Sunday, September 13, 2015

David Coleman's Master Plan

David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core and current head of the College Board and the guy who decided he was the man to single-handedly redefine what it means to be an educated American, has spoken many times about what the long view of education reform would be. One frequently quoted speech was his keynote address at the Institute for Leadership Senior Leadership Meeting in December of 2011.

The seventy-minute presentation is a lot to watch, but I recently stumbled over a transcript of the whole mess, hosted online by the nice folks at Truth in Education. This was Coleman in 2011 delivering a speech entitled "What Must Be Done in the Next Two Years" at a time before reformsters had learned to be more careful about concealing the details of what they had in mind. The transcript is twenty-six pages long, so we're just going to skip through highlights.

The Testing Smoking Gun

It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there's no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don't do that here.” Whatever. The truth is and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice,direct and indirect, and it's hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention. It is in my judgment the single most important work we have to do over the next two years to ensure that that is so, period. So when you ask me, “What do we have to do over the next years?” we gotta do that. If we do anything else over the next two years and don't do that, we are stupid and shall be betrayed again by shallow tests that demean the quality of classroom practice, period.

So, there was no question, no doubt that the standards were about creating tests that would drive instruction and write curriculum.

Coleman outlines some of the issues, joshing and shmoozing his audience. You've got your new standards and your old standards and it's going to be a mess. "My friends from Texas in the back are like, 'Can we leave now and go to a bar? 'Cause we didn't even adopt these stupid standards yet." Oh, the yucks.

But Coleman promises details and specifics and evidence and support. And he'll get to that in a moment, but first he wants to offer a plug for his group Student Achievement Partners.

The Unqualified Leaders

This is the moment where Coleman famously describes his crew as a group of "unqualified people," adding that their qualification was their "attention to and command of the evidence behind" the standards. Nothing made it into the standards without support and evidence. Totally not based just on what people in the room thought students should know. Given this evidence-based approach, one wonders why the CCSS don't come with extensive footnotes delineating the exact support for each and every standard.

Coleman next goes on to make a less commonly-repeated point-- the Core aren't just about what is added in, but what is taken out. Coleman wants to be clear that it's not just a matter of what the standards command teachers to start doing, but also a matter of what they are supposed to stop doing.

SAP is composed mostly of the people who wrote the Core, though Coleman wants to remind us that teachers' unions, teachers, parents, all sorts of folks "was involved in" writing the standards. They followed three principles while doing the work--

First, never take money from any publishers or test manufacturers. Second, they will not compete for any state RFP's. Third, we won't possess any intellectual property. Which raises of the question of why the Core are copyrighted. Coleman wants the crowd to understand that any mistakes he makes are the result of stupidity, not avarice. So, no money was involved back then, though of course the companies involved seemed to have made out okay in the financial windfall of the standards, and Coleman has landed a pretty sweet job. Perhaps he meant to say, "We all agreed that our big paydays would come later."

If you've had the feeling that the Core feel like a big wet blanket thrown over any sort of creative spark, here's a quote from Coleman as he starts to talk about how Eastern Asian countries are "beating the pants off us."

They're working harder than we are, their kids work harder, they may not be quite as creative but that's only gonna last for so long, and this country's best days-- we're gonna get overwhelmed by this kind of tidal wave of harder work. 

So there you have it. Creativity is all well and good, but only for a brief time.

The Math Piece

Coleman spends some time selling the math portion with a bunch of jargonesque talk about doing more with less and fluency and how key fluencies will make math whizes, dragging learning French into the fray which leads me to wonder if learning a language the Common Core math way would mean learning only a tiny bit of vocabulary really well, which doesn't sound like fluency to me. But I digress. Coleman does say these key fluencies are basically one or two things you must learn by rote every year, and mentions that "people on the left" don't like that and, well, yes, liberals are known for their dislike of memorizing the times table.

In the end, he wants application and understanding so that (his example) when you're negotiating a mortgage, it occurs to you to get out your calculator and figure out if you're getting shafted.

Coleman next explains why current tests are bad, though his Powers of Explaining Clearly have been seriously weakened at this point. His point seems to be that since the test covers so much stuff, a student can look like they're "passing" when they haven't shown mastery of the parts that are Really Important. All tests do this? Coleman knows this? And actual math teachers don't create tests or other ways of measurement to factor into passing students on? This just seems like a huge statement, requiring Coleman to know both which math skills are the Really Important ones and what every math test in the world covers. But the picture is clear-- Coleman wanted math teachers to stop covering a bunch of extra stuff and letting students sneak by who don't know the Really Important stuff.

Coleman talks about what to do in the next two years about math, and he makes fun of the fact that publishers already claim to have aligned materials developed before the Core were even finished. So go through every grade with every teacher and make sure they know what the Really Important parts are. This should be easy because, Coleman says, and I'm not kidding, "It's like a couple of sentences long." Coleman also says that all PD should be focused only on the Really Important parts, period, full stop.And somehow we get back to how Hong Kong does better on the TIMMS.

There's now a break for audience participation, during which Coleman notes, "I find the softer I speak, the less people can argue with me."

He clarifies for an audience member that this approach doesn't really require teachers to be experts, in year one, but in year two, that should start to happen.

Now for Literacy

First, Coleman talks about "literacy" through all of this, suggesting that speaking and listening weren't really on his radar.

He opens with references to "haunting data" which amount to saying that over forty years we've spent more and more money but the eighth grade NAEP reading scores have stayed flat for those forty years. This is "devastating" because if  students don't get past eighth grade reading level "they're obviously doomed in terms of career and college readiness and all we hoped for them." Are they "obviously doomed"? As the scores have stayed flat for the last forty years, has US economic history been marked by an unrelenting downward spiral that can be traced to a nation of eighth grade readers? Coleman doesn't offer any data, but he has highlighted one of the ongoing unplugged holes of the reformy argument. If I've been eating a bagel for breakfast for forty years, and you want to tell me that I must change my diet because otherwise the bagel will give me a terrible disease, I'm going to need a little more proof than your panicky announcement because, so far, so good. That doesn't mean I should eat bagels forever just because it's what I've always done. But I have forty years of data on the effects of bagel breakfasts, and you have zero years. Which one of us is making a data driven decision?

So I want you to look at the core standards for a moment as a battering ram, as an engine to take down that wall.

Nice simile. I can't imagine why so many teachers have viewed the Core as an assault on public education. But Coleman proceeds to lay out the shifts that must happen in the next two years.

First, K-5 have to read for knowledge. Coleman finds it "shocking" that only 7-15% of the reading they do is informational-- the rest is stories. And not for the first time, I am amazed that someone who studied literature at Oxford somehow remains ignorant of the role of story in human civilization and the individual psyche. I am less amazed that someone who has no educational experience doesn't seem to know anything about how small children are best engaged to learn about reading.

But Coleman says the data is overwhelming that the knowledge and vocabulary acquired in Pre-k through 5 is absolutely essential for reading more complex texts going forward. So he demands 50% informational texts, and he equates "informational texts" with "learning about the world," as if stories do not teach anybody anything about the world.

So focusing on testing, he points out that elementary testing was reading and math, and since the reading portion was all "literature," everybody dropped science and history to spend more time test-prepping reading. He absolutely has a point, but since he's wedded to the idea of using the Big Standardized Test to drive curriculum, he comes up with absolutely the wrong solution. The correct solution was to look at NCLB's test-and-punish regime and say, "Wow, this is really screwing up schools. We should stop with the test and punish." But Coleman takes a flier and lands on, "We should test and punish a different range of things." Which I'm going equate with an abuser having the epiphany, "I kept hitting my partners with a stick, and then they'd always leave me and call the cops. So going forward I'm going to hit them with my fists, instead. That'll fix the problem."

Coleman says these standards should be exciting for elementary teachers because "they re-inaugurate elementary school teachers' rightful role as guides to the world." In this, whether he understood it or not, Coleman is dead wrong-- the Core inaugurated teachers as Content Delivery Specialists chained to crappy curriculum materials designed to teach to a test.

Coleman on Reading Across the Curriculum

I am sick of people, to be rather frank with you, who tell me that art teachers don‟t want to teach this, 'cause our kids have to be able to do it, period, for their success. And what‟s interesting about the standards is rather than saying to social studies and history teachers that they should become reading teachers, which I think is a losing game, it says instead they must–they must–enable their students to evaluate and analyze primary and secondary sources. Science teachers must not become literary teachers. What they must become is teachers who enable their students to read primary sources of the sort of direct experimental results as well as reference documents to build their knowledge of science. But what is not allowed is a content teacher to think that if they just tell their students enough content and their students have no independent capacity to analyze and build that content knowledge, that they are a success. 

I'm now going to say something shocking-- it's possible that Coleman has a point here. But it crashes directly into the wall of the Big Standardized Test, which insists that critical thinking is when you look at the evidence and reach exactly the conclusion that I think you should. Coleman's goals are not out of line, but the BS Tests cannot, and will not, test for this, so if he really wants to see this, he has to let go of his test and punish obsession. But we know he hasn't, because the new SAT that he has overseen has a writing element that enshrines this exact fallacy about what it means to examine evidence and draw conclusions.

Nor, as always, does Coleman have a clue what to do with low-ability students. And as always, Coleman seems to believe that nobody anywhere is already doing any of this, which is unvarnished baloney. Coleman remains that guy who thinks that because he just had a Big Thought, he must be the first and only person to ever have that thought.

Also, because of that overwhelming (but still to this day secret and unseen) data again, Coleman is sure that academic literacy in these areas must be achieved by ninth grade, or the child is doomed.


Coleman's second literacy shift is to focus on evidence. This is one of his best-known hobby horses-- writing must be done within the four corners of the text, and while this is not the speech in which he said it, he comes close to his classic "no one gives a shit what you think" line about writing. He also gets in a shot at how Kids These Days are all up in the texting, which may seem inconsequential, but speaks to the thread running through reformsterism about how modern kids are just awful and need to be whipped into shape.

But here Coleman again assumes the notion that education is only about preparing for the workplace or college (which is where you go to win access to a better workplace), and we don't need that creativity shit there.

Text Complexity

Coleman's third big shift is toward text complexity, and back in 2011 he thinks that there are people who can actually measure this fuzzy and ill-defined quality of a text. He acknowledges that leveled reading is important for developing reading vocabulary and a love of reading, and see-- this is why we go back and look at these old documents because sometimes we discover things that were lost in translation. Coleman seems to be saying that core instruction has to be "complex" in order for behinder students to catch up, level-wise, but it's important that other stuff meets the students whereever they are. Which seems different from the more recent policy of making students read above frustration level all the time.

Of course, Coleman's original idea is baloney as well. The plan is we'll find the slowest runners in the race, and we'll get them to run not only as fast as the race leaders, but actually faster so that they can catch up. This seems.... unlikely.

So What To Do Now for Literacy Education?

So what are these education leaders supposed to do over the next two years?

First, be all evidence-based, all the time, and by making students cite evidence for every answer, you'll also push teachers to only ask questions that can be answered with evidence. Because opinions are for dopes. Also, this is as good a time as any to note that after all these years, we are still waiting for any of the evidence and data that allegedly supports the Core, as well as any evidence that BS Testing improves education, as well as evidence that any of these reforms have done any good anywhere. Always remember, boys and girls-- if you're powerful and sure you're right, you don't have to provide evidence to your Lessers. Evidence is for the common people (kind of like Common Core).

Second, rip all those damn storybooks out of the kids' hands and "flood" your schools with informational texts. On the high school level Coleman has some specific ideas about how to "challenge" teachers on the literacy front, and it's in line with what we've heard before. I've responded to Coleman's essay "Cultivating Wonder" before, and if you want to see me rant about his ignorance of how to address reading, you can take a look at that.

Fixing Teachers

For the umpteenth time Coleman transitions by noting that he's saying controversial things and people don't like him because of it, ha ha, and he reminds me mostly of the guy who posts on Facebook, "Most of you aren't going to read this, but--" as a way to humblebrag about how he's so special that most people just don't get him, but it's a cross you have to bear when you're awesome.

Anyway, he pooh-poohs traditional teacher eval language like "use data to inform instruction" and "plan, engage, revise" and offers his own superior plan. Focus on these five areas:

1) Is a high-quality complex text under discussion?
2) Are high quality text-dependent questions being asked?
3) Is there evidence of students drawing from the text in their answers and writing?
4) How diverse a set of students are providing your evidence?
5) What is the quality of teacher feedback?

And then Coleman puts his own severe conceptual limitations on display, worth noting not as a way of picking on Coleman, but because these shortcomings are hardwired into the Core, the Core tests, and the evaluations based on the Core tests.

To me that is a much more exciting set of criteria to engage with a literacy teacher about than, “Did you have a plan? How were your objectives? Were your students engaged?” Who can determine these things? The things I just described to you are countable. That is, in the best meaning of accountable, they are literally things you can count. And so I‟d ask you to think about literacy in this way. While literacy seems like the most mysterious and vague and kind of touchy-feely of our disciplines, I think it can be much improved by daring to count within literacy, and by daring to observe the accumulation of these kinds of facts. 

To insist that only things that matter are those which can be assigned a number is symptomatic of a tiny, tiny frame of reference, a deeply limited view of what it means to be human. But the answer to the question, "Who can determine these things" is simple-- trained, experienced, professional educators. Coleman's real problem (and that of the reformster movement as a whole) is not that nobody can determine such things, but that it's hard to put them in a frame of reference that makes sense to somebody whose cramped and meager understanding of education and humanity can only grasp numerical values and concrete nouns.


Coleman figures after a year you'll have a collection of exemplars, such as the legendary Gettysburg Address lesson, in which it takes us three to five days to pick apart the rhetorical tricks of the speech without ever touching the historical background or the human implications of the war, Lincoln's choices, and our character as a nation.

There is actually some discussion at the close that gets back to that lesson and the questions of scaffolding, but Coleman doesn't really add anything useful. But then someone brings up

English Language Learners

Coleman says that they expect him to address adaptations, but instead he's going to call for an ELL Bill of Rights, which basically says that ELL learners have the right to be faced with the exact same work that all the other students are learning. So back in 2011, we've already perfected the rhetorical trick of saying that we are doing students a favor by demanding they do work beyond their capabilities, a piece of educational malpractice still enshrined in federal policySo pretty much the same policy as Sarah Palin's "if you come to America, speak American" only with a smile and some complimentary words attached.

Enough already

I agree. That brings us to the end of the transcript. Though Coleman provides some strokes for the  events' organizers, as always, he leaves the audience with the impression that he pretty much whipped up the whole Common Core himself. And though he talks a lot about the evidence and support and data that undergirds the Core, he doesn't actually specifically mention any of it.

And if you think you haven't suffered enough, here's the actual video of the event. But don't say you weren't warned.


  1. What I don't understand is how the "quality" of teacher feedback or a test is countable.

  2. I saw this some time back. It should be required watching for any teacher who doesn't yet understand what is wrong about the CCBS.

  3. I, too, have questioned why Coleman has been allowed such a powerful role in the shaping of education in the USA. In the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic, he was featured..In my response, I echoed your concern that stories are jettisoned to make way for sub-standard informational texts.
    There is some comfort in new approaches to narrative non-fiction such as Thomas Newkirk "Minds Made for Stories" in which he shows that effective argument -(Coleman's favorite genre!) is already entwined with narrative...Common Core has nothing to do with this.
    But in responding to "The Atlantic" article, I did not think bagels, as you did, but rather the Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat. I wrote:

    "At one point in in her Adventures in Wonderland, Alice comes across the Cheshire Cat in the hope of finding her way out:

    'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
    'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
    'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice.
    'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here.'
    Carroll's Cheshire Cat character is a tease, an enigmatic riddler who offers judgments and cryptic clues but no solution to the frustrated Alice. Coleman is education's Cheshire Cat, offering positions in education but with no evidence to prove his solutions will work.

    Curiouser and curiouser. David Coleman has become one of the most influential educational policymakers in our public school systems, but at this time, we have little else but his smirk."
    Thank you for analyzing that video for readers.
    I have in mind, a rough draft for another entry about Coleman that may use the song "Trouble" from "The Music Man"....."With a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for Core."
    full text here:

  4. @ Colette: Nice article.

    I am the very model of a modern Ed. reformsterer,
    I test for reading closerer, and reference to the normsterer,