Notes on My Atlantic Profile of David Coleman

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.

At The Atlantic: "The Schoolmaster"

4 thoughts on “Notes on My Atlantic Profile of David Coleman

  1. Leonie Haimson

    You left much out of your article, including how and why David Coleman was chosen to write the ELA standards, a man who has zero teaching experience. Who selected him and why? You also left out the central role of the Gates Foundation in the development of the CC, and their funding not only of Coleman but of many groups who have served as cheerleaders for it. You left out the voices of many eminent experts, including Sandra Stotsky and Jim Milgram, who have found fault with the ELA and the math standards respectively. You did not mention many of the most controversial and prescriptive aspects of the CC: the mandate to assign 50% “informational” text starting in K, and 75% “informational text” in 6th grade and thereafter; or the “close reading” methodology, which proscribes assigning text to students beforehand, and harkens back to the New Criticism of the 1930′s. Finally, you didn’t mention how some have questioned the legality of the entire enterprise given the federal role in pushing for the CC, through the RTTT etc., despite the fact that by law the federal government is prohibited from imposing national standards or curricula.

  2. Carol Burris

    David Coleman is dapper and elite in his perspective. He does not understand teaching and learning, which is apparent in his “lesson” on the New York State website in which he tells teachers to read passages aloud to students after having them try to read it first themselves. Reading aloud to high schoolers does not help them, according to research, to become better readers. It makes them teacher dependent, hardly in keeping with the common core. David’s techniques, in general, will give students experience to master one genre of reading only–the passages on standardized exams.
    Someone who has no teaching expereince with public school students would not have that understanding. This was apparent in his New York State website remark that students will learn, in later life, that “no one gives a s**t about how they feel”. That is remark of a man who has never worked with children.
    The real story is how does someone with no experience in teaching and learning rise so quickly to such a position of power? Further, what financial benefits has Mr. Coleman accrued? He received 10 thousand dollars for a few days work for the New York State Education Department. Such details should be part of the story. It is easy to become impressed with a man as bright as David. Being bright does not mean being qualified.

  3. Diana Senechal

    Dana, I enjoyed your article.

    I often disagree with David Coleman but do not consider him out of touch with the realities of teaching. He understands the importance of a substantial curriculum–and the profound effect it can have on a student.

    Now, some of his statements are incorrect or rash, and it’s important to challenge them.

    His statement that “no one gives a s**t about how [adults] feel” is both right and wrong. Yes, schools have placed far too much emphasis on them. Kids have been encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections–which often contain far more self than text. Also, when you get older, you do find out that many people don’t care about your feelings–as feelings.

    But personal narrative and response remain powerful and important in adult life. Think of the CEO telling a childhood story, the professor delighting students with tales of her own professors, or the fiction writer or poet drawing on aspects of his life. Much depends on how we shape these stories and what we bring to them–what sense of language, what history, what logic. That’s where education in actual subject matter comes in.

    Friends and family care how you feel. Colleagues do, too, if you put it forth appropriately, in an interesting manner. There’s the rub.

    I do not write Coleman off as elitist. I believe that he is doing something valuable. On the other hand, it would be great if he involved teachers and others in collegial public discussion–not policy statements, nor polarized debates. Have teachers give presentations in Albany. Hold panel discussions on works of literature. That would enliven and deepen the discussion.

  4. Patrick Sullivan

    I’ve read Coleman’s presentation to NYS Education Department closely and while I was supposed to hear it firsthand as a member of NYC’s central school board I was mercifully saved by the Occupy Education action that night.

    As a policy maker I’m disturbed that we’ve put so much authority in the hands of one person, especially one who seems a bit of a charlatan. In his NYSED presentation he repeatedly refers to the teaching of “linear algebra” in 8th grade. Coleman doesn’t know what linear algebra is. It’s not taught in 8th grade or even in high school typically. How did it come to happen that we gave over our curriculum to someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing?

    link to


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