From Common Core to College Board

After helping write English Language Arts standards that will be used in 46 Common Core states, David Coleman is going to head College Board, which controls SAT and AP exams. A 42-year-old former McKinsey consultant (and liberal arts-loving Rhodes Scholar), Coleman is The Schoolmaster, writes Dana Goldstein as part of The Atlantic‘s excellent education report.

“I’m scared of rewarding bullshit,” Coleman told Goldstein. “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.

As a result, states and school districts were largely left to their own devices, and test-makers were hesitant to ask questions about actual content. Education schools, meanwhile, were exposing several generations of English teachers to the ideas of progressive theorists like Lisa Delpit and Paulo Freire, who argued that the best way to empower children and build literacy skills—especially for students from poor or racially marginalized households—was to assign them books featuring characters similar to themselves, and to encourage them to write freely about their own lives.

Coleman wants students to read challenging materials and learn to answer questions by citing the text, not chatting about their personal experiences. (ACT’s report on building a content-rich curriculum.) His expectations are high. 

But Common Core’s “career ready” is exactly like “college ready,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. A “one size fits all” college-prep curriculum will leave behind many students who might be motivated by a career track, Carnevale argues.

When he takes over at College Board, Coleman plans to change the SAT from an aptitude test to a test of knowledge linked to Common Core Standards. He hopes to level the playing field for diligent, low-income students. (Good luck with that.)

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