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.

To bring K–12 writing standards in line with college requirements, the Common Core, beginning in the elementary grades, asks students to write about specific reading assignments, and to cite textual evidence to back their ideas; in later grades, writing about personal feelings, opinions, and experiences is discouraged. High-school juniors and seniors, according to Common Core instructional materials, should be able to:

analyze Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Declaration of Independence,’ identifying its purpose and evaluating rhetorical features such as the listing of grievances … [and] compare and contrast the themes and argument found there to those of other U.S. documents of historical and literary significance, such as the Olive Branch Petition.

With the Common Core, Coleman worked to reshape public education from kindergarten up. Now, as the incoming president of the College Board—the nonprofit that administers the SAT, the Advanced Placement program, and a number of other testing regimens—he hopes to effect change from the top down, by shifting what is expected of students applying to college and, he hopes, by increasing the number of students who apply in the first place. Coleman’s most radical idea is to redesign the SAT, transforming it from an aptitude test intended to control for varying levels of school quality, to a knowledge test aligned with the Common Core. He describes this change as a way to put applicants on an equal playing field, a message to “poor children and all children that their finest practice will be rewarded.”

To critics of standardized testing, this thinking is willfully naive. Whether because of expensive tutors, savvier parents, or more-effective schools, any rejiggering of the SAT is unlikely to close the large test-score gap between affluent and poor students. “It’s hard to use the SAT as a driver of social justice, because tests tend to reproduce, not upend, social hierarchies,” says Nicholas Lemann, the author of The Big Test, a history of the SAT, and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “Everybody is always looking for the test on which people from different races and classes do the same, but it doesn’t exist.”

The tension between Coleman’s idealistic vision of a college-prep curriculum for all and the middling-to-poor performance of most American students has, in recent years, helped reignite one of the most divisive debates in public education. Coleman’s lightbulb moment at Hillhouse High is compelling on a social-justice level, but does preparing students for the Ivy League make sense as a universal priority for education reform?

Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, thinks not. Carnevale is intimately acquainted with the inner workings of the College Board: for 10 years, he served as a vice president at ETS, the organization that partners with the Board to develop the SAT. Any K–12 curriculum whose goal is to prepare all students for four-year colleges is “one size fits all,” Carnevale told me, and so will leave behind the majority of students who don’t feel particularly engaged by academics, or whose socio­economic disadvantages make success in the liberal arts unlikely. If Coleman’s College Board really wants to prevent high-school students from dropping out—a focus of the organization’s latest advocacy campaign—it ought to develop an occupationally focused corollary to its Advanced Placement program, Carnevale suggests: not “Math for Harvard” but “Math for Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning.”

This type of tracking is anathema to many education reformers, and for good reason: As recently as the 1970s, most high schools expected to send only a small minority of their graduates to college, typically white students from well-educated families. Vocational programs were a decent alternative to the academic track when a booming manufacturing economy could guarantee a living wage to non-college-educated workers, and an opportunity for their children to achieve at higher levels than they did. But those ladders have collapsed over the past several decades. In response, policy makers have proposed an educational ideology of “college for all”—whether a four-year bachelor’s degree or a two-year occupational license, both following a uniformly rigorous high-school curriculum.

The problem is that by waiting until college to begin tracking students according to their career interests, the American education system may be consigning more and more young people to poverty. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 17.1 percent in the U.S., compared with less than 8 percent in Germany and Switzerland. These nations link high-school curriculum directly to the world of work, placing students in private-sector internships that typically lead to full-time, paying jobs. The Common Core, on the other hand, has a blanket definition of “college and career ready,” which, according to Carnevale, ignores the reality that each student has different strengths and weaknesses, and that every job requires a specific set of skills—some of which are best taught in the workplace, not in the classroom. Not to mention that with almost 54 percent of recent college graduates jobless or underemployed, and with total student debt surpassing $1 trillion, college has become a much riskier investment than it once was.

Coleman counters this critique with the classic case for a liberal-arts education: that it teaches students how to think, providing a powerful intellectual foundation for any line of work. “Students need to be ready for their jobs to change,” he says, “and in order to be ready for change, students need the core tools of building knowledge: literacy and math.”

Perhaps the deepest political obstacle to raising academic standards for all students is that, at least initially, large majorities of those students will likely fail. Most experts believe that faithfully testing the Common Core standards would result in only a small minority of American children being declared “on track” for college or a career. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a critic of teachers unions and supporter of online learning, is a hero in many education-reform circles. He is also one of the Common Core’s most vocal Republican champions. Like the pundits who argue that banks should have been allowed to fail in 2008, as a cautionary tale for world markets, Bush believes that many children, teachers, and schools may have to be declared “failing” before the public understands the urgency of school reform.

“The big fight will be coming in 2014, when we begin to implement and assess these standards,” Bush told me. “If a third are ready, what will the response of states be then? Will they do what they historically have done, which is to pull back and say ‘Oh my God, that’s not fair, excuse, excuse, excuse’? Or will they accept responsibility to say ‘That’s the fact, that’s where we are now. Maybe 40 percent of our kids are ready if we benchmark them against the world’?”

Bush’s tough-love position is easy for a former politician to take, but less so for a current elected official. After all, no governor or legislator wants to preside over plummeting test scores. Pressure to roll back the Common Core or to relax the tests may be intense.

Coleman admits that the Core will probably lead to “a short-term reduction in [test] scores,” but he seems to have made peace with this reality as a necessary hardship on the road to his academic utopia. And that utopia—where classrooms are intellectually stimulating havens, where dreams of college motivate all students, where college itself is a smart investment—is deeply appealing, especially to those of us who have found the liberal arts to be inspiring and central to our own lives. Yet for many American students, perhaps even the majority, that may never be the case. Coleman’s refusal to acknowledge this possibility comes from a place of optimism, but that sentiment will not ease the way for these students when they emerge into a world for which, despite David Coleman’s best intentions, they are woefully underprepared.

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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Dana Goldstein is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

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