On David Coleman, “Life Writing,” and the Future of the American Reading List

Mary-cassatt-young-woman-readingMary Cassatt's "Young Woman Reading." David Coleman believes American kids should read more non-fiction and fewer "stories."

Yesterday the College Board, the organization that administers the Advanced Placement program and the SAT, announced David Coleman will become its new president in October, and will focus on deepening the curricula on which College Board exams are based.

Coleman is controversial, especially among English teachers.

A classicist cum McKinsey consultant cum education reformer, he is (in)famous in education circles as the frantically energetic, hyper-intellectual architect of the new Common Core curriculum standards in language arts, which 45 states have agreed—at least theoretically—to adopt in 2014. Currently, about 80 percent of the reading American students are assigned in school is fiction or memoir, and 20 percent is non-fiction. If Coleman gets his way, that balance will soon tilt closer to 60-40. American children will spend a lot less time reading and writing what Coleman calls, somewhat derisively, “stories,” and much more time reading and writing about the ideas in “informational” texts by the likes of Richard Hofstadter, Atul Gawande, and H.L. Mencken in high school; John Adams, Frederick Douglas, and Winston Churchill in middle school.

Why? “As you grow up in this world," Coleman said at a conference last year, "you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

Argument-driven writing about non-fiction sources, Coleman says, is a much better approximation of what students will be asked to do in college courses and at work than are typical public school writing prompts, like this one, for Tennessee 8th graders:

Most students have a person they want to be like someday.  Who is your role model?

Or this one, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress 12th grade exam:

Write an essay in which you define heroism and argue who you think our heroes really are–mass media stars, ordinary people, or maybe both. Be sure to use examples of specific celebrities, other people you have heard or read about, or people from your own community to support your position.

These prompts require students to “life-write:” to reflect on their personal experiences, feelings, and opinions. The problem, Coleman explained in a June 2011 talk to the New York State Department of Education, is that “it is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.” (Coleman now tells the Times “he should have chosen his language more carefully.”)

Coleman’s message—hey kid, your little life is less important than the big ideas of history, science, and politics—is blunt, funny, and refreshingly free of self-esteem psychobabble. But it also makes many English teachers deeply uncomfortable, because it overturns decades of educational orthodoxy. The identity politics pedagogical theories of the 1970s and 1980s, as articulated in works like Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children, emphasized the ability of “personal narrative” to empower students, particularly the economically and racially disadvantaged. This thinking led to classroom reading lists filled with inspirational stories about foster children, abuse victims, drug addicts, and the severely disabled, all overcoming various challenges. Among the most commonly assigned books in American English classes are A Child Called “It,” a memoir about a boy who is horrifically abused by his alcoholic mother, and The Rule of the Bone, a novel narrated by a 14-year old drug dealer whose stepfather is a sexual predator. Writing assignments often encourage children to reflect on their own personal growth.

In 2008 the National Council of Teachers of English released a position paper on “Supporting Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Learners.” The document declared teaching “a political act” and stated, “As public intellectuals and agents of change, we recognize that English teachers…are complicit in the reproduction of racial and socioeconomic inequality in schools and society.” To counteract those inequalities, teachers were directed to “research and share the personal histories of all in the classroom.”

As David Coleman traveled the country teaching educators how to implement the Common Core standards, his attack on this sort of “personal history” writing engendered a backlash. Writing in opposition to Coleman and “in defense of stories,” Steve Zemelman, director of the Illinois Writing Project, argued, “stories are a vehicle by which cultures pass on their history, beliefs, and values.”

As individuals, we tell stories all the time…In telling these stories later, we gain distance and perspective on the events. Sometimes the worse the difficulty, the more captivating the story, and the more satisfaction we get from relating it. This happens because telling stories involves thinking, integrating, and evaluating – i.e., gaining deeper comprehension of a set of events. Thus, stories are about deepening comprehension and dealing with complexity– exactly what the [Common Core] reading standards are about. And this happens not just by reading stories, but also by writing them.

Alice Mercer, a California elementary school teacher with experience in high-poverty schools, noted on her blog that the current California standards for second grade writing focus on narrative and producing “friendly letters,” while the new Common Core asks second graders to write opinion pieces and research papers using documentary evidence from books.

“From friendly letters to writing opinion pieces… that’s a mighty big leap,” Mercer wrote, predicting that in five years, the public will decry that “kids can’t write a decent friendly email.”

Alan Lawrence, an education blogger and former English teacher who was California’s 2007 “teacher of the year,” complained that 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?”

Indeed, Coleman has never been a public school teacher. He holds a master’s degree in philosophy from Cambridge, and his mother is the president of tony Bennington College. So perhaps, critics say, Coleman doesn’t fully understand the power of “stories” to reach children—especially poor children—who would otherwise find reading and writing a chore.

As an education reporter, I’ve seen evidence of the power of personal narrative in the classroom. One of the most effective programs in the troubled Newark, New Jersey public schools is the Children’s Literacy Initiative, which teaches basic writing skills by asking kindergarten through third grade students, every day, to draft a short “story” about a life event. Teachers then use these pieces to go over grammar, spelling, and syntax with each student.

The idea is that children are most invested in improving a piece of writing that amplifies their own experiences and feelings. And the Children’s Literacy Initiative works: The Newark schools using its strategies are among the highest-performing schools in the city, and their students—almost all of them living in poverty—routinely exceed state test score averages not only in reading and writing, but also in math and science.

So I’m sympathetic to teachers who are turned off by Coleman’s rhetoric. There’s something discomfiting about Coleman—a white guy with advanced degrees, who earns a living spreading his opinions—sending the message that children’s personal stories and feelings don’t matter, so they shouldn’t write them down.

Yet Coleman is responding to a deeply troubling landscape in American reading and writing instruction. Only one-third of fourth-graders read at grade level. According to a report from Renaissance Learning, the top 40 books read by American high school students have an average reading level of just 5.3—meaning they are more appropriate for fifth graders than for teenagers on their way to college or the workforce. Educators (and journalists) know good writing is informed by high-level reading, which exposes us not only to vocabulary, but also to background knowledge rich with facts and ideas.

If you scratch the surface of Coleman’s incendiary proclamations and dive into the Common Core standards documents, you see he’s making a more complex argument than his critics give him credit for: that when schools don’t require students to interact with difficult, non-fiction texts, they deny them the opportunity to build the skills they need to amplify their thoughts and opinions, by writing them clearly and backing them up with evidence. Coleman is correct that ultimately, most college-student and adult writers are judged less on their ability to reflect on their own lives, and more on their ability to reflect on the world of ideas and events around them—whether they are drafting a final paper about a classic novel, a letter-to-the-editor about a local political race, or a memo outlining their company’s web strategy.

There is something valuable in Coleman’s promotion of non-narrative reading and evidence-based writing, especially in a culture of reality television and Facebook “timelines,” in which the prosaic events of individual lives are opened up to public consumption and critique. Memoir will always be a rich and legitimate literary genre, and teachers shouldn’t stop empowering children to write personal histories. But life-writing, alone, cannot teach students the critical thinking skills they need to develop; it cannot teach them how to add strength to their opinions by backing them with the force of research evidence.

Coleman states it best in a recent essay—free of his usual snark—on “What Kids Should Be Reading.”

Students will not likely choose sufficiently challenging text on their own; they need to be challenged and supported to build their strength as readers by stretching to the next level. … The books students read should be worthy of close attention and careful re-reading for understanding. To become career and college ready, students must grapple with a range of works that span many genres, cultures, and eras and model the kinds of thinking and writing students should aspire to in their own work.

I expect Coleman will bring these ideas with him to the College Board—as well as his other controversial opinions, such as his interest in developing computer programs that can grade the more sophisticated student essays he would like to assign. I've been fascinated by Coleman for a long time and will be watching with great interest.

10 thoughts on “On David Coleman, “Life Writing,” and the Future of the American Reading List

  1. Tom Hoffman

    It is my understanding that the reason personal essays and opinion are emphasized in standardized tests isn’t so much the influence of Friere or Delpit, the NCTE or even the content of state standards, so much as the difficulty of evaluating a student’s ability to write in isolation from other factors, including reading or specific content knowledge.

    You cannot assess someone’s ability to write sentences, paragraphs, and essays if you ask them a question to which they do not know the answer.

  2. Inverness

    Let’s talk about the common core’s emphasis on reading non-fiction. What concerns me is that students won’t be assigned to read many works of fiction in high school.

    The argument that fiction is less challenging, and doesn’t promote critical thinking is bizarre. Students often find it tougher to read James Joyce, than say Thomas Payne’s essay “Common Sense.”

    Furthermore, many of the “informational texts” (love the Orwellian phrasing) recommended are also covered in social studies. So, students will read essays by Orwell, Martin Luther King, and others twice — and may not get around to the Shakespeare and Melville at all, because non-fiction is only supposed to comprise of a small part of the assigned readings.

    Well — these architects of the Common Core might pick up a copy of Moby Dick, and notice there’s a lot of “information” about whaling, and some essays by Orwell might actually be less informative, and more persuasive.

    Students who haven’t read important works of fiction simply won’t get a well-rounded liberal arts education, and will lack sufficient cultural capital. We are already cutting the arts enough — less music, less art. Can we really afford these utilitarian reforms — which don’t make sense, anyway?

  3. Tom Hoffman

    My concern is the framing of the current status quo. When you transition from the content of standardized tests to the concerns of progressive educators, and on to the poor reading performance in the US, it suggests that there is a clear link from one to the next.

    I would argue that English instruction in the US today is shaped by assessment and accountability, not progressivism, and indeed what passes for progressive education in US schools today, like balanced literacy — is also structured primarily around accountability.

    Debbie Meier nailed it today: “One is that the skill involved in doing well on reading and math tests do not constitute something worthy of the name “academic achievement.” Such a claim dumbs down “academia” in ways that do serious damage. And the second is that even simple-minded questions of “can she or can’t she read, and how well” can’t be answered “psychometrically.” The third strike is that belief in them takes time away from using our schools to develop intellectually honest habits of mind, genuine respect for evidence, the capacity to take apart or defend a good argument, etc., in a variety of domains (including math and literature).”

    If kids are really reading 80% fiction in school today (I don’t buy it myself), it is because of Mr. Coleman’s allies in the testing and textbook industries, and we must believe that the same people and processes which got us into this mess will get us out.

  4. NateJohnsonFL

    As a former college writing instructor (and huge fan of Atul Gawande), I agree with the need to shift the focus to more analytic writing.

    As the parent of a fourth-grader who just took the recalibrated (oops!) Florida Writes, I would rather see very young writers given wide latitude in what they write about until they have the basic skills down. That’s how they learn reading: “Learn to read, then read to learn.” My son was being asked to do five-paragraph “writes upon request” drills in first grade, before he could even string together a correct sentence. He is a much more enthusiastic (and better) reader than writer today.

  5. NateJohnsonFL

    The memo from Florida DOE about changes in K-12 writing tests tied to new college readiness standards is worth a read to see the change in expectations. (This is the source of the precipitous drop in scores that caused the state board to back off its new standards.)

    link to fldoe.org

  6. Dana Goldstein

    Inverness, I agree that some fiction has as much background information as non-fiction. I just want to add that the Common Core/Coleman’s vision is for these reading guidelines to stretch across the curriculum, not just in English class, so there shouldn’t be double assignments in English and social studies. Rather, social studies and science teachers are going to be asked to make more reading assignments outside of the textbook. Obviously teachers in a grade level should be working together to make sure the various reading lists complement one another and don’t duplicate one another.

  7. Tom Hoffman

    Their vision for the whole curriculum is not at all clear, and given that these standards are being rolled out along with new individual teacher evaluation policies tied to test scores, there is every reason to believe that they will, in fact, lead to all kinds of crazy duplicated and conflicting assignments across disciplines.

    Who is responsible for which standards? If they’re shared, and you want to keep your job, you’d better cover all of them, redundancy be damned.

    What is the vision behind including American historical documents in “informational texts” not as primary source documents in history/social studies?

    The science reading standards don’t require reading outside textbooks, and it is not clear why they would, since you don’t read popular science books or articles in college or career.

    Also, the range of “informational texts” calls for “literary
    nonfiction” exclusively. How much literary nonfiction do you read and analyze in college and careers?

  8. Inverness

    Dana, you are correct in that teachers should coordinate to make sure that too many texts aren’t assigned twice. But that still doesn’t address the reality that students will be reading an awful lot of “informational texts,” and not nearly enough fiction in high school. I’ve yet to find any good reason to do so. As a social studies teacher, I worry about when my students will read poetry, literary fiction…I don’t see what that’s a desirable result, but that’s probably what happens when non-teachers are put in charge of curriculum.


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