David Coleman, the Most Influential Education Figure You've Never Heard Of

Common Core Author Is Redesigning the SATs and AP Program

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By Joy Resmovits

Published August 25, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
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Coleman said he’s hopeful the standards can succeed without full national participation in the consortia, but many Core proponents disagree. “You’re going to end up with a bunch of states doing different things,” said Andy Rotherham, a friend of Coleman’s who worked in the Clinton administration and now leads Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. “Some of the same issues will persist, which undermines the premise of Common Core.”

How did Coleman wind up in the middle of the 21st century’s curriculum wars? His path started at his parents’ dinner table, and wended its way through selective New York public school Stuyvesant High, making an important pit stop at his bar mitzvah.

Coleman gleaned many lessons from his bar mitzvah, said Jason Zimba, a Common Core co-writer and lifelong friend who taught mathematics at Bennington College, where Coleman’s mother Elizabeth served as president. “The idea that the child’s serious attention to this venerated, beautiful text is valued by the adults and even the rabbi is to David a beautiful thing,” Zimba said. “I’ve listened to him talk about that.”

The Colemans held David’s bar mitzvah in their home instead of in a fancy hall. It sent Coleman a clear message: What mattered most was his speech on his Torah portion, Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream. “I wondered why Joseph is so often humiliated, why Joseph is thrown down so many times before he interprets the dreams for Pharaoh,” Coleman recalled. “Three times before the interpretation, he’s thrown down. Why? If you read the text carefully what gradually emerges in Joseph is… a kind of achieved humility.”

The experience of conducting a deep exegesis at age 13 framed Coleman’s thinking about education. “The idea that kids can do more than we think they can is one of Judaism’s most beautiful contributions,” he said. Asking 13-year-olds to give a prepared speech in front of people they love is a bold charge, not unlike encouraging disadvantaged kids who don’t see themselves as academically minded to take AP courses. “I wish kids could encounter more stretched opportunities like that in school — all kids,” he said.

After graduating from Stuyvesant, Coleman attended Yale, where he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford. There, he studied English literature. Zimba, also a student at Oxford at the time, remembers hanging out in pubs and playing Risk with Coleman, who spent the rest of his time studying for exams. Coleman had a competitive streak and often won at Risk. “He’s an astute observer of characters, so if he thinks you can handle it, he might celebrate [his victory over you],” he said.

Upon returning to New York, he applied to a high school teaching job and was turned down. Instead, he worked for consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he advised public schools and became a fixture at New York City Department of Education meetings. That’s where he met David Sherman, who was then a vice president at the United Federation of Teachers.

After one of these meetings, Coleman, then in his 20s, approached Sherman. “I don’t know you but I want to introduce myself, because you seem to be the only person who knew what he was talking about,” Sherman remembers Coleman saying. They stayed in touch. When Zimba and Coleman developed their education startup, the Grow Network, which sought to make the new testing data from No Child Left Behind useful to teachers, Coleman turned to Sherman to tap into the grassroots involvement of teachers.


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