Interview with David Coleman
The College Board head and chief architect of the Common Core is clear about what he believes in.
David Coleman has a reputation for being thoughtful, idealistic, and—on occasion—controversial. Named president of the College Board last year, he got his start advising school districts for McKinsey & Company. He went on to cofound the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners, and was hired in 2009 by the Council of Chief State School Officers to help research and develop the Common Core. He remains closely associated with developing the Core standards and assessments, and his call for using more nonfiction materials in English classes attracted a lot of attention—both positive and negative.
Q | You’ve been head of the College Board for about a year—what are the main accomplishments and key challenges of the past 10 months?
A | The College Board’s trustees have called for a renewed focus on our social mission by declaring that the students in our programs are within our care. We’re working closely with our members in the higher education and K–12 communities to fulfill this charge.
Q | What exactly does it mean to declare students who participate in College Board programs “within our care”?
A | We are working to expand access to opportunity for students from diverse backgrounds, using their PSAT and NMSQT results to catapult them into more rigorous courses and better college planning. We’re redesigning the SAT so that it visibly reflects the evidence of what college and career readiness requires. And we are engaging our members in that work to an unprecedented degree.
Q | What’s the main difference between the SAT and the ACT—which recently edged past the SAT in terms of overall use—and how should states and districts decide which to use?
A | The SAT, as it exists now, is the best assessment to predict college and career readiness. And with the understanding that even the best can be better, we’re working with our members on an evidence-based redesign of the exam and exploring how the SAT can best fit into the ecosystem of state assessment and instruction in a constructive and productive way.
Q | Is it a concern that many takers of Advanced Placement courses don’t take (or pass) the corresponding AP exam at the end of the year, or that some districts seem to be more focused on creating more International Baccalaureate programs in recent years?
A | More students are taking, and succeeding in, Advanced Placement courses than ever before. In the class of 2012, nearly a million public school students took at least one AP exam during high school. But we also know that many students—300,000 last year alone—demonstrated the potential to succeed in an AP course but didn’t take one.
Q | Are you feeling optimistic or cautious about the progress education leaders have been making these past few years, given the fierce debate and occasional setbacks?
A | We are seeing states and political leaders put aside their differences to work toward propelling more students to college and career opportunities. We also can’t overlook the critical role parents and families continue to play; they are often, together with teachers, the real guardians of a child’s education.
Q | How concerned are you about the handful of states that have backed out of some parts of the Common Core this summer?
A | I welcome the debate and am confident that as people take a closer look at the standards, they will find work worth doing that advances students toward readiness. The good news is every state remains deeply committed to delivering many more students to college and career readiness, even if they choose different means to do so.
Q | What’s your response to teachers and parents who fear (or believe) that education reform efforts like the Common Core are at best misguided and at worst a concerted effort to privatize education?
A | Those opposing views are essential and I welcome them. But in those discussions I encourage people to look at the evidence. When critics take the time to read the standards and understand the evidence behind them, their initial opposition often shifts.
Q | How should educators and school leaders respond to poll results showing that parents and the public aren’t really familiar with the Common Core—even as school systems are training and implementing elements of it?
A | The start of the school year is a great chance for teachers and school leaders to engage with parents and families about what’s happening in the classroom. The voice of informed teachers will matter most in talking to parents; there are also excellent guides in English and Spanish at PTA.org.
Q | Was the Common Core “pause” that Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced necessary and useful, or could it have been handled differently?
A | I believe we have to think about delivering opportunity as well as accountability. Students cannot perform at a higher level unless they do more demanding work that truly prepares them for college and careers.
Q | What’s your advice to educators and advocates who have been focusing primarily on charter schools, accountability, and bringing new talent into education?
A | We cannot neglect the quality of the work students do every day if we want to achieve a breakthrough. That is, it matters whether we give students the opportunity to read our country’s founding documents and participate in the Great Conversation [that those documents] have inspired worldwide. We must focus on the math that best predicts college and career readiness, and bring many more students to mastery of that demanding core. We need exceptional course designs that build knowledge for all students, not just AP students.
Q | What are your favorite or most influential books or essays about education, and why?
A | An Experiment in Criticism, by C. S. Lewis, is simply one of the finest books on reading that you will find, and it has been a touchstone for me for many years. I think one of the most marvelous things written on education is the dancer Martha Graham’s essay “An Athlete of God,” which shows us that any great athletic, academic, or artistic performance reveals the transformative power of practice.