Open Letters from KISS Grammar
The Illiterate Common Core
—Dr. Ed Vavra

     As more people become aware of the Common Core, opposition has been growing. Much of that opposition expresses concern about government collection of tracking data and about a single national set of standards. I understand these concerns, but there is a bigger problem—the Common Core is illiterate. 

     The Core is supposedly a “standards” document. What it presents, however, are “objectives.” One might think that the people who set standards would use language carefully, but this confusion between “standards” and “objectives” has a long history among our educational leadership. The difference is important. Consider a Core standard for first graders—“Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media.” That sounds nice, especially to educated people who are not teachers. 

     But I have been teaching writing at the college level for almost forty years, and most of my college students cannot distinguish a “detail” from the idea that the detail is meant to support. Indeed, a new book by Victor Benassi and others titled Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (2014) includes several approaches for helping college students to distinguish main ideas from the supporting details. [This excellent book is free at:]

     In other words, if many college students need instruction in distinguishing main ideas from supporting details, what does it mean to state that first graders should be able to “Ask and answer questions about key details”? (We could, by the way, ask the same question about most of the “standards” in the Core.) Lacking “details” itself, the Core is meaningless—illiterate. 

     To find out what these standards might mean, we would need to look at samples of assessment tests. But these are few and far between. Apparently, the states themselves do not know how to develop them, so the task (and the money) is going to private companies. These companies will then control the instructional materials to meet their own objectives. To my knowledge, no samples from them are yet available. 
My guess is that they will model the assessments in previous state assessments. Lord, help our students. One question on a previous test asked students to identify the one of four sentences that included a “subordinate clause.” It might appear that the purpose of the question was to test the students’ ability to identify such clauses. But the correct answer was the only option that presented a correctly written sentence. Before we accept the Common Core as a multi-billion dollar investment to improve education, we should demand specific examples and explanations of the tests—“Where’s the beef?” 

     This is the first of a series of short open letters, collected under the general title, “The Illiterate, Pufferfish Common Core.” They are short so that each can make a point (with some details) and newspapers or other publications can freely run them as a series. Further titles include “The Unteachable Common Core,” “The Pufferfish Common Core” (in two parts), “The Unarticulated Common Core,” “The Unteachable Common Core,” “The Common Core for Rats?”, “The Elitist Common Core,” “The Fallacious Common Core,” and “The Fearful Common Core.” On the “Open Letters” site where they are located, the letters about the core are currently followed by a letter on “KISS Grammar—Clear, Testable Standards.”

     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.