Joanne Yatvin: The Common Core Standards May Be Harmful to Children

The following article was written by Dr. Joanne Yatvin, who does a great job of pointing out problems with specific standards, and how easy it is to tell that the Common Core Standards were not created by educators or child learning specialists.  Such specialists, such as Dr. Yatvin, have determined that they are harmful to the kids we expect to master them.  

The language arts standards of the Common Core in too many places are simply too difficult and/or irrelevant for elementary grade students.

When I first read the Common Core English/language arts standards for grades K-5, my visceral reaction was that they represented an unrealistic view of what young children should know and be able to do. As an elementary teacher and principal for most of my life, I could not imagine children between the ages of 5 and 11 responding meaningfully to the standards’ expectations. But clearly I was in the minority. Forty-five states have adopted the standards without a murmur of complaint; writers and publishers are racing to produce materials for teaching them, and the teachers quoted in news articles or advertisements speak of the standards 2 as if they are the silver bullet they have been waiting for.

Since then, I have read the English/language arts (ELA) standards many times; each time, they are more troubling. Some standards call on young children to behave like high school seniors, making fine distinctions between words or literary devices, carrying on multiple processes simultaneously, and expressing their understandings in precise academic language. Others expect them to have a strong literary background after only two or three years of schooling. Some standards are so blind to the diversity in American classrooms that they require children of different abilities, backgrounds, and native languages to manipulate linguistic forms and concepts before they have full control of their own home language. And, sadly, a few standards serve only to massage the egos of education elitists, but are of no use in college courses, careers, or everyday life.

To give you just an inkling of the problems in applying the ELA standards to young children, I offer a scenario of what might happen in a 1st-grade classroom when the following language standard is approached:

“(L.1.1) Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.”

While reading aloud from a 1st-grade book, Zach stumbled over the word “recheck” and, although he eventually pronounced it correctly, his teacher felt that he did not fully grasp its meaning in the sentence. It seemed like a good time to make the class aware of the prefix “re” and how it works. So, she stopped the lesson and wrote these words on the white board: remake, rewrite, and retell. Then she asked the children to explain what each word meant. Several students raised their hands and answered correctly.

“What does the ‘re’ part of each word tell us?” she then asked. The first student called on said “re” means to do something again. Nodding in approval, the teacher wrote “recheck” on the board leaving a space between “re” and “check.” Then she asked, “So, what does ‘recheck’ mean?”

“To check something again,” answered the class in chorus.

Since things were going well, the teacher decided to continue by asking students to name other words that worked the same way. Various class members confidently suggested, re-eat, re-dance, re-sleep, re-win, and others were waving their hands when she stopped them.

“Those aren’t real words,” she said. “We don’t say, ‘I’m going to resleep tonight.’ Let’s try to think of real words or look for them in our books.” After giving the class a few minutes, she asked again for examples.

This time, the words were real enough: repeat, renew, reason, remove, return, read, and reveal, but none of them fit the principle being taught. Since it seemed futile to explain all that to 1st graders, the teacher did the best thing she could think of: “You reminded (uh-oh) me of ‘recess,’ ” she said. “So, let’s go out right now.”

As they left the room, the children chatted happily among themselves: “We’re going to ‘cess’ again!” “We’ll ‘re-see’ our friends.” “I want to ‘re-play’ dodge ball.”

“Next time,” thought the teacher, “I’d better try a different prefix.” But then “un-smart” and “un-listen” popped into her head, and she decided to leave that particular standard for later in the year.

Although I could write scenarios for several other standards, they would make this paper much longer and not be as amusing as this one. Instead, I will present just a few standards that I find inappropriate for K-5 students along with brief explanations of their problems.

A Reading/Literature standard for 4th grade calls on students to:

“(RL.4. 4) Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in 4 mythology (e.g., Herculean).”

I can’t help wondering how 9- and 10-year-olds are supposed to do their “determining.” Competent, engaged readers of any age do not stop to puzzle out unknown words in a text. Mostly, they rely on the surrounding context to explain them. But, if that doesn’t work, they skip them, figuring that somewhere down the page they will be made clear.

Should students regularly consult a dictionary or thesaurus while reading? I don’t think so. That’s a surefire way to destroy the continuity of meaning. Nor would I expect them to recall an explanatory reference from the field of classic literature at this early stage of their education. Moreover, for each “Herculean” word that matches a literary character, there would be several like “cupidity” and “pander” that have strayed far from their original meanings.

In the Reading/Information category, I quickly found a standard with expectations far beyond the knowledge backgrounds of the children for whom it is intended:

“(RI.2.3) Describe the connection between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text.”

Just assuming that 2nd graders are familiar with “a series” of historical events, etc., is simply unrealistic. But expecting them to “describe the connection between (sic) them” is delusional. Is there only one simple connection among a series of “scientific ideas”? How would you, as an adult, describe the connections among the steps in building a robot or even baking a pie?

In most of the Reading/Information standards, the same expectations for describing complex relationships among multiple items appear:

“(RI.5.5) Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or 5 information in two or more texts.”

For 5th graders, this standard would be even more difficult to meet than the previous one because it asks them to carry out two different operations on two or more texts that almost certainly differ in content, style, and organization.

In the Writing and Speaking/Listening categories, there are fewer standards altogether. Yet, some of these standards also make unrealistic demands. One asks 1st graders to:

“(W.1.7) Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of “how-to” books on a given topic and use them to write a sequence of instructions).”

Since this standard does not mention “adult guidance and support,” as many others do, I assume that a group of 1st graders is expected to work on its own to digest the content of several books, prune it to the essentials, and then devise a well-ordered list of instructions. This would be a complicated assignment even for students much older, requiring not only analysis and synthesis, but also self-regulation and compromise. I cannot see 1st graders carrying it out without a teacher guiding them every step of the way.

Of all the ELA standards, the ones in the Language (i.e., grammar) category are the most unrealistic. I could cite almost all of them as unreasonable for the grades designated and a few as pointless for any grade. Here is part of a kindergarten standard that fits both descriptions:

“(L.K.1). (When speaking) Produce and expand complete sentences in shared language activities.”

Most of the kindergartners I know have no idea what the term “complete sentence” means. Children and adults commonly speak short phrases and single words to each other. I can’t imagine any kindergarten teacher 6 insisting during a group language activity that children speak in “complete sentences” or that they “expand” their sentences. Those directions would in all likelihood end the activity quickly as most children fell silent.

Here is another unrealistic standard, this time designated for 3rd grade:

“(L.3.1) Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.”

Aside from the unreasonableness of expecting 7- and 8-year-olds to explain the use of grammatical terms, this standard has no applications in reading, speaking, or writing. Research has shown unequivocally that being able to name parts of speech or diagram sentences has no positive effect on students’ writing. This standard wastes instructional time on a useless skill.

I cannot leave this critique of the ELA Standards without taking one more swipe at the Language category. Standard (L.4.1) asks 4th graders to:

Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and correctly use frequently confused words (e.g., to, too, two; there, their) in speech and writing.”

Several of these words are ones that many educated adults use incorrectly all the time. In fact “who” is so often used in place of “whom” that it is widely recognized as correct. Why not hold adults accountable for meeting this standard before expecting 4th graders to do so?

In finding fault with so many of the K-5 ELA standards, my familiarity with children’s abilities and educational needs have guided me. Standards advocates may well argue that I have offered no evidence and scant research to support my views. In rebuttal, I would argue that they are in the same position and that much of what they propose for children flies in the face of established learning theory and brain development research. The reality is that the standards’ creators have laid out a set of expectations for 7 America’s children that are grounded only in an antiquated conception of education and their personal preferences. And their followers, bedazzled by the standards length and breadth, illusion of depth, and elitist aura, have fallen into line as if lured by the Pied Piper of Hamelin.


JOANNE YATVIN ( is a supervisor of student teachers and former adjunct professor at the Portland State University Graduate School of Education, Portland, Ore., and is a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

This article is the property of the author (Joanne Yatvin) and is reprinted with permission.


  1. Vehemently disagree there’s no use in the standard for parts of speech, which is NCTE’s position that IS controversial. See, for example, The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy. He also explains why sentence diagramming is useful. Making grammar fun (Schoolhouse Rock anyone?) does engage kids. Also, sentence diagramming is incredibly helpful for many, including visual thinkers.

    • I would agree with you about the understanding of parts of speech, but I don’t think it is useful at the 3rd grade level.

  2. For our local school district. where approximately half of the students qualify for free breakfast and many do not speak English, the Common Core simply adds to the bad joke of bilingual education.

    Many of the illegal immigrant children here do not speak either English or Spanish; they speak indigenous dialects that have some Spanish loan words. They are taught Spanish first so they can relate to their heritage. We have a very low high school graduation rate, and parents who can afford to do so either home school or send their children to private schools. Do not refer to this refusal to participate in the public schools as racist – the first out the door are middle class Latino families. One friend, a software engineer, refuses to let his children attend public school because of what he considered the immense pressure from both peers and teachers to be a “good Mexican” and play sports and prepare for a career in construction or auto repair.

  3. I have to disagree. I teach in Asia (in a PYP and IB international school) and my 1st graders were more than capable of meeting and exceeding the Common Core standards. In fact most found them too easy. My class just finished: (L.3.1) Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.”

    Also, all my students are non native English speakers. Even the older students are capable of meeting the standards listed. I just don’t get the frustration over the Common Core Standards.

  4. Jeremy Greene says:

    My wife’s (1st grade teacher) students do this: “Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of “how-to” books on a given topic and use them to write a sequence of instructions).” They do it a lot. They make books every day.

    “(RI.2.3) Describe the connection between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text.”

    Students should be able to do this. Not in a deep level. But humans – have a good ability to think chronologically. This can start explicitly at grade 2. It happens for most humans “naturally” for lack of a better word before age 1 based on research I have seen with rewards.

    “(L.1.1) Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.”

    Joanne’s argument against re- is a good argument for never learning it. But students will have to learn that rules only sometimes apply in English. They are using these words already. Heck, Joanne might have just made the lesson for each of these which words apply and which don’t? 2 columns after brainstorming all the re words they can..

    “(L.3.1) Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.”

    I would say this skill could happen later. The key might not be better writing but a way to speak about writing. Knowing these words can sure make Mad Libs a lot better. And I know I was doing those at 8.

    “Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and correctly use frequently confused words (e.g., to, too, two; there, their) in speech and writing.”

    Adults don’t know how to use them correctly so what…not teach them at all? The whole who/whom argument is a good one and I would tend to agree with her. Throwing that out I would still keep the rest. The adult confusion would lead me to place it earlier, not later. Maybe that’s just me?

    “(L.K.1). (When speaking) Produce and expand complete sentences in shared language activities.”

    They don’t know it. Yes, that is why we teach them. And if you expect it of them they can do it:

    “(RI.5.5) Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.”

    These would be grade 5 texts they are using. My 4 year old already does it for video versus text and text vs. text for the same story. I hope in 6 years she would be able to do it for different stories. Oh wait, she can already compare fairy stories. Perhaps this could be lowered?

    That is enough.

  5. I appreciate the professional conversation focused on a significant issue in public education; I think it’s important to look at all sides of an issue to truly understand its effects. While I agree that Common Core raises the bar for learners of all ages, I argue that this is not a bad thing. I have worked with K-12 students and teachers across urban, suburban, and rural settings, and what I observe is that as a Nation, we grossly underestimate our students’ capabilities. The problem lies not in Common Core and its expectations. Rather, I position that the issue is in the implementation of these standards.

    In order for our students to think critically, as Common Core requires and emphasizes, instruction needs to change. Teachers need to be re-empowered to become instructional decision-makers — an important aspect of teaching that was stolen during the NCLB decade of anthologies and pacing guides. In order for our teachers to make this instructional shift, they need to be supported — truly supported through meaningful, continuous professional learning that will help them be successful. I’m suggesting more than the sit-and-get workshops in which we have all participated, and beyond your average PLC. Teachers and leaders today will thrive with ongoing job-embedded coaching and professional collaboration focused on effective instruction. I have lived this as a teacher, as a district coach, and as a national coach, and I have seen the power of this support and the amazing thinking our students are capable of.

    Those of us who have been in education for decades know that Common Core may or may not be around in five years; this is what happens to most initiatives when they are poorly implemented and cause division among educators, parents, and legislators. Therefore, I position that we shift our focus and energy from arguing against the standards to implementing effective instruction. Our students are the one constant in education; we are guaranteed that every day, in every year, there will be students looking to someone for learning opportunities. Hence, instruction — HOW we teach — is essential. I encourage more of us in the field to respond to these new initiatives with focused, supportive efforts that help our teachers and educational leaders think critically about their practice and learn more about how to be an instructional decision-maker. This is what will have the greatest impact on the success of our students in school.

  6. John Young says:

    Reblogged this on Transparent Christina.

  7. Carl Bailey says:

    This article put to words the apprehension I feel with using the new standards. Thanks for the insight.

  8. Atara Xia says:

    This is an informative article explaining the developmental inappropriateness of CCSS in many of the ELA standards for elementary students. As a middle school ELA teacher, I find the same to be true. Many of the standards are just beyond the scope of what students can do based on their level of social/emotional/academic development. Do we want students to be able to master some of the standards? Absolutely, but to master them when they make sense for the students to master them. Since so many people have written such articles about the standards being developmentally inappropriate, about the standards being nothing more than abstract skills, how the standards have not been tested to determine if students will end up ready for college or a career after grade 12, or the amount of data collected on children from age 5 to age 20, why is it that the CCSS are still being implemented across the country??? This just crazy making.

  9. Joanne, I really appreciate your referencing what you experienced within Common Core Standards that are seemingly out of touch and inappropriate for different grade levels. . I am a substitute teacher and I have come across numerous similar examples that are so far removed from reality that you just wonder “what were they thinking” when they created these standards. I believe in the old maxim “If you can’t understand it, something is wrong.”

    The more I experience of Common Core, the more it is clear to me, that these standards are created by people (or even computer models) that are out of touch with how children learn, how children think, and out of touch with what is appropriate at different levels. How does the Common Core help children become more competent and more able to learn, when CC often seems to complicate, confuse, and detract from a sensible and meaningful learning experience? My clear impression is that CC is more often than not, ‘bureaucratic speak’, abstract and unintelligible ‘gobbledygook’. Honestly, if one of my children’s teachers sent home some of these confusing lessons, I would be running in to the teacher and asking her (him) where did you go to school? I see CC as nothing less than the ‘governentization’ of education.

    The one room school house would not have thrived with a Common Core curriculum. The teacher had no time for non-sense. Everything had to make sense. Yet, the American public got Common Core jammed down its throat without any fair and honest debate. The American people are not stupid; as more people (parents, teachers, students) begin to experience the inherent flaws of Common Core, the more they will begin to question who was the author of the Common Core? What were the real drivers of the Common Core? Who benefits the most from a central, top down control of Education? How about Corporate interests? Publishers? Software companies like Microsoft? Big brother is turning education on its head. Special interests are taking control of the content and the process of education to the ultimate detriment of the children, teachers, parents & country.

    I see a wave of Common Core discontent growing. It could become a Tsunami of discontent in the not too distant future. The question is will a majority of Americans recognize the shortcomings of Common Core and how it is leading education down the wrong path? Will enough Americans exercise their power to reverse Common Core, and bring back local control of education? Or have the special interests bought off the state education departments so richly that it will be virtually impossible for a reversal of Common Core? Will the majority of American people assert themselves or will we become increasingly passive, pliable wards of the state no matter what happens to the quality of our lives. Do we have a choice in the matter? Isn’t that really the question; what is happening to our liberties, our freedom of choice. Will liberty become a thing of the past? When we lose local control of education, what do we lose next?

  10. Alice in PA says:

    I had heard complaints about the standards being developmentally inappropriate and I was prepared to not believe them since I believe that many times we underestimate the thinking of our students (and I include myself in the “we” since I am a secondary science teacher). Your analysis of the standards is superb and convinced me. Even as I look at them as a parent of two children ( ages 12& 11)…two children who are growing up in a household of 2 college educated parents who travel, read and have lots of other solid middle class social capital, I find them ridiculously unattainable. We are setting kids up to fail and, worse, setting them up to hate learning, especially since these standards are coupled with high stakes assessment.

  11. Run this for consideration : the ‘standards’ are unrealistically difficult…deliberately. The net result will be confusion and discouragement for staff and student alike. The kids will know the tests are unfair and rebel. Why ? To stifle interest in learning by frustrating the impulse with humiliating but compulsory and overwhelming dreck. That is the understanding I get from this video on the use of Skinnerean psychology to literally victimize youth. It likely originates in Julian Huxley’s vision for UNESCO.

  12. I completely agree. As I’ve said repeatedly, Common Core was accepted by & pushed through by billionaires who know nothing about children’s development & education. All they would have had to do, if they TRULY CARED, is to interview college trained teachers with experience, at every grade level, after having them read the “standards” expected. This is a clear-cut case of those with money CONTROLLING for the purpose of making LOTS OF MONEY! The whole educational system is suffering, specifically students & teachers, who are being evaluated on how well they’re using this inappropriate & destructive program.

  13. Reblogged this on Roy F. McCampbell's Blog.

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