American Schools October 2012

The Schoolmaster

David Coleman is an idealistic, poetry-loving, controversy-stoking Rhodes Scholar and a former McKinsey consultant who has determined, more than almost anyone else, what kids learn in American schools. His national curriculum standards and pending overhaul of the SAT have reignited a thorny national debate over how much we should expect from students and schools, and how much is out of their control.
Mike McGregor

On a hot June morning in suburban Delaware, in the chintzy, windowless ballroom of a hotel casino, David Coleman stood at a podium reciting poetry. After reading Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” a classic example of the villanelle form, Coleman wanted to know why green is the only color mentioned in the poem, why Thomas uses the grammatically incorrect go gentle instead of go gently, and how the poet’s expression of grief is different from Elizabeth Bishop’s in her own villanelle, “One Art.”

“Kids don’t wonder about these things,” Coleman told his audience, a collection of 300 public-school English teachers and administrators. “It is you as teachers who have this obligation” to ask students “to read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.”


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The educators shifted in their ballroom chairs, sipping coffee and gossiping amongst themselves. They showed minimal interest in a pre-lunch discussion about modernist poetry. Teachers are used to these sorts of events—summer conferences to bring them up to date on the latest dictates from their state’s Department of Education. That day’s iteration was a training session on how to implement the new Common Core curriculum standards, which 48 states and territories are rolling out in classrooms over the next two years.

The world of education policy is filled with passionate advocates for social justice, but rarely does one meet an education wonk like David Coleman, a 42-year-old former Mc­Kinsey consultant in a dark suit and tie, who is an utterly romantic believer in the power of the traditional liberal arts. A Rhodes Scholar whose conversation leaps gracefully from Plato to Henry V, he holds advanced degrees in English literature from Oxford and classical philosophy from Cambridge.

Coleman was a lead architect of the Common Core standards, which emphasize canonical literature—think Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda—and serious nonfiction texts across all subjects, from math (Euclid’s Elements), to science (medical articles by The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande), to social studies (the Declaration of Sentiments from the feminist Seneca Falls Convention of 1848). He has spent the past year traveling from state to state, showing English teachers how to lead a close reading of great literature.

Bud Read, the curriculum director of the Colonial School District, in New Castle, Delaware, attended Coleman’s presentation and came away impressed, though only cautiously optimistic. Sixty percent of the students in Read’s district are poor, he told me, and “the biggest resistance [among teachers] will be whether they believe kids can handle the more complex, difficult texts.”

Many of Coleman’s critics have been much harsher. Alan Lawrence Sitomer, State Teacher of the Year for California in 2007, aired a common complaint on his blog: Coleman “has zero K–12 teaching experience. Should we really be learning how to cook from a person who’s never been in the kitchen?” But what has proved most controversial is Coleman’s unilateral vision for American students, of college as the goal and a college-prep curriculum as the means. In public education, a new reform is always coming down the pike. Longtime educators develop a healthy cynicism about which grand policy ideas will trickle down to classrooms and which will sputter during implementation or simply go out of fashion. But David Coleman’s ideas are not just another wonkish trend. They have been adopted by almost every state, and over the next few years, they will substantively change what goes on in many American classrooms. Soon, as Coleman steps into his new position as the head of the College Board, they may also affect who applies to college and how applicants are evaluated. David Coleman’s ideas, for better or worse, are transforming American education as we know it.

I’m scared of rewarding bullshit,” Coleman told me after the Delaware session. “I don’t think it’s costless at all.”

By bullshit, Coleman means the sort of watered-down curriculum that has become the norm in many American classrooms. For nearly two centuries, the United States resisted the idea, generally accepted abroad, that all students should share a certain body of knowledge and develop a specific set of skills. The ethos of local control is so ingrained in the American school system—and rifts over culture-war land mines such as teaching evolutionary theory are so deep—that even when the country began to slip in international academic rankings, in the 1980s, Congress could not agree on national curriculum standards.

As a result, states and school districts were largely left to their own devices, and test-makers were hesitant to ask questions about actual content. Education schools, meanwhile, were exposing several generations of English teachers to the ideas of progressive theorists like Lisa Delpit and Paulo Freire, who argued that the best way to empower children and build literacy skills—especially for students from poor or racially marginalized households—was to assign them books featuring characters similar to themselves, and to encourage them to write freely about their own lives (see Peg Tyre’s “The Writing Revolution,” also in this education report).

While culturally diverse reading lists are crucial—as soon as 2020, the majority of American public-school students will be nonwhite—the blunt application of these ideas has sometimes led to reading lists curated more for inspirational potential than for literary prowess. A Child Called “It,” a memoir by a man who was horrifically abused as a child by his alcoholic mother, is one of the most commonly read books in American English classes. Another strand of education theory prioritizes getting kids reading rather than insisting they read high-quality books. Research by Sandra Stotsky at the University of Arkansas has found that the average American high-school student is most frequently assigned books at a middle-school reading level, and that the difficulty of assigned reading does not increase between ninth and 11th grade.

For Coleman, the problem lies not just in what kids are reading, but in how they’re taught to think about it. He told the Delaware teachers about a sample of instructional materials he pulled from Texas and Vermont, in which 60 to 80 percent of the questions about readings were answerable without any reference to the text. Kids were encouraged to discuss whether they agreed or disagreed with Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideology of non­violence as articulated in his letter from Birmingham jail, but they were rarely asked to identify a particular argument King made or evidence he marshaled to support it.

Coleman does not bother hiding his disdain for the facile opining encouraged by this approach. He took fire for noting, at a meeting of New York educators last year, that a boss would never tell an employee, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

Coleman’s faith in the traditional liberal arts is deep­-rooted. A product of Manhattan public schools, he was raised by proudly intellectual parents. His father, a psychiatrist, took Coleman to art museums, where the two spent hours on end. His mother was a dean at the New School while he was growing up, and is now the president of Bennington College. She is known as a critic of academic hyper-specialization and as a defender of classic liberal-arts education.

To prepare for his bar mitzvah at age 13, Coleman learned to chant in Hebrew the story of Joseph interpreting the pharaoh’s dreams. He recalls debating the parable’s many interpretations with his family rabbi, telling me proudly, “There’s no watered-down version of the Bible.”

As an undergraduate at Yale, Coleman launched a program in which college students volunteered to tutor at New Haven’s James Hillhouse High School, which was predominantly black and poor. While working with the teenagers on poetry, Coleman was frustrated by the fact that “30 years after the civil-rights movement, none of these students were close—not even close—to being ready for Yale. They’d had so little practice with commanding difficult text.”

After his Rhodes scholarship in England, Coleman was turned down for a job teaching public high school in New York. So he accepted a job at McKinsey that involved advising urban school districts. He went on to co-found the Grow Network, a company that sliced and diced standardized test scores for analysis during the rollout of No Child Left Behind (it was sold to McGraw-Hill in 2004). But Coleman felt an increasing desire to focus on what kids were actually learning. In 2007, with two partners, he launched the nonprofit consultancy Student Achievement Partners to promote national curriculum standards as a means to finally close the academic achievement gaps he had observed throughout his career, beginning in that New Haven classroom with the kids who weren’t ready for Yale.

Previous national-curriculum movements had percolated through Washington, but the Common Core was the result of a novel political strategy. In 2009, the bipartisan National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, a coalition of superintendents, hired Student Achievement Partners to lead the process of researching, writing, and disseminating a voluntary set of curriculum standards in English and math. (Common Core standards are recommendations; states and school districts retain the ability to define their own reading lists and student assignments, as long as they are of equal or greater rigor.) The hope was that if enough states opted in, the standards would effectively become national—and that is essentially what happened (though Alaska, Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Virginia, and a few territories have yet to sign on). Beginning in the 2014–15 school year, participating states will test their students using standardized exams designed to match the Common Core standards.

Coleman drew on more than just a classicist’s affection for tradition when marketing the Common Core to state policy makers across the country. He often cites data from ACT scores, which this year showed that only one in every four American high-school graduates is ready to do college-level reading, writing, science, and computation. He also refers to research by the Minnesota College Readiness Center’s Paul Carney, who found that almost a third of college students enrolled in his college’s remedial writing courses had actually earned above-average grades in high-school English. The gap was partly due to the different types of writing valued by high schools and colleges: while high-school teachers rewarded students for the organization and wording of their essays, college professors placed greater value on strong thesis statements backed by evidence from the curriculum. This mismatch of expectations helps explain why 20 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges, and about half at community colleges, are assigned to non-credit-bearing remedial courses.

Presented by

Dana Goldstein, a New York-based journalist, covers education, health care, politics, and women’s issues. She is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Puffin Fellow at the Nation Institute.

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