Monday, July 28, 2014

David Coleman Is Superman!

Politico dipped into the David Coleman at Aspen Ideas festival file and pulled out a quote in which Coleman admits that “I think then we make a great mistake by caricaturing the opponents of the standards as crazies or people who don't tell the truth." They call this "a big takeaway." They also catch Coleman admitting that it's no sign of great paranoia to be concerned about how individual student data is handled.

So has Politico discovered Coleman 2.0 (great taste, less filling), or has Politico simply made use of the magic of careful quote-clipping? I listened to the whole thirty minute clip so that you wouldn't have to, and you owe me.

The second portion of the Aspen Ideas talk has been previously covered in this space; it deals with super new marketing things happening with the College Board. What we're looking at today is the first fifteen minutes or so. And I have important news to report--

David Coleman is the Superman everyone has been waiting for.

The press opportunity is hosted by Jane Stoddard Williams, who telegraphs her position by characterizing the College Board's decision to hire Coleman as "brilliant."She also refers to him as maybe the main architect of the Common Core, and Coleman politely fails to correct her even to the extent of pointing out that there were a whole batch of math guys working while he handled the ELA side.

Williams also makes oblique reference to finally being able to get him to explain what's going on with Common Core " to the extent that he can" and that's definitely not a slam on his knowledge-- there's more a tone of talking to someone who's working on a super-classified modern-day Manhattan Project.

Coleman explains his current employment simply. College Board helped develop the Common Core and it was because of his involvement with the Core that they hired him.

So please expect that public leadership role to continue, and that means visibly aligning instruments like the SAT and AP so that we are clearly showing kids and teachers that there's a path to college that extends from Kindergarten through twelfth grade.

 Tougher than malaria

Williams tosses out the Gates quote about battling disease being easier than fixing schools. Coleman says that's unsurprising, and then he shares some "terrible facts." Which are mostly that in forty years of reforminess, we've not moved some test needles much at all. We've hit a wall.

Coleman imagines that Gates is bothered that he hasn't moved the needle enough, and Coleman thinks it's very brave and decent to admit that. And for those of you hoping to see Coleman 2.0, I'll point out that neither Coleman nor Williams addresses the question of why, in a democracy, a really rich private citizen should be taking on personal responsibility for a function of federal, state and local government without the benefit of, say, voters asking him to do so.

But trying to take on that wall-- that's what keeps Coleman up nights.

The burdens of poweriness

Williams wants to know how Coleman came to take all this on. She lists his achievements and colleges and that he's a Rhodes Scholar, to which he interjects "yes, I am" and she asks did he just wake up thinking "we need to get all the states to use the same standards." (So, in this narrative, the phone does not ring with someone calling him to ask him to come help with this standards thing that the states are already doing.)

Coleman, instead of answering that, meditates on power.

As people grow in supposed importance and power in the world, he says, they get self-destructive in how they use their time. "People think if they're important they don't have time to write their own speeches or spend extended time alone." Says Coleman, "Any good I have done has come out" of balancing time to allow him to be alone, thinking.

He went into business designing tests, but that wasn't satisfactory because the standards underpinning the tests were crappy. So he spent time alone, thinking. "One idea that I've been cultivating" was the idea of students doing fewer things, but really well.

Anyway, that's how he works. "It's almost embarrassing to admit how much time I need to spend alone... as part of trying to o anything good." And now I am imagining what Coleman's Fortress of Solitude looks like.

So Coleman is not just busy being a Great Man-- he is actually better at it than lots of other great men.

And that co-operation and collaboration thing? That's for ordinary mortals. Coleman just hatches great ideas out of his own head.

Setting the record straight

That's what Williams tries desperately to get Coleman to do. She steers from his process into the semi-question "So that's where the idea of the standards came from?"

Coleman tosses in "listening" as a technique (though he never says to whom) and then, again, tells us first the standard of greatness that he is going to surpass. There's something annoying about "the sanctity of the entrepreneur" he says. "The world was dark and then I came and there was light," is what those sanctimonious types say. But what Coleman understands that they do not is that entrepreneurship is about telling the truth. This is to introduce himself obliquely as David Coleman, Super-Truth-Teller.

Committees, he observes, suck. At the end, you put everybody's stuff in, and you get a big mess. The standards movement was failing because it was death by committee resulting in a huge vague swamp of standards. We are left to close the circle on that implication, that you need a Superman to leap tall committees in a single bound.

Williams tries again, noting that she knows he's reluctant to discuss this because it's fraught and he's humble. She tries citing the Layton WaPo article, asking him directly to set the records straight. And I'll walk you through the larger version of the answer in a second, but the short answer is "No."

Coleman wants us to know several things. The standards movement started a long time ago. We should decide things based on evidence and not Gates' or Coleman's personalities. And it's in the context of this answer that he provides the quotes about Common Core opponents not being all crazies. He sees many of these folks as principled and smart, and he appreciates the anxiety of parents who feel they've lost control of their children's educations. And he acknowledges that it's a wide range of people who are upset.

Coleman says he's resisting on setting the record straight because  he could take a stance of "Now I will tell the facts" and no one will care. He knows that "a person in my position is supposed to say look this was a group endeavor." But there are principled smart people who will still be worried. So he's not going to set the record straight.

Because....? I don't know. If a policeman pulls you over, do you say "I'm not going to explain. You'll just write me a ticket anyway." If your child says he can't sleep because of the monster under the bed, do you say, "I'm not going to bother telling you there's no monster because you'll still be anxious." Of course, if you have certain sorts of scruples, when your child asks, "Is Santa real?" you may avoid saying yes because you don't want to say something you believe is false.

Is it that Superman just doesn't owe us an explanation, or is Coleman unwilling to provide anything that could checked against facts or any of the forty-seven hundred versions of the Common Core origin story floating about? I don't know. I do know that Coleman was handed, on a platter, with golden platters on top, an opportunity to explain exactly where the Core came from, and he refused to give it (though, clearly, he knows exactly what the record really says).

Did you notice?

In a twenty-some minute chunk of audio interview about the Common Core, David Coleman did not mention another single human being, with the exception of Bill Gates. He did not once say some version of "Well, getting this huge project done would have been very challenging without the help of [insert names here] " He also did not once say, "For this part of the Core, I really leaned a lot on the work of researchers and writers such as [insert names here]." So much for clearly citing your sources and backing up your conclusions with data and evidence.

If you had just climbed out from under a rock, and this interview were your only exposure to the Core, you would have to assume that the Common Core Don't-call-them-state Standards were singlehandedly written by David Coleman, sprung from his own brain.

Why tug on Superman's cape?

It is not my intention to simply get my ad hominem on up in here. It's a distraction, and we could all do well to remember that good things are sometimes done by bad people and bad things are sometimes by good people. So David Coleman could be a Very Bad Man, and that would not rule out the possibility that the Core are a Swell Thing.

But if you don't take the medicine that you prescribe for others, others are justified in questioning the medicine. And this interview really highlights the degree to which Little Davey Coleman and his Common Core project would get a failing grade in a Common Core classroom.

Likewise, if you keep changing your story, you make it hard to believe whatever the new story is.

And. And this is a huge and. As a private citizen, you don't get to usurp the functions of government just because you went off to your Fortress of Solitude and had a big think. I don't care how rich or powerful you are, you don't get to just walk over to the Pentagon and say, "I'm going to go ahead an re-organize the armed forces." You don't get to walk into your local city hall and declare, "I just decided to change how the various city departments function."

These sorts of interviews are worth paying attention NOT as a way to say, "Oooooo! That David Coleman is so terrible," but because they provide one more window through which to see that the process that brought is the Core is just as flawed and amateur and unsupported and unsubstantiated and anti-democratic as we thought it was.

So yeah, Coleman changed his story a bit-- we opponents are not crazy, just scared. But don't imagine that a shift on that point signals any kind of exposure to kryptonite. Superman has not yet left the building.


  1. I want to put this delicately, but don't think there's any way to do it, so I'm just going to be frank:

    The interviewer stroked Coleman, Coleman stroked himself, they both stroked each other and afterwards, they had cigarettes.

    Potter Stewart said he couldn't define obscenity but he knew it when he saw it.

    This interview was it.

    1. I was going to say that Peter had once again Won The Internet, but I think this comment did even better. *Zingggg!*

  2. Every time I hear David Coleman's name mentioned, every time I read an article or blog post about him, all I can think is, "I am so glad that David Coleman knows that as you grow up you realize people don't give a s*@% what you think, because I could not care less what he thinks." It is so great that he gave us permission to ignore him and his ideas.