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.
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.
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.”
On the left, advocates such as Diane Ravitch, a former George W. Bush education official who is now a leading figure in opposition of the so-called education reform movement say that the Core could lead to more assessment when kids are already overburdened by excessive testing.
“The conservative right is using it as an example of government control, a break with states’ rights — but it’s voluntary,” said Sherman, who now works as a special assistant to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “People like Ravitch are saying it has all of the testing and blah blah blah. I don’t go along with that either.”
Coleman said that he thinks when people like Paul read the standards, they will support them. It’s the substance, he said, that’s brought Republicans such as Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush on board. “Whatever missteps were made in the past with the administration and Race to the Top, the secretary has made very clear, this is and remains state led,” Coleman said. “And any state can withdraw at any time, which is being demonstrated.”
But if more states drop out, the effort could lose momentum. “If it’s adopted by a tiny number of states it ceases to have the meaning it once had,” said Tim Daly, president of the teacher placement firm TNTP.
As the fight over the Core plays out in the states, Coleman now has a broader view on education. Last summer, the College Board announced they would hire Coleman to lead the organization. Since then, he has engaged the organization’s members in creating a redesigned SAT, which will be unveiled in 2015.
He’s heard from members of the College Board that they want the SAT to test things that are relevant to college success. They’ve told him that students should be able to read and write clearly, and also master a core set of mathematical concepts. “The core aspiration is to build an exam that much more clearly focuses on the skills that matter most,” he said. Instead of obscure vocabulary words, students would be expected to show deep understanding of academic terms such as “synthesis” and “transform.” Overall, Coleman hopes to make the exam more relevant to high school learning. “It has to engage teachers more deeply,” he said.
As students go back to school and stress over college applications this year, they probably don’t know about the man with the funny socks in the Columbus Circle office who, in a sense, influences their future. “He’s in this position to tie what kids are learning to what colleges are expecting,” Smarick said. “Very few people in America today are having a bigger influence on what kids are learning than David Coleman.”
Joy Resmovits is The Huffington Post’s education reporter. After graduating from Barnard College in 2010, she wrote for the Wall Street Journal and then worked for the Forward as a news fellow. She has also contributed to the New York Daily News, Education Update and the St. Louis Beacon.