Common Core Comprehension

My favorite joke about the mathematically inclined goes like this:

A mathematician, a physicist, and an astrophysicist are attending a conference in Scotland, and between sessions walk through the hills and come upon a black sheep.

“I had no idea that sheep in Scotland are black!” says the Astrophysicist.

The Physicist, arching a brow, sneers, “Typical. You see one black sheep in Scotland and you assume that they’re all black.”

At which point the Mathematician says, “Actually, all we know is that this side of the sheep is black.”

I don’t know much about the Common Core aside from the fact that it’s not the same thing as No Child Left Behind, but the teachers I know don’t seem to care for it either. (In general, I don’t think teachers particularly like being told what to teach except in the broadest of strokes.) A little investigation shows that the Common Core for Comprehension is more interested in teasing out figures of speech than actually parsing the meaning of text. It seems to me that what we really need is a Common Core for Comprehension. Consider this:

Jane, a six year old girl, is playing at home when her father enters the front door with bags of groceries. “Daddy, did you buy chocolate?” asks Jane. “No, but I bought cherries,” replies her father, who then empties a bag of cherries into a bowl, washes them, and puts them on the dining table. “I hate cherries,” declares Jane. While her father unpacks the rest of the groceries, she eats all the cherries and goes back to playing.


  1. Did Jane’s father buy chocolate at the store?
  2. Does Jane like chocolate?
  3. Does Jane like cherries?


  1. Jane’s father entered with bags of groceries. Assuming he did go to the store, we know that he said he didn’t buy chocolate, but he may have.
  2. Jane asked for chocolate. Anything beyond that is supposition. She may, for example, have been checking that her father bought the things he was asked to buy earlier.
  3. Jane says she hates cherries, but she ate a bowl of them (apparently quite quickly). It seems reasonable to conclude she does actually like them, but she may have been very hungry.

Bear in mind that it appears that no-one in the mainstream news media would appear to be able to answer these three questions correctly (I’m sure that many actually could, they’re just paid not to), so we do have a problem here, and I think it’s more important than whether kids can solve arithmetic problems “lickety spit”.

According to its official website:

The reading standards focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information, arguments, ideas, and details based on evidence in the text. Students should be able to answer a range of text-dependent questions, whose answers require inferences based on careful attention to the text.

A little investigation shows that there is a “Common Core for Comprehension” (part of the English syllabus) but it devotes far more attention to figures of speech (most of 9th-12th grades) than actually parsing the meaning of text (some of 4th-5th). Such attention as there is emphasizes drawing conclusions and making inferences rather than figuring out what has actually been stated. While it’s no doubt useful to be able to correctly label figures of speech — none of which is necessary for comprehending the fact that “Fred is an ass” doesn’t necessarily mean Fred has four legs or infer from “Claude says, ‘Hi'” that Claude is probably male and not a stapler — apparently teaching kids to actually comprehend what they read (isn’t that “reading carefully”?) is not, in practical terms, part of “comprehension”.