Today The Atlantic published my profile of David Coleman, the MicKinsey consultant turned education entrepreneur who is one of the school reform movement's most idealistic believers in the power of the traditional liberals arts as a social justice tool. Coleman is important because his ideas about what students should know (from modernist poetry to Euclid's "Elements") and do (more evidence-based, thesis-driven writing, and less personal narrative) are profoundly reshaping American education. Forty-eight states and territories have agreed to adopt the Common Core curriculum standards, which Coleman and his team helped construct. Now, as the incoming president of the College Board, Coleman hopes to rewrite the SAT to make it more of a test of the actual high school curriculum, moving it further away from the fiction that it measures some sort of innate "aptitude."
Coleman is also a delightful guy with whom I really enjoyed spending time. It isn't your usual cab ride when you discuss–in rapid fire succession–Henry V, the Old Testament, gay marriage, and Caravaggio.
I wish I'd had more space to dive into how the Common Core could change not only the teaching of the humanities, but also of math. For more thoughts on that, click here. It's also important to note that it will be several years before we can truly assess how transformative the Common Core will be at the classroom level. Common Core standards are recommendations, and 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. Without budgetary support for teacher professional development and new classroom materials, it will be difficult to implement the Core, so it is an open question whether Coleman's most ambitious ideas will truly reach students. As I write in the piece, some amount of cynicism is justified, since top-down education policies often don't end up changing very much for individual kids.
What's more, the Core remains politically controversial. The Democratic Party obliquely bragged about it in its platform, while the GOP criticized "centralizing forces" in education policy. Mitt Romney, once a vocal supporter of standards-and-accountability reforms like the Core, now avoids comitting to the program's full implementation.
The Atlantic piece raises the question of whether adopting one set of academic standards for all students is a good idea, or whether this will leave behind those who don't feel attracted to the traditional, academic path, and who might prefer a more vocationally-oriented curriculum. For more thoughts on the cutting edge of academically rigorous vocational ed, I've written about it in depth here.