’s a false dilemma: we have to assess students AND we should be measuring school and teacher effectiveness. Would you endorse a public system of choice, so that parents and kids could move from one school to another–a reasonable measure of perceived effectiveness? My quarrel is not with testing but with too many and too cheap tests.


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