As a boy growing up in downtown Manhattan with a college president for a mother and psychiatrist for a father, David Coleman often had lively and lacerating dinner table conversations.
“My parents, while both working, were home every night at dinner,” said Coleman, now 43. The family wasn’t satisfied with easy repartee. If Coleman went to a movie or read a book, his parents wanted to know what he learned from the experience. Coleman often found himself arguing a point before he took the first bite, an eagerness that both charmed and aggravated his parents.
“They cared more about the quality of what I did and the engagement with ideas than they did about other measures of success,” he said, speaking in his brightly-lit Columbus Circle office, where a black-and-white Martin Luther King Jr. photograph hangs on the wall. When Coleman heard stories about other parents who paid their kids to get good grades, he said, “I just thought how lucky I was.”
Today, Coleman, a Jewish man with colorful socks who speaks at an urgent clip, is the most influential education figure you’ve never heard of. As president of the College Board, a national education company, he is redesigning the SAT, the standardized test which high school seniors take for college admission, and he is expanding the Advanced Placement program, which offers college-level classes and tests for high school students.
He is perhaps best known as the architect of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, meant to bring divergent state learning goals into alignment. Public schools in 47 states will begin teaching the Core in English Language Arts this fall. But as standardized testing increasingly comes under attack, and as teachers and politicians from both the left and right try to roll back the Common Core, it’s unclear what Coleman’s legacy will be.
The controversy over Common Core has become particularly fraught as states adopt the learning goals. In Alabama, for instance, a Republican political activist recently compared the adoption of the core to Adolf Hitler’s indoctrination of German citizens. While few states have dropped the Core entirely, several have distanced themselves from the program by withdrawing from the consortia charged with developing assessments to measure student achievement under the Core.