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.

How to Change Reading and Writing by Sundown

by Robert Pondiscio
November 2nd, 2011

The Common Core is one of the biggest stories in American education right now, and has been woefully undercovered in the press,” writes Dana Goldstein. To her mind (and I agree) the “potentially most controversial recommendation” embedded in CCSS is its insistence on balancing the amount of fiction and nonfiction studied in U.S. schools.  ”Currently, according to [CCSS author David] Coleman, American students are reading about 80 percent fiction and 20 percent ‘informational texts.’” CCSS shifts the balance to 50/50, in order to “better approximate the kinds of reading and writing students will be expected to do in college and eventually in their careers.”

Goldstein applauds the shift noting, “I have written in the past about the problem of American teens not reading and writing serious non-fiction.”

“If I’m skeptical of any part of this effort, it’s probably the strong belief, voiced by advocates like Coleman and [Laura] Solver, that high-quality assessments will drive states, schools, and teachers to faithfully implement these new standards. There’s a long history in American education reform of believing that better tests will lead to better schools and deeper learning; as authors like Nick Lemann and Herbert Kliebard have demonstrated, that isn’t usually the case.”

I’m slightly less skeptical than Goldstein. High-stakes assessments certainly do change practices, even if those changes don’t always impact outcomes. That said, I’ve long felt that if you really want to see a change –and create a boom in close reading and academic writing–the single best strategy would be to get colleges to stop asking for personal essays and demand instead at least two pieces of teacher-graded academic writing as part of the application process. If getting into a competitive college did not turn an applicant’s ability to churn out 800 words on “how you’ve grown as a person” or “the most difficult challenge in your life”–if instead you had to demonstrate your ability to engage in close reading and textual analysis–the change would occur overnight.

It has often been observed that the best way to change public education would be to make private schools illegal.  This might be the second best way.