Do you want your kids on THAT bus?

John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book’s official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

Imagine it’s early morning, 20 minutes or so after the school bus was expected. You are waiting with your children when an old yellow clunker — belching smoke, with its rear emergency door hanging open — weaves toward you. The driver, a pint of whiskey in one hand, yells out an apology: “Sorry about being late. The damn thing keeps stalling on me.” Before you can say anything, he adds, “I know this ain’t the prettiest or the safest looking bus, but it’s the best we got. Hop right in, kids.” Then he grins and says, “Don’t worry. You won’t be late for school. I’ll put the pedal to the metal and get this baby rolling.”

Of course you wouldn’t let your child board the bus. Instead, you would snap photos with your phone, post them on Facebook, and begin organizing a campaign to fire the drunk driver — and the leaders who were so cavalier about your child’s physical safety. You’d probably organize a boycott of that bus and keep your child home, rather than risk his or her safety.

So then why do parents accept educational practices that put the educational health and safety of their children at risk? I am talking about how schools go about measuring academic progress: how they test.

If you saw this clunker rolling towards your child, would you let him or her board? Probably not -- but in some other ways, you already do.

I can’t begin to count the number of conversations I have had with educators over the years about testing, conversations that always seem to begin something like this: “I know about the problems with testing, and I personally hate them, but that’s the system — and we have to have accountability.”

The superintendent of a big city system said that to me earlier this week with a slightly different twist: it’s the public that is “test score crazy,” she said, and, even though we educators know the tests are horribly flawed, we have to give the public what it wants.

In other words, put your kids on that bus….

How is this approach to schooling flawed? Let me count the ways….

1. A narrowed curriculum: Jack Jennings and his Center for Education Policy, among others, have reported on the narrowing of the curriculum, with ‘frills’ like art, music, journalism et al being eliminated or drastically reduced so that adults could focus on reading and math, the stuff being tested under No Child Left Behind.

2. Goodbye, gifted programs: Early in the reign of NCLB, we reported for PBS Newshour on the shrinking of programs for gifted kids, another response to the drive for higher test scores.

3. Hello, drilling: The ‘drive’ for better scores often means mind-numbing drills, especially in schools full of low-income children.

4. Wasting time: Educators like to talk about ‘time on task,’ their term for spending class time on academics. But someone ought to talk about ‘time on test’ because I am hearing awful stories about how some teachers spend up to 20 percent of their time either preparing for the tests or giving the tests.

Twenty percent! That’s one day a week, folks, and it’s time that your children don’t get back.

5. ‘Cheap, cheap, cheap,’ said the little bird: Tests aren’t bad, but cheap tests are, and our schools rely on cheap tests. In Florida, I am told that the FCAT tests costs about $20 per child. So Florida spends just over $10,000 per pupil and one fifth of one percent of that amount assessing the impact of its investment. How cheap is that? How stupid is that?

Let’s compare the way we assess kids to how we test our cars. I drive a used 2002 Toyota 4Runner that cost $12,000 a few years ago, and I spend at least $400 a year assessing it. That’s just over three percent, folks, to ‘test and measure’ my car. (The entire process took just one day of the year, not one day of every week.)

I will bet that every one of you who owns a car spends a like amount, meaning that, on some level, we care more about our cars than our children.

So who’s ultimately to blame for the testing mess? Bottom line, who has the power to put their kid on that bus, or not? Isn’t it time for parents to demand better for their children, especially since nobody else is willing to challenge a system that almost everyone agrees is inaccurate and damaging?

On a different note, some of you may know that we’ve been working on a documentary about New Orleans schools after Katrina. We now have a trailer for that documentary online, and you can watch it right here:

Definitely feel free to send it around to friends and colleagues — for more information on when the doc will be finished and where to see it, join our mailing list.

17 thoughts on “Do you want your kids on THAT bus?

  1. So The Simpsons’ Otto is in charge of testing. Sounds about right. I live in Georgia, which has been hit hard by testing scandals recently. The state’s test, the CRCT, is completely opaque, so parents have no clue what the results mean. Compare them to the Iowas, which give teachers and parents yardsticks to help students with areas of deficiency. And now that you mention it, I wonder how cheap the tests are. When I wrote “CHAIN GANG ELEMENTARY,” I used a cruder term than “test score crazy,” but the madness was definitely there. To see a short excerpt on testing from this novel, check out “Elementary Madness: The Standard Hightower Achievement Test”:


  2. Thanks John for providing another example supporting my contention that local Education Communities (as I call them) that come together to identify concerns and desired outcomes through agreeing to the development of THE BETTER ALTERNATIVE – one that all parties agree is better than the one each party championed at the start of the effort. Aside: The Better Alternative is adapted from Stephen Covey’s “Third Alternative” documented more broadly in his recent book of the same name. It doesn’t matter who’s pushing testing; come together to deal with all issues to find, plan, implement, assess, and refine optimum solutions.


  3. John,
    Your analogy is excellent and in the process of expanding upon it you hit several nails squarely on their heads. The tallest-standing nail and hence the one that needs to be hit the hardest, however, is the “key nail”, so to speak; that being the “TESTING NAIL”. You address it well, but the only problem I find with your promotion of addressing the problems of testing via your column/blog is that you, unfortunately, end up preaching to the choir. Those of us with many years of experience in Education and who care about good teaching, but are fed up with the lingering and far-too-long-lasting effects of NCLT (No Child Left Untested) have assuredly discussed the flaws of standardized testing and its false “accountability” with each other both locally and in national settings. But, the people who REALLY need to hear us and who really need to read your excellent analogy are those sitting in the legislatures of our states since they are ultimately the ones who either approve (out of fear) or disapprove (when common sense prevails) of increased testing as a means of learning whether or not our schools are good schools and our teachers are good teachers. Often they approve because they have been sold a bill of goods by short-sighted, albeit well-intentioned parents and lobbyists for politico-educators who yearn to know that their children are not only not on THAT bus, but are or are not in THAT school. Testing they have been told will give them the “accountability” and answers that they seek and more testing is better than less or too litle testing. Unfortunately, leaders in state departments of education and, sad to say, even our current Education Secretary (for whom I had much higher hopes) have also aided in perpetrting this falsehood. Thus, your message needs to get to legislators and parents who have the fortitude to stand up and put a stop to this testing madness! How can your message (and ours) best get to such folk? I close with this thought on testing, so to speak, from the old Vermont farmer who said, “Cows never gained no weight by bein’ weighed!” Thanks again for your excellent piece!


  4. Not to diminish the argument about testing, but parents already overlook and accept that the school buses they put their children on don’t have seat belts for their children.


  5. Fair point about seat belts, Jo, and we probably need a wake up call there too. I was, of course, suggesting that some parents somewhere ought to just say no. In our Twitter Town Hall in August, Secretary Duncan said that, as a parent, he would be upset if his kids were spending more than 10 days a year on those tests and test-prep. So isn’t that an invitation for a “Stop at 10” campaign?


  6. It was not so obvious in the first years of NCLB that these would be the results. In fact I think your analogy misses an important point about what NCLB has done. It have hard numbers to levels of failure we have known was there but many folks wanted to avoid acknowledging. Plus the dirty little secret for parents is that it enables us to feel good that our kid is at a school that is ranked a 10 by Great City schools because the majority of students pass. Never mind given the socio-economic standing of these children they better be passing that test. Now the bigger problem is that the tests only indicate the basement of knowledge our kids need but that is a lot harder for parents to know or understand. The problem is that you have a split in how we judge success in education. On the core standards side E.D. Hirshe tells us that it is actual content that enables kids to have strong reading, science and social studies skills. He weighs in less on math. But then you have IB programs and others that focus on the process of learning and not as much on content. Both of these philosophies measure outcome differently. Most parents have no way of knowing how to judge these outcomes so it is easier for us to look at NCLB and at least feel like the basics are being taught. Meanwhile the ecucation industry fights an internal war and the U.S. continues to decline because no one’s real nees are being met.


    • DC Parent,

      Do your kids come home from school happy? Do they want to go to school the next day? Do they do something other than shrug their shoulders when you ask them what they learned when they get home? Do your kids think that school is not boring? Can your kids read? Can they do basic arithmetic?

      If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then school was successful – no testing required.


      • Andrew- I am afraid that does not cut it as far as I am concerned. Frankly those are not the questions top students in China or India are asked by their parents. Even in the US those are not the answers asked by employers. Being able to read does not mean one is knowledgeable or analytical. Basic arithmetic is just that, it will not an engineer make. They may however let you count out the cash at CVS. While I get the idea of kids wanting to be at school as important for them learning I think we have to ask more of schools, teachers, parents and even kids.


      • DC Parent,
        I wonder what solution you would suggest.
        A child who is motivated to learn is the goal, right? Have you ever seen education work? I have, and it looks like listening, mutual respect and play are essential ingredients. Even the leading research in learning development points to much greater possibilities for our children than those currently engaging them. Smaller class sizes, learner-invested projects, and creative, playful interaction are better fitted for their needs.
        Is it that we need to “ask more of” our students, parents, and teachers? Perhaps as the adults we need to provide better environments for learning, ones that are truly based on our childrens’ developmental needs.


      • Joy- All those ideas sound great but what keeps glaring out at me is that too many of them could be about anything clear useful content or marginal content. While good teachers, using excellent methods matter a lot too much of what we are teaching kids in terms of content is not the most important stuff. While I thought it was great that my daughter’s 4th grade class discussed the Arab Spring last year, they did it in place of discussing the American Revolution. The balance of topics is just not working in favor of our kids. The fifth grade teacher does not think that their are important texts that 5th graders should read, just that they should read. What appears to have happened in our education is that everyone one is afraid of setting up a generalized cannon of knowledge for the political cultural war that will ensue so knowledge becomes randomized. I am hopeful that some of the common core will remedy this, but event that has shied away from giving clear guidance in terms of texts. Frankly education feels like so much in our society any possible bridge is soon burned by the fringe.


      • DC Parent,

        I didn’t say that kids shouldn’t learn more than the basics. The implication in what I said, I hope, is that kids will necessarily be learning all kinds of interesting things provided that those basic criteria are met. And if they are not met, they probably won’t get much out of their time in school – good scores or not.

        Where we differ, I believe, is that you see education as competition and preparation to get a job. I do not. I really don’t care if students in China (as a group) can do better on a test than those in the US. What I do care about is that students in the US have the opportunity to learn what interests THEM. I hope that we have teachers who can motivate them to be the best plumber, engineer, cook, construction worker or writer that they can be.

        Each generation makes the society that fits it’s desires and needs. Those may not be the same desires and needs of the previous generation. Our economic beliefs and values may also differ over time. The idea that everyone will be an engineer, or that we need to complete with one another to make widgets is a fallacy promulgated by the powers that be. If we have to compete with the Chinese in the making of widgets or the engineering of a computer chip, the problem isn’t that there are too few widget makers or good engineers, it’s that there are too many.

        “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” – Einstein


      • Andrew- Fair enough distinction. But I have to say as a parent, I am running from teachers who view it all as being about the love of learning. Many if most jobs are not fun all the time and those jobs that are, are not very prolific. I want my child to enjoy their life’s work but I also want them to be able to support themselves. I think it is a failure if we don’t prepare kids to be employed. Do you work for free? Do you have skills because diligent parents, mentors and teachers prepared you? It is not all about love, it is a lot about what you know and how you learn to know what you know.


      • DC Parent,

        Not to get too embroiled in economics here, but there is a great assumption in this country that education will necessarily lead to good jobs. This is a reasonable assumption, because this used to be the case, but the case is weakening by the day. Ask the unemployed engineers of Jordan or Egypt who are driving cabs about education and jobs. It’d be great if everyone could support themselves, but that has a lot more to do with economics than it does with education.

        Most jobs today are NOT based on skills that one learned in K-12 school. Your last sentence is correct, it is about what you know, but if one is interested in something, one will learn what is necessary to be valuable to an employer. If one isn’t interested, no amount of training is truly going to help. I believe strongly in apprenticeships, but these are few and far between these days. Employers want students to get job-specific training at their own expense before they come to a job — a job that they may well dislike. If we want to stop school at 16 and start job preparation, so be it, but that’s not what this discussion has really been about — instead we’ve been talking about testing children for achievement in math, reading and other “college-prep” disciplines.


  7. Great post!

    Now let’s read it in context with the idea in DC to give teachers waivers off that bus for a couple of years in return for teaching in the toughest schools. I guess the logic is that poor kids suffered disproprtionately from the unintended consquences of NCLB, so now let’s wreck high perfroming schools. The only difference is if we were to get the “reform” version of the testing bus, that mandates test scores being used to fire teachers, the drunk driver will be replaced by a Meth head. When the parents of the kids of schools that are not now broken see the testing bus you accurately describe, the video will be distributed and this testing madness will get real opposition. Combine pieces like yours with ideas like Dc’s and perhaps we can end this madness bus without sacrificing much more than a half generation of poor kids to the unintended effects of “reform.”i


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