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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Sherman became a mentor to Coleman, and remembers teaching him several lessons. The first: “I always told him he was too nice, that you need to stand up for what you believe in,” Sherman said. Second, when Coleman began speaking to national audiences, Sherman chided Coleman for treating D.C. crowds as if they were New Yorkers. “I said, David, you can’t curse in front of a national audience — they get offended.”

While working on the Grow Network, Coleman tried to “fill the promise that assessment results could actually improve kids’ lives,” he said. But he found that educational problems run deeper: The standards the tests were trying to measure “were so vast and vague, it’s hard to make high-quality assessments.” Coleman sold the Grow Network to McGraw-Hill, and formed Student Achievement Partners, a not-for-profit that now helps states implement the Common Core standards. In 2008, he and Zimba co-wrote a seminal paper calling for “math and science standards that are fewer, clearer, higher.”

These ideas, Sherman speculated, stem from Coleman’s religious background. “He grew up in a family that extremely prioritized the value and importance of a deep, broad education,” Sherman said. “Those Jewish values toward education have a lot to do with his belief system: Every child should be a smart thinker, a deep thinker, someone who’s analytical and probing.” Coleman also believes that religious texts have a place in the public school curriculum.

Before Coleman and Zimba published their paper, in 2008, the National Governors Association convened a group of governors who wanted to create a set of unified educational standards nationwide. Because states write their own standards and exams, students who move across state lines might find themselves passing math in one state and failing it in another. The governors sought to address this problem by creating common standards. Attracted to Coleman’s idea of “fewer, clearer, higher,” they tapped Student Achievement Partners to write them.

“While sometimes I’ve been called an architect of their standards, I think their true architecture is evidence,” Coleman said. “That’s the binding secret of the standards.” Coleman, Zimba and Sue Pimentel, an education consultant, made sure the standards reflect the skills students need to succeed after high school.

While the standards were developed by representatives of the states, with help from the Gates Foundation, they received a new, powerful — but, in retrospect, potentially detrimental — boost in 2009. That year, the Obama administration incentivized higher learning standards with billions of dollars in its Race to the Top competition, and recession-stunned states signed on to the Core. “The states were so desperate for money they were willing to just do it,” said Andy Smarick, a Republican education policy expert who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Education. “So many states signed on so fast with a push from the federal government and there wasn’t a fuss — until now.”

Now, as schools begin to implement the Core, far-right and far-left advocates are trying to roll it back. People like Ron Paul, the former libertarian-leaning Republican U.S. Congressman from Texas, are waging campaigns against the Core, making the fight a Tea Party priority. Reached by phone, Paul said that he sees the Core as an “encroachment” that increases the federal government’s control. “This is just another step, putting pressure on states to have a one-system universal curriculum,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that should not be permitted.” Paul said he had not read “all of the standards, but that’s in some ways irrelevant — because the principle is so bad.”


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