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The Schoolmaster - Dana Goldstein - The Atlantic

Stashed in: education, That's racist!, Poverty, Shakespeare

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The world of education policy is filled with passionate advocates for social justice, but rarely does one meet an education wonk like David Coleman, a 42-year-old former Mc­Kinsey consultant in a dark suit and tie, who is an utterly romantic believer in the power of the traditional liberal arts. A Rhodes Scholar whose conversation leaps gracefully from Plato to Henry V, he holds advanced degrees in English literature from Oxford and classical philosophy from Cambridge.

Coleman was a lead architect of the Common Core standards, which emphasize canonical literature—think Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda—and serious nonfiction texts across all subjects, from math (Euclid’s Elements), to science (medical articles by The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande), to social studies (the Declaration of Sentiments from the feminist Seneca Falls Convention of 1848). He has spent the past year traveling from state to state, showing English teachers how to lead a close reading of great literature.

Bud Read, the curriculum director of the Colonial School District, in New Castle, Delaware, attended Coleman’s presentation and came away impressed, though only cautiously optimistic. Sixty percent of the students in Read’s district are poor, he told me, and “the biggest resistance [among teachers] will be whether they believe kids can handle the more complex, difficult texts.”

Many of Coleman’s critics have been much harsher. Alan Lawrence Sitomer, State Teacher of the Year for California in 2007, aired a common complaint on his blog: Coleman “has zero K–12 teaching experience. Should we really be learning how to cook from a person who’s never been in the kitchen?” But what has proved most controversial is Coleman’s unilateral vision for American students, of college as the goal and a college-prep curriculum as the means. In public education, a new reform is always coming down the pike. Longtime educators develop a healthy cynicism about which grand policy ideas will trickle down to classrooms and which will sputter during implementation or simply go out of fashion. But David Coleman’s ideas are not just another wonkish trend. They have been adopted by almost every state, and over the next few years, they will substantively change what goes on in many American classrooms. Soon, as Coleman steps into his new position as the head of the College Board, they may also affect who applies to college and how applicants are evaluated. David Coleman’s ideas, for better or worse, are transforming American education as we know it.

“I’m scared of rewarding bullshit,” Coleman told me after the Delaware session. “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.

Yay Liberal Arts.

With the Common Core, Coleman worked to reshape public education from kindergarten up. Now, as the incoming president of the College Board—the nonprofit that administers the SAT, the Advanced Placement program, and a number of other testing regimens—he hopes to effect change from the top down, by shifting what is expected of students applying to college and, he hopes, by increasing the number of students who apply in the first place. Coleman’s most radical idea is to redesign the SAT, transforming it from an aptitude test intended to control for varying levels of school quality, to a knowledge test aligned with the Common Core. He describes this change as a way to put applicants on an equal playing field, a message to “poor children and all children that their finest practice will be rewarded.”

To critics of standardized testing, this thinking is willfully naive. Whether because of expensive tutors, savvier parents, or more-effective schools, any rejiggering of the SAT is unlikely to close the large test-score gap between affluent and poor students. “It’s hard to use the SAT as a driver of social justice, because tests tend to reproduce, not upend, social hierarchies,” says Nicholas Lemann, the author of The Big Test, a history of the SAT, and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “Everybody is always looking for the test on which people from different races and classes do the same, but it doesn’t exist.”

Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, thinks not. Carnevale is intimately acquainted with the inner workings of the College Board: for 10 years, he served as a vice president at ETS, the organization that partners with the Board to develop the SAT. Any K–12 curriculum whose goal is to prepare all students for four-year colleges is “one size fits all,” Carnevale told me, and so will leave behind the majority of students who don’t feel particularly engaged by academics, or whose socio­economic disadvantages make success in the liberal arts unlikely. If Coleman’s College Board really wants to prevent high-school students from dropping out—a focus of the organization’s latest advocacy campaign—it ought to develop an occupationally focused corollary to its Advanced Placement program, Carnevale suggests: not “Math for Harvard” but “Math for Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning.”

So is the SAT by definition racist and classist?

I would assume so if you think any alteration to scores is wrong. It is also interesting to look at how the questions have changed over the years/decades.

I think the first rule of American Education is "It is your family's responsibility to imprint proper motivation to learn, not the State's." Overcoming that challenge is harder than most problems, I think. Schools do make a lot of improvement in many lifes, but we cannot hold them as the gate keepers. Not enough discussion is nationally focused on education besides the sad test scores.

It seems next to impossible to educate children that live in poverty.

Because their families' top priority is survival, not education.

it does seem that way. Next questions: is there a level of survival that would allow the family to then focus on kids' education? How do we also overcome cultural forces that fight against education?

Once out of poverty, people seem to value education a lot.

So I'm not convinced its cultural. I think it's economic.

So Kansas needs to improve its economy to improve its schooling? I was not trying to use cultural as an underhanded racism term. I was thinking more along the lines of the willfully ignorant/faith-based education. There is room for faith while still learning actual science, but some do not see that way.

Adam has nailed it. Kids in poverty are much, much more likely to fail in school than succeed. At least in the United States. Perhaps what was different when I visited Kibera --the largest slum in Kenya -- and other places like Haiti and the DR, is the even in poverty, the family unit is still strong. In the US whether as a cause, or correlation, impoverished kids usually live in a "broken" family environment.

At any rate there is this:

"It’s not bad teaching that got things to the current state of affairs. It’s pure, raw poverty. We don’t teach in failing schools. We teach in failing communities. It’s called the ZIP Code Quandary. If the kids live in a wealthy ZIP code, they have high scores; if they live in a ZIP code that’s entombed with poverty, guess how they do?"

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