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.
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.”