David Coleman: “I’m Scared of Rewarding BS”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 21st, 2012

Dana Goldstein’s profile of Common Core State Standards architect David Coleman is up at The Atlantic, and it’s a must-read.   For better or for worse, she writes, his ideas are transforming American education as we know it.  The money quote:  “I’m scared of rewarding bullshit,” Coleman tells Goldstein. “I don’t think it’s costless at all.”

“By bullshit, Coleman means the sort of watered-down curriculum that has become the norm in many American classrooms. For nearly two centuries, the United States resisted the idea, generally accepted abroad, that all students should share a certain body of knowledge and develop a specific set of skills. The ethos of local control is so ingrained in the American school system—and rifts over culture-war land mines such as teaching evolutionary theory are so deep—that even when the country began to slip in international academic rankings, in the 1980s, Congress could not agree on national curriculum standards.”

It’s a very strong piece, full of insights on what makes Coleman tick.  Read Dana’s piece and then head over to Fordham for Checker Finn’s take.  The profile is “mostly on-target,” he writes, but he chastises Goldstein (rightly, I think) for failing to appreciate the distinction between standards and curriculum.

“She implies that David doesn’t see that distinction, either. But he does. And it’s profound. It’s one thing to give Ohio and Oregon a common target to shoot for—if they want to—and a common metric by which to gauge and compare their students’ performance (again, if  they want to). It’s quite another to prescribe—especially from Washington—what Dayton’s Ms. Jones and Portland’s Ms. Smith should teach their fifth-grade classes on October 3. David is pressing for the former, not the latter. Me too.”

Checker’s other criticism – whether or not Rhodes Scholar and classics enthusiast Coleman favors “college for all” concerns me less.  Make no mistake, it’s an important issue and worthy of debate.  But my enthusiasm for Common Core lies not at the end of the K-12 pipeline but at the start.  By championing from the first days of school a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” — even without specifying that body of knowledge – CCSS is a strikes a hammer blow for an indispensable, content-rich vision of literacy instruction.  Implemented thoughtfully and rigorously, that will get kids out the other end with a lot more opportunities and options that they have at present.

The Coleman profile is part of a terrific package of education pieces at The Atlantic.  While you’re there, don’t miss Peg Tyre’s outstanding piece about a New York City high school that pulled itself out of a steep decline with an aggressive and rigorous writing curriculum. More on that to come.


  1. I think Coleman knows the difference between standards and curriculum, but (like you) he’s not interested in standards qua standards, only insofar as they’re a lever for changing curriculum.

    That’s what leads to, say, a serious classicist supposedly leading the development of a set of ELA standards which only indirectly imply that students understand rhetoric without explicitly stating what relevant content they ought to know.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — September 21, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  2. Yes, it’s a very strong piece.

    Checker Finn is right that Dana Golstein doesn’t distinguish between standards and curriculum. But I would make a further distinction: between a curriculum (a sequence of topics, works, and concepts to be taught) and a pacing guide or script. You can have a curriculum that’s specific on the one hand and flexible on the other. A curriculum need not prescribe how or when to teach (or even all of the content).

    I have other thoughts on Goldstein’s piece, some of which I have posted here: http://dianasenechal.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/when-education-discussion-gets-anti-intellectual/.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 21, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

  3. That’s an odd thing to say, Tom. It’s like saying to an architect, “You’re not interested in building codes qua codes.” Or saying to a chef, “You’re not interested in food safety standards qua food safety standards.”

    I’ll plead guilty to a lesser charge. It’s not that I’m not interested in standards. Rather I think the standards movement has probably served us ill because it creates the impression that you actually teach the standards. Rather than teach a particular work of literature, period of history and body of knowledge you teach, say, examining something from a variety of perspectives, or some such. And then what you end up with is a whole bunch o’ nothing. By making it clear that content matters, that coherence matters, that personal response is less important than the ability to argue from text–and by describing the instructional shifts needed, CCSS is a pragmatic response to our knowledge-agnostic approach to literacy. So it’s not that I like having CCSS as “a lever for changing curriculum.” I like it for establishing the importance of curriculum as a corrective to our “whatever” system.

    Your comment implies you’d be happier if the ELA standards outlined “relevant content.” So would I. But I think we both know that would be a political non-starter.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 22, 2012 @ 10:10 am

  4. As Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins put it this week trying to influence the actual implementation–”a Standard is an outcome, not a claim about how to achieve an outcome (i.e., a curriculum). Of course that also is consistent with what I have said all along. This is a return to Outcomes Based Education. Of course Wiggins and McTighe also say the relevant criteria for the actual classroom implementation are in Appendices B and C, not the main body of the CCSSI. That is just a political ploy I suppose.

    I am very troubled that David Coleman was a featured speaker at this summer’s Camp Snowball featuring a systems thinking approach to implementing the Common Core. Also making Sustainability the focus for the classroom.http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/do-you-live-in-a-district-piloting-deep-and-continual-personal-change-in-the-individual-student/

    To appreciate David Coleman’s education emphasis I would suggest listening to his mother’s TED talk on where she wants to see higher ed go. I think there must have been a shrine to John Dewey’s social vision for education in the Coleman home.

    I know it completely permeates those ELA Standards. It’s the old Transaction Theory back again.

    McTighe and Wiggins also see the CCSSI implementation as the return of OBE, even mentioning Ralph Tyler’s original creation of Objectives and performance assessments.

    Wish the news were better Robert but even the President in his convention acceptance speech said the relevant standards being imposed are not CCSSI, but rather the Standards for Teaching and Learning. And those have a very specific meaning go back to work the Joyce Foundation funded in Chicago and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was involved in.

    I am thus sticking to my Bait and Switch scenario for CCSSI. The amount of evidence just keeps mounting it is not about content or the transmission of knowledge.


    Comment by StudentofHistory — September 22, 2012 @ 11:48 am

  5. Student, I’m posting your comments because, well, that’s what we do here. We discuss; we do not censor. And I also honor and value your many, many thoughtful comments on this blog over the years. But I’m also shaking my head in sadness because I have come to see in your comments about CCSS the stuff of fever dreams and conspiracy theorists. One of us is very badly mistaken.

    Let me state this as plainly as possible. I have spent many hours with Coleman publicly and privately, and I have heard nothing–not one word–to support the idea that there is a “bait and switch” afoot. If he did not share my fierce commitment to a knowledge-rich education I would not support CCSS. Period. Full stop.

    Standards are not a curriculum. If CCSS is to be about content and the transmission of knowledge, it’s because of the work of teachers and schools. CCSS says in effect, it should be so if standards are to be met. Can it enforce that? Obviously not. That’s not the work of standards, but of the curricular choices that states, districts and teachers make. But to suggest that there is some kind of malign conspiracy afoot…well….I have no words.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 22, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

  6. I agree with Robert. I see no conspiracy afoot.

    I do wish, though, that those who imposed Balanced Literacy and Everyday Math on entire school districts would publicly admit to their mistakes. How refreshing that would be.

    Also, I wish there were more acknowledgment that good education isn’t just now being born.

    Many teachers have been quietly resisting the BS for years, teaching their students to read excellent literature closely and carefully.

    Good curricula have existed for centuries. Yes, many reforms over the past decades have placed too much emphasis on peripheral stuff like strategies and processes. But not everyone fell for that.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 22, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

  7. Robert-I talk to school board members all over and see what they are being told. I have the systems thinking presentation Peter Senge and the Waters Foundation gave to the State of Nevada DOE. I have documented the Hewlett Foundation saying in 2010 it is a bait ans switch to get at instruction, change assessment, and change curriculum.

    I watched every one of those tapes David and Pimental did for the Hunt Institute.

    I still have children in high school Robert. I took good notes at the Open House message. I also live in Georgia which switched its higher ed last November to the Lumina DGP as part of Common Core. In my 9th grader’s high school Honors Lit class they have them writing now about why a Growth Mindset is better than a fixed Mindset and giving out excerpt’s from Carol Dweck’s Brainiolgy book. Some non-fiction selection.

    I live in a cutting edge state and a district that has adopted a charter based on Ray Budde’s design from 1988. The one that intended to lock in districts and force them to adopt Dewey’s Reconstructionist vision.

    http://grantwiggins.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/mctighe_wiggins_final_common_core_standards.pdf is the link to the McTighe and Wiggins paper. They both work with state departments and school districts advising them on implementation. The NEA featured Wiggins UbD prominently as a device for the implementation of CCSSI.

    I have read the BEST Practice book describing precisely what is meant by the Standards for Teaching and Learning.

    And if I say someone is conspiring it is not a theory. I have a hard copy of an explicit proclamation describing active coordination around an explicit purpose they have described.

    And I see this as classic rent seeking behavior. Special privileges or revenue being sought by government fiat. Classic dirigiste behavior. It’s not an English murder mystery set on the Orient Express.

    When would you like to be mistaken, on the front end when there is still time to adjust or later?

    If David does not agree with Peter Senge’s vision of the CCSSI implementation, he should not have been a listed featured speaker there this summer. I have all the info on using systems thinking to implement CCSSI. It’s all modelling around Sustainability.

    Diana-the purpose of the Effective Teacher Eval is to force compliance with this vision for the classroom. It is also the function of bringing in Cambridge Education to these districts. To make it a firing offense to resist. The purpose of the PLC is also to use the herd mentality to force compliance.

    Both Student Growth and Student Achievement have very ambiguous definitions that include changing values,attitudes, and beliefs and other affective changes. I have those unusual definitions because tracking at that level of detail is what I do with any industry I have ever profiled.

    Have you read the accreditation standards being used in conjunction with CCSSI? The accreditors require collection of data on each student’s physical, emotional, and social needs. Not a word about knowledge.

    How about the Universal Design for Learning Standards that were incorporated by reference into CCSSI?

    That’s why I see things so much differently. Plus I track into the footnotes of all supporting authority and then locate those books the keep tracking what the actual implementation looks like and what it is based on.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — September 22, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

  8. Two days ago I met the new principal of my kids’ K-12 CK/classical charter school, and an issue that Diana addresses(comment #6)came up.

    Because of his new job, this principal had to move his family away from their former school where Saxon was the math curriculum. His kids’ new traditional public school uses Everyday Math (for logistical reasons, this principal can’t send his kids to the school where he works).

    The principal told me that his daughter took a math assessment at her new school, and placed TWO grade levels ahead of her grade’s Everyday Math level. School administrators have no plan for his daughter to progress in math this year; her parents were told she’ll just have to spend her math time helping other students until they catch up to her level – in two years.

    I don’t claim expertise in math curricula, but my kids have had Saxon up to now (my 9th grade son is using a different Geometry text than Saxon this year). Saxon is very like how I learned math long ago, so I’m comfortable with it.

    I’ve read dozens of essays about Everyday Math, Saxon, Singapore, and other math curricula. My sense is that practicing mathematicians (including engineers and scientists) usually hate Everyday Math. But most districts in the Twin Cities use Everyday Math.

    If Everyday Math is as bad as Diana and many other people say it is, why is it and other “reform math” so widely used?

    (Robert, forgive me for reigniting the math wars, but as a non-expert this whole debate has baffled me for many years).

    Comment by John Webster — September 22, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

  9. Curriculum

    It is time to change. The curriculum is really a breathing and ever-changing document. The curriculum should reflect the current trends and needs of high school students, employers and colleges. All have tremendous effect on the required subjects that high school students must take and the knowledge students must have for them to be effective on the job and in college. High school teachers and counselors must be diligent in their pursuit of updating, revising and adding additional curriculum. If you want changes, submit proposed high school curriculum changes, addition and revisions to the curriculum coordinator for consideration. This submission must include the actual recommendations for new courses, textbooks or programs. All information must be readily documented for the curriculum coordinator to review. Explain in detail the rationale for the curriculum change. Determine how the changes will affect the academic performance of high school students. Provide the research findings, statistics and documented statements from educators who have used the curriculum. Compare and contrast the current curriculum with the advantages of the proposed new curriculum.

    Clifton Roberson

    Comment by Clifton Roberson — September 22, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

  10. John,

    You raise the issue regarding Everyday Math but the more critical issue that arises in your post is an embarrassment to our “profession” (education):

    “School administrators have no plan for his daughter to progress in math this year; her parents were told she’ll just have to spend her math time helping other students until they catch up to her level – in two years.” Does no one see anything wrong here? Come on!!! Administrators have NO PLAN for her this year. She’ll have to spend her math time helping others (not that there’s anything wrong with that, George Castanza)? Two years before the other students catch up to her? Holy Cow, Phil Rizzuto!!! What a joke. The teachers for the next two years are okay with all this?

    Above everything wrong with this decision/policy, what kind of message does this send to the student, one sanctioned by the adults/professionals(?) in her world? We can’t be bothered with your successes, Sweetie? Your personal accomplishments cannot override the group. You’ll just have to suck it up – FOR TWO YEARS.

    Yes, it’s, my orthodoxy to pontificate on this issue but here’s but another classic example of one lesson for the whole &%$#ing group. Talk about more than a faux pas in our “profession.” It’s a disaster, and not just for this girl. Profession, my foot. It’s a bloody job, a way for people to pay their bills. It certainly doesn’t even remotely exist to benefit its clientele, the students; not when a situation like this rolls out and is spotlighted for all the world to see.

    I’d like Obama/Duncan, Bill and Melinda Gates, Stan Kahn, David Driscoll, Sandra Stosky, Linda Darling Hammond, Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, Don Hirsch, Rick Hess, Walt Gardner, Jay Matthews, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Checker Finn, etc., etc., etc., to present their take on such a debacle, an apocalypse, again to our “profession.”

    On a very distant related note, John, I used Everyday Math for the last decade or so of my career and supplemented it with my own comprehensive arithmetic curriculum. My kids did just fine at every/any kind of assessment thrown their way.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 23, 2012 @ 6:20 am

  11. As long as I’m telling stories about the uncaring attitude of most public schools toward more advanced kids in the pre-high school years, here’s another one.

    Several years ago, I had a friendly conversation with the principal of the local K-5 school (“PL”) where my son attended Kindergarten, the year before his first CK charter opened. My son was in second grade by then, and had done well enough in Saxon Math that his teacher moved him into third grade math. That class had mostly third graders, along with a few of the more advanced second graders. This setup was logistically possible because the CK charter’s master schedule required all math classes to be held during the same period. Students could move up or down to the most appropriate math level. Not exactly the individualized learning pace for each student that Paul Hoss endorses, but far better than forcing more advanced students to hold in place until everyone else caught up. The system worked well, and parents were quite satisfied with this approach, as were the teachers (who were the first people to recommend it).

    I mentioned this system to the PL principal, and asked him if the staff at his school had ever considered doing likewise. Yes, he said, the teachers had talked about it, and some parents had asked the school to do this. But PL teachers really didn’t want to teach math that way, and as principal he wouldn’t override their wishes. The End.

    By that time, I had begun serving on the board of the CK charter. Several parents at PL heard about me, and called me for information about the charter’s math program. Those were the easiest families to recruit to the CK charter; those students brought their state aid with them, to the dismay of their former school.

    Keep these stories in mind whenever you hear critics of all charter schools, including some alleged supporters of Core Knowledge, tell us that the traditional K-12 world does everything they do “for the children.”

    Comment by John Webster — September 24, 2012 @ 10:26 am

  12. “…the teachers had talked about it, and some parents had asked the school to do this. But PL teachers really didn’t want to teach math that way, and as principal he wouldn’t override their wishes. The End.”

    Therein lies the problem with too many public schools. Their monopoly mindset. If you don’t like the way we do things here, tough. Find another school for your kid because we’re not changing and WE DON’T CARE WHAT YOU (parents) THINK.

    “The end” goes beyond disdainful; it’s an in your face attitude the public school has carried for too long. It has frustrated infinite numbers of parents for too long. Well, charter schools have finally challenged the cavalier attitude of the traditional public school. Now local school boards are whining because the new charter school (also public, of course) is taking the state money for each student they enroll. Just another reason why I support Obama’s Race to the Top initiative with its “lift the cap” on charter schools language.

    The blind defenders of public schools, regardless of how they perform, is finally being challenged; and boys and girls – that’s a good thing. A little competition in the market place never hurt anyone.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 24, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

  13. I don’t know how Everyday Math became the standard curriculum in so many districts. My guess is that a number of savvy people managed to persuade boards of education that it was “research-based” and had a track record of success.

    But you have to look at what it contains. That’s the most important consideration.

    The summer before I entered the classroom, I was assisting in classrooms at a Brooklyn high school. I observed a math lesson and perused the textbook. I was puzzled by the way the book hopped from topic to topic. It didn’t seem to allow students to learn anything thoroughly. That textbook, as it turned out, was part of Impact Mathematics, the middle-school equivalent (more or less) of Everyday Math.

    In addition, I saw great emphasis on activities where students would supposedly discover mathematical concepts. This just plain didn’t work. Whatever they did discover was not distilled or precise enough. And then they didn’t become fluent in the concepts, because there wasn’t enough practice.

    Growing up, I experienced a variety of math approaches. My parents (now retired) were both math professors, so I was surrounded by math and found the math at school trivial. I was not challenged in math (at school) until we lived in the Netherlands when I was 10. There I learned mental arithmetic, which has stayed with me ever since.

    The following year, in junior high school, I was not challenged in the least (in math or in any other subject–very little was taught at all). I then went to private school in Boston, where I was in the top math section but didn’t find the material especially difficult. At age 14, I spent a year (with my family) in the Soviet Union, where I was challenged aplenty in math class and thrived in the subject. Upon returning, I took precalculus and calculus. I wanted to take Calculus BC (the more advanced and accelerated AP course), but only two other students were interested in it, so we had to take AB instead. I enjoyed it but found it just a little on the light side.

    What does it mean to be “challenged”? It isn’t only a matter of studying advanced topics. It’s a matter of learning how to manipulate concepts in your mind. Mental arithmetic is intensely challenging (and illuminating) because you learn to see the numbers in different ways. You’re asked to multiply, say, 199 by 247. You realize that this is (200 x 247) – 247. That’s 49.400 – 247 = 49,153. Or you’re asked to divide 354 by 3/5. You realize that’s the same as multiplying it by 5/3. That’s 1770/3 = 590.

    Now, you can do all this on paper, but when you do it in your head, you become even more fluent in it. You learn to hold and imagine numbers in your mind; you learn how to work through several steps without forgetting the results of each step. Also, you start recognizing familiar problems and posing unfamiliar ones.

    So, if I were to propose a math curriculum for schools, it would not necessarily go fast. Instead, it would involve thorough practice and manipulation of concepts, with lots of mental work. It would emphasize both theory and application, making a clear distinction between the two (as Alfred North Whitehead recommends in “The Aims of Education”).

    In the meantime, it would be great if Bloomberg, Klein, and others who pushed Everyday Math (and Balanced Literacy) would come forward and say, “We apologize for mandating these flawed curricula. That was our mistake.” Instead, some of the CCSS implementation has carried the tone, “You teachers need to rethink how you’re teaching,” as though the flawed approaches had not been pushed mightily from above.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 26, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  14. Oh, Diana, the places you’d have gone if you were, in fact, challenged throughout school in mathematics. You’d have joined the high fliers, who soared to high heights.

    For someone such as yourself to be essentially left on your own (other than your parents) is nothing short of criminal and a mortal sin.

    Certainly, if you were as far behind as a student, as you were ahead, your teachers would have been mandated to cater to your every deficiency/shortcoming.

    Oh, the places you’d have gone.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 26, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  15. Paul, your sympathy is heartwarming, but where did you get the idea that the teachers didn’t differentiate instruction?

    In elementary school (grades 3-5), we were separated into instructional groups. The groups were at different points in the curriculum.

    Doesn’t make a bit of difference if the curriculum itself lacks substance. It was the era of New Math.

    I am not complaining about my own education, which had its richness as well as deficiencies. My point (or one of them) is that math curricula should aim for conceptual and practical fluency, instead of hopping blithely from topic to topic. This is good for struggling and advanced students alike. Also, before adopting a math curriculum, policymakers should look carefully at what it contains–and consult with mathematicians and math teachers.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 26, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  16. “In elementary school (grades 3-5), we were separated into instructional groups.” Instructional groups is code for tracking, which is discriminatory.

    Tracking is not individualizing and/or differentiating. Tracking is not good.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 26, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

  17. I wasn’t using code, Paul. The instructional groups were within a single classroom. As I remember them, they were flexible.

    But that wasn’t my point. I was talking about curriculum.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 26, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

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