At the Core – Human Nature vs. the Test

CommonCoreby Deana Chadwell    4/13/14
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 non-fiction in English classes.  So 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 nation-wide 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 restriction.  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 • (1571 views)

Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I'm blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing -- and more keeps popping up -- needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation. I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.
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10 Responses to At the Core – Human Nature vs. the Test

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    The basic need for testing is to verify that students are actually being educated, at least to some degree. Given the quality of many teachers, this is necessary. But it’s also a problem. I think the solution deals with both aspects. (Sometimes dialectical materialism has some value.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I get your point about tests. I think it’s a valid one.

      All of this fiddling from Washington DC for “standardizing” hasn’t done any good and surely has done harm. I don’t know why fools such as Bill Gates promote this garbage. Maybe there’s money in it for him. Maybe he can think in no other terms than homogenization.

      Whatever the motive (and I happen to believe that none of them are good), we don’t need Washington DC interfering. What we do need are good teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and the deflation of all the excuses for children and schools not doing well.

      The basics of teaching the basics are well known. There is no mystery here. There is simply the lack of will to take responsibility for the failure of trying to outsmart what is actually a fairly simple, if hard, thing.

      All of this “standardizing” is simply shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s useful to note that this is all a fantasy. No one is talking about the real problems facing kids trying to learn. And one of the primary problems is the deflection with the help of this goofy shit like “Common Core” that sounds nice but produces nothing but more paper-shuffling and responsibility-deflecting.

      Shame on our politicians, Bill Gates, and all the other fools and frauds who have over-complicated this entire subject. Shame on parents for putting up with this tomfoolery over the years. Shame on teacher’s unions for putting unions above standards of teaching. Shame on just about everyone.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Good teachers are indeed necessary. This is why liberals who call for more teachers and claim that this will improve education are careful never to consider whether those additional teachers are likely to be any good, given that many existing teachers aren’t. We actually need far fewer teachers — provided we have some way of getting rid of the bad ones and keeping (and rewarding) the good ones. To do that, we have to identify which are which.

    • The key here is to get rid of the unions and to open up the school voucher/charter school options. The competition will get rid of the bad teachers and simple, local testing can then provide adequate accountability. There is none now with the heavy emphasis on the exams, so those aren’t helping.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The key here is to get rid of the unions and to open up the school voucher/charter school options. The competition will get rid of the bad teachers and simple, local testing can then provide adequate accountability.

        We’re still struggling in this modern world with how to have socialism (which is what public schools are) without having this system metastasize into unionism or some other disease.

        I wholeheartedly agree with introducing competition. But “competition” and “state-run school systems” are probably inherently at odds with one another. It might work if parents stayed involved (in a good way). But from what I understand, parents either view school as a sort of daycare so that they can pursue their careers unencumbered by children, or they are of the nasty mindset that “Don’t you dare criticize my little Tommy.” That is, narcissism (or whatever you want to call it) has overcome the spirit of working with teachers regarding disciplinary and other problems.

        If I had children, and if I could afford it, I would homeschool them or put them in a private religious school — a traditional Catholic one would be fine. But it’s getting to the point where the nonsense in public schools is now so thick, that it’s a system that needs to be put out of its misery. The problem is, scraping the system wouldn’t change who we have become as a people — vapid idiots more interested in getting lost in mindless amusement than honoring the state of being a wise and educated human being.

  2. Glenn Fairman says:

    With few exceptions, every fad or pedagological horror that has come down the pike in the last 50 years has dumbed down the organism. Whole language, sight reading, “the new math.” All were touted as magic keys to stimulate and revolutionize. They left nothing but indifference and ignorance in their wakes.
    A society that tells its children that they are only “clever beasts who have lost their claws” cannot use reason to give legitimacy to the educational process. Education can be an exercise in indoctrination at worst or can be one generation’s gift of virtue to its young—Common Core promises to be the former in spades.

    “One ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them”…..
    Excellent piece, Deana

  3. Rosalys says:

    So we are back to “teaching to the test” which was the great cry against GWB’s (and Chappaquiddick Ted’s) No Child Left Behind initiative. I guess what was a horror show when it was advanced by Bush is miraculously turned into profound brilliance when advanced by the left.

    And then there is this emphasis on grades which you touch upon. We sent our children to a Christian school for K-8. For a while they had this program of “late study”. This was a program where kids who did not finish their homework (or didn’t bother to do it) would stay after school for an hour in order to finish (do) their homework and take a reduced credit for it but at least not have to take a zero. This school was two towns distant and I was responsible for dropping off and picking up my children. Luckily, we were able to participate in a car pool with other families. Generally, I would drive in the morning. But when our daughter took advantage of late study (on a regular basis) I would have to pick her up in the afternoon because her ride would be long gone by then. I really didn’t like being punished for my daughter’s transgression. After several weeks of this I spoke to the school headmistress.
    “Why late study?”
    “Because,” she explained, “Missing homework assignments are devastating to their grades!”
    I will now sound like the worst parent imaginable, but… I really didn’t care! In my mind, my kids were never too big to fail! I told the headmistress and the teacher that my daughter will not be participating in late study any longer. Let her get some zeros. Maybe she’ll learn a lesson. Oh, and I was never one to stand over my children and make sure they did their homework, nor did I ever check over their homework or check to make sure it was done. That was their own responsibility. And by the way my daughter didn’t fail, nor did she receive D’s and C’s. She got A’s and B’s. Also, by the time her little brother was old enough to participate in late study they had done away with late study.

    Back to Common Core. Even the title reeks of homogenization! The Socialists are not interested in an educated population. What they want is an obedient population. Government has no business running schools. I like the idea of vouchers because it allows some choice for poor families who choices would be limited. But even that is a bit socialistic. However if we must have some socialism I would prefer that to other socialist programs. Privately run educational charities would be better. We had them in the past in the form of Catholic schools. Yes, you still had to pay for them but I understand that sliding scale tuition was part of it. The Christian school that our children went to always gave us a generous break on the tuition – back then we didn’t have very much money at all.

    • Frankly, Rosalys, if we had more parents like you we wouldn’t even need this conversation. Bravo!

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Interesting that you mention your attitude toward your children’s homework. I don’t recall my parents ever paying attention to what I was doing in that respect. They noticed the results, and fortunately mine were generally good.

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