Open Letters from KISS Grammar
The Elitist Common Core

—Dr. Ed Vavra

     To be clear, by “elitist” I simply mean those students who are above average proficiency in their school work. Although many argue that these students come from richer socio-economic parents, in my sense the group also includes many financially poor students who, for example, read a lot. In other words, these students come to classroom “Language Arts” better prepared. They can skate through their coursework—but they are rarely challenged to do their best. My point is that the Common Core, although it was supposedly developed as a floor for weaker students, actually favors the elite. As I have argued in previous letters, it does so because the Core is really not standards. It is a set of dreamy, undefined objectives.

     Justin Kruger and David Dunning published an article with a long but meaningful title—“Unskilled and Unaware of It” How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1999 77.6 1121-1134). The article implies that we all usually overestimate our abilities—the Lake Wobegon effect. (Obviously, I’m not below average in anything.) But the article, which reports on four studies, is more specific—we most overestimate our abilities in those areas in which we are incompetent. In areas in which we are fairly competent, we underestimate them.

     One of the studies involved proficiency in grammar. Eighty-four college students, apparently on an initial test, were divided into four quartiles—bottom, second, third, and top. The students were then asked to rank their ability with grammar on a scale of zero to 100. The bottom group perceived their ability at 67 %; on the following test, their average score was 10 % —57 points below their initial perception. The top group perceived their ability at 70 %; on the following test, they averaged 89 % —19 points above their initial perception.

     My interest here, of course, is the bottom group and the implication—we don’t know what we do not know. A major point of the article (which says a lot more than I can summarize here) is that the only way in which to improve the self-assessment of weaker students is to make them competent in the subject matter. Another important conclusion in the article is that competent people can learn from looking at the work of other people; incompetent people cannot do so.

     I have observed this phenomenon in my own classrooms. One typical procedure in writing courses is to have the students work in small groups to read and make suggestions on each others’ drafts. The quandary for the instructor is how to set up the groups. In my grading program, I can click on a button and get a random list of the students in the class. If I click on a different button, I get a ranked list based on their grade-to date. For years I used the random lists, but I noted that some groups worked well; others were a waste of time. Some groups finished early, and students in some groups complained that they didn’t get any help. So I experimented and used the ranked list, putting the students with the highest grades together, and forming the groups by going right down the list. The groups formed with students from the bottom of the list were “finished and ready to leave” after about fifteen minutes. The students in the top group continued to work together after the class was technically over. Need I state which group learned more?

     I’ve also experienced the overconfidence of weak students. The most memorable example was a group of three that was discussing the sentence “The books were under their shelf.” One student confidently insisted that “their” should be “they’re.” As the article suggests, weak students cannot learn from their peers—the only way in which we can help weaker students is direct instruction using clear terminology (just what the Common Core lacks). The “their” example relates to another.

     Over my forty plus years of teaching, I have seen thousands of subject/verb agreement errors. I deduct a point for each such error from the final grade of the paper, but students can get the points back if they correct the errors. Occasionally, students come to me for help. As we look at a sentence, I ask the student to identify the subject and verb. Relatively few students can, but when they do, in 90% of the cases, they automatically fix the error. If they cannot identify the subject and verb, I point it out, and once I do, most students quickly fix the error.

     My question is: Why are we not teaching students how to identify the subjects and verbs in their own writing? The Core claims that students should be able to fix such errors, but the Core does not state that students should be able to identify subjects and verbs. As a result, the Core will probably not hurt the “elite” students, but it will surely hurt the non-elite. The only way to help them is to use specific terms to define specific concepts—and to have the students learn how to apply those terms. 

Dr. Vavra has been teaching writing at the college level for almost forty years. He is also the developer of the free KISS Grammar site, a curriculum design and instructional materials that present clear objectives and standards. Additional open letters on the Core are available at You may publish or share them in any way you like.