Thursday, March 6, 2014

David Coleman’s Coup d’etat

Who is the most powerful man in public education?

In one of the first critiques of the “new” SAT rolled out by College Board President, David Coleman yesterday, Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), a nonprofit group dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized test scores said, “The truth is no one needs the SAT, either ‘old’ or ‘new.’”

I don’t often disagree with anything Fair Test has to say, but in this case I know for certain of one person who needs the “new” SAT – David Coleman. With the rollout of the revised SAT, Coleman, now president of the College Board, completes the grand takeover of American public education from K-12 and beyond.

Coleman is, of course, the chief architect of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Coleman has often reminded us not to worry; the CCSS are just standards not curriculum. As you read this; however, two testing companies, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, are developing high stakes standardized tests that are tied to the CCSS. It has long been established that when curriculum is tied closely to high-stakes tests, the curriculum is inevitably narrowed to reflect what is on the test.

Coleman has also told us in the past that the CCSS do not tell teachers how to teach. But as Mike Petrilli, of the Common Core supporting Fordham Institute has said, “Of course we want to change the way teachers teach.” In fact Coleman has very publicly advocated for a teaching strategy called "close reading.

The “new” SAT is also, as Coleman insouciantly posited yesterday, tied closely to the CCSS. And so, voila’, David Coleman becomes the most powerful person in American public education.

It would seem important that we get to know the de facto leader of all public school students, administrators and teachers. Where has he come from and what makes him tick?

Some clues come from a hagiographic piece in the New York Times Magazine published today. Coleman has bachelor’s degrees in philosophy from Yale and English literature from Oxford, and a master’s degree in ancient philosophy from Cambridge. He wanted to be a teacher, but lacking qualifications to work in public school, he took a job with the global management consulting group, McKinsey & Company. At McKinsey, Coleman became “increasingly obsessed with evidence-based solutions.” It is interesting to note that for all Coleman’s obsession with “evidence”, he has provided no evidence that CCSS will work, or for that matter, that the SAT is worth the time or money for students and parents.

From McKinsey Coleman started the Grow Network, “which focused on assisting students and parents, including non-English-speaking families, in navigating an educational system that was increasingly dictated by standardized tests.” This experience led him to believe that the tests were based on standards that were too vague and needed to change. Coleman sold the Grow Network to McGraw-Hill and started Student Achievement Partners (SAP), which according to Wikipedia was “a nonprofit that assembled educators and researchers to design actions based on evidence to improve student outcomes.”  Coleman and other consultants at SAP wrote the CCSS.

Coleman also served as a founding board member and treasurer of Michelle Rhee’s  Students First, the anti-teacher, anti-union, anti-tenure, anti-seniority, anti-collective bargaining, highly profitable, non-profit. Could the most powerful man in education today be anti-teacher? Eventually he left both Student Achievement Partners and Students First to take over as president of the College Board.

Coleman’s obsession with evidence-based solutions has been made policy through the CCSS. Nearly every page of the standards in reading insists on the use of “textual evidence.” Coleman seems to believe that this was not a part of instruction until he wrote it all over the CCSS. Now we see this obsession carried over to the SAT, where a key feature will be “evidence-based reading and writing.”

It is also because of Coleman that the percentages of fiction vs. non-fiction have been prescribed in the core. Diane Ravitch has reported on Coleman’s disdain for fiction. Coleman himself has voiced his disdain for personal writing, saying that children will find in life, “Nobody gives a s**t about what you think and feel.”

Coleman has also graced us with evidence of how he would go about teaching a complex text; advice that teachers all over the country were clamoring for from this non-teaching architect of the CCSS. Still available on you tube here, is his “close reading” of Martin Luther King’s, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Coleman employs a technique called “close reading”, that was popularized by English professors and the author Robert Penn Warren in the 1930s and 40s. After watching the video, I am sure you will be convinced that this instructional strategy is a key for 21st century skills, no matter what we might have learned about engaging children in literature in the last 80 years. Just remember, it is not about how you think or how you feel.


So there it is, a brief primer on the most powerful man in education. A man with no teaching experience, an obsession with evidence only when it suits his purpose, a former board member of Michelle Rhee’s Students First, and a man who “doesn’t give a s**t what you feel or think.” This is the man who completed his coup d’tat yesterday by tying the CCSS to the SAT. Is it any wonder that some of us are worried about the future of public education?