At the Core -- Human Nature vs. the Test

Common Core – the phrase sets off a mental picture of a multitude of hungry mouths all trying to nibble off of a shriveled apple, nothing much left but cellulose and seeds. Unfortunately, that’s an apt description. I am, like all conservatives, and like many educators, appalled and concerned about this new wrinkle in our rumpled educational wardrobe. I’m concerned about its uniformity, when our pupils, our communities, our cultures are so diverse. I’m concerned about the secretive, manipulative manner in which this was developed and dispersed. I’m annoyed to see commercials trying to sell it like it was a new brand of toothpaste. I’m scared of the probability of our schools being used even more heavily as bastions of propaganda. But my main concern is that it is based on a demonstrably faulty assumption – that you can change student learning from the top down. You can’t.

This program is entirely test-driven. Now, who can argue against “standards” -- the current terminology? Is it not true that we should be able to tell whether or not schools are doing their job? Of course, but no one says clearly what that job is, so the test itself becomes the definition:

What is an educated person?

One who can pass the test.

What’s in the test?

Whatever can be tested.Therefore anything that can’t be measured on a multiple-choice bubble sheet, isn’t education. Ta dum!

So much is wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to begin ---

For one thing, a test-driven curriculum is a very narrow curriculum, pinched and purposeless. As an English teacher, I had the opportunity,  and the responsibility, of acquainting my students with thousands of years of the world’s literature and teaching them how to go about understanding those writings. I had to teach them all the writing techniques available to English-speaking people, show them how to research, argue, speak in public, and think intelligently. Is that going to fit on a computerized test?

I never taught in a school where I didn’t have at least some say in what I chose to emphasize in the courses I taught, but if a school has a national test hanging over its head, that school is going to insist that its teachers narrow their selections according to what will be on the test. Duh. The more pressure re the testing, the narrower the curriculum and the more it centers on measurable skills and knowledge as opposed to applicable wisdom -- something all great teachers want to pass on to their students.

However, the ability to read great literature insightfully does not lend itself to objective testing -- hence the Common Core emphasis on nonfiction in English classes. Gone is 6,000 years of accumulated wisdom regarding the nature of man and human society, to say nothing of the nature of God. Gone is the connection between imagination and truth. Gone is the subtlety of knowledge, the nuanced thinking of a truly educated person. Common Core establishes a standard, all right; its standard says that if it can’t be measured, it isn’t important.

Even worse is the fact that testing is not motivation. It may motivate a principal to harangue his staff, it may even motivate a teacher to drill down on her students, but it will not motivate a student to learn. Nothing top-down can. Any parent struggling with a reluctant learner will vouch for that. Take away the car keys, kick a kid off the football team and he might bring his grades up a little, but he won’t become a devoted academician. Testing is “leading from behind” cracking the whip on everyone involved. And it will always fail. Horses and water, remember?

“Raising the bar,” another educational talking point, produced nothing but lower standards. It goes like this:  Decide, as my school district did, to quit awarding D’s in the grading system. The students will either earn C’s or they won’t get credit -- which seems tough and laudable. A D means nothing anyway but “Didn’t learn much.” It all looks good, but of course it didn’t work because it was based on a misunderstanding of human nature. The administration raised the bar expecting the students to jump higher -- but they didn’t. They didn’t change their behavior at all. If D’s didn’t scare them into learning, why would an F? So the end result was an inflation of the C, the B and the sacred A. After all, we can’t have all these kids failing, so administrative pressure to award C’s increased and pretty soon we had succeeded in lowering the very standards we’d set out to raise.

One year our school signed onto another boondoggle -- “outcome based education.” Every assignment a teacher gave had to be completed or the students couldn’t have credit for the class. What’s wrong with that? Here’s what happened: we assigned work. The kids didn’t turn it in, so the administration announced that students could make up the work at any time -- literally years thereafter. It was during that time that one student looked at me after I had announced a due date and said, “Oh due dates, schmoo dates.” So down went the bar.

We cannot improve learning in our schools by manipulation -- kids are too smart for that. We can’t increase learning by cracking a whip -- for one thing, we don’t have the guts to really crack it, and it wouldn’t help anyway -- the tighter the rope, the more loopholes develop.

Our kids come to us from all kinds of backgrounds -- from educated households where discussions around dinner tables are the rule and from nearly a-lingual homes where there is no discussion, no reading material, no love, and precious little food. Instituting a nationwide test is not going to homogenize that reality.

Our students need a sense of purpose, but our God-sterile, relativistic schools can’t provide that. Our kids need a sense of urgency -- an awareness of the necessity of both knowledge and wisdom in order to live well, but our welfare system and our cultural acceptance of deviant behaviors hide that from them.

Our teachers need to be able to exercise their art, for teaching is the greatest art and like all art, highly personal. It can’t be done by rote; teaching is not a science. Great teaching can only flourish where adequate freedom and support are provided, where the teachers’ creativity and passion are recognized and encouraged. Learning happens when students observe their teachers being human and doing so with grace and confidence, demonstrating in their own lives wisdom and superior knowledge in such a fair and caring manner that emulation becomes the motivating factor. Inspiration is the answer -- leading from the front with joy and excitement.

No federal program can produce that miracle; it can only demolish it, drowning it in paperwork, and strangling it with restrictions.  We must remember that schools are rarely any better than the societies that produce them. If we want better schools, we have to be, at the very core, a better people.

Deana Chadwell blogs at


If you experience technical problems, please write to