NEW YORK -- Growing up in downtown Manhattan as the son of a psychiatrist and a college president, David Coleman never wanted for stimulation. At the dinner table, his parents repeatedly told him that it wasn't his exam scores that mattered, but rather the quality of his ideas and inquiry.
"They cared more about the quality of what I did and the engagement with ideas than they did about other measures of success," he said, speaking in his brightly-lit Columbus Circle office, where a black-and-white Martin Luther King Jr. photograph hangs on the wall.
When Coleman heard stories of other parents who paid their kids to get high exam scores, he said, "I just thought how lucky I was."
Now, Coleman is in charge of the most important test score a student can receive. As president of the College Board, a national education company, he is redesigning the SAT, the standardized test taken by many high school seniors as a part of the college application process. He is also expanding the Advanced Placement program, which offers college-level classes and tests for high school students.
Coleman, a playful 43-year-old man who speaks at an urgent clip, is the most influential education figure you've never heard of.
He is perhaps best known as the architect of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, meant to bring divergent state learning goals into alignment. Public schools in 47 states will begin teaching the Common Core in English language fields this fall. But as standardized testing comes increasingly under attack, and as teachers and politicians from both the left and right try to roll back the Common Core, Coleman's legacy is a bit up in the air.
The controversy over Common Core has become particularly fraught as states adopt its learning goals. In Alabama, for instance, a Republican political activist recently compared adoption of the core to Adolf Hitler's indoctrination of German citizens. Although few states have dropped the Core entirely, several have distanced themselves from the program by withdrawing from the consortia charged with developing assessments to measure student achievement under its rubric.
Coleman said he hopes the standards can succeed without full national participation in the consortia, but many Core proponents disagree. "You're going to end up with a bunch of states doing different things," said Andy Rotherham, a friend of Coleman's who worked in the Clinton administration and now leads Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. "Some of the same issues will persist, which undermines the premise of Common Core."
How did Coleman wind up in the middle of the 21st century's curriculum wars?
His path started at his parents' dinner table and wended through selective New York public school Stuyvesant High, making an important pit stop at his bar mitzvah. After being asked to perform a deep exegesis of his Torah portion, Coleman extracted a lesson that would guide his career: "The idea that kids can do more than we think they can," he said. Asking 13-year-olds to give a speech is a bold charge, not unlike recommending AP courses to disadvantaged kids who don't see academic aptitude in themselves. "I wish kids could encounter more stretched opportunities like that in school -- all kids," Coleman said.
After graduating from Stuyvesant, Coleman attended Yale and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford, where he studied English literature. He also met Jason Zimba, a Common Core co-writer and lifelong friend who later taught mathematics at Bennington College, where Coleman's mother, Elizabeth, served as president. Zimba remembers hanging out in pubs and playing Risk with Coleman, who spent the rest of his time studying for exams. Coleman had a competitive streak and often won at Risk. "He's an astute observer of characters, so if he thinks you can handle it, he might celebrate [his victory over you]," he said.
Upon returning to New York, Coleman applied for a high school teaching position and was turned down. Instead, he worked for consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he advised public schools and became a fixture at New York City Department of Education meetings. That's where he met David Sherman, then a vice president at the United Federation of Teachers.
After one meeting, Coleman, then in his 20s, approached Sherman. "'I don't know you, but I want to introduce myself, because you seem to be the only person who knew what he was talking about,'" Sherman remembers Coleman saying. They stayed in touch. In 1999, when Zimba and Coleman developed their education startup, the Grow Network, Coleman turned to Sherman to tap into the grassroots involvement of teachers.
Sherman became a mentor to Coleman. "I always told him he was too nice, that you need to stand up for what you believe in," Sherman said. And when Coleman began speaking to national audiences, Sherman chided Coleman for treating Washington crowds as if they were New Yorkers. "I said, 'David, you can't curse in front of a national audience, they get offended.'"
While working on the Grow Network, Coleman tried to "fill the promise that assessment results could actually improve kids' lives," he said. But he found that educational problems ran deeper: The standards being measured by the tests "were so vast and vague, it's hard to make high-quality assessments." Coleman sold the Grow Network to McGraw-Hill and formed Student Achievement Partners, a not-for-profit that now helps states implement the Common Core. In 2008, he and Zimba co-wrote a seminal paper calling for "math and science standards that are fewer, clearer, higher."
Before Coleman and Zimba published their paper, in 2008, the National Governors Association convened a group to create a set of unified national education standards. Because states write their own standards and exams, students who move across state lines might find themselves passing math in one state and failing in another. The governors sought to address this problem by creating common standards. Attracted to Coleman's idea of "fewer, clearer, higher," they tapped Student Achievement Partners to write those standards.
"While sometimes I've been called an architect of their standards, I think their true architecture is evidence," Coleman said. "That's the binding secret of the standards." Coleman, Zimba and Sue Pimentel, an education consultant, made sure the standards reflect the skills students need to succeed after high school.
While the standards were developed by state representatives, with help from the Gates Foundation, they received a new, powerful -- but in retrospect, potentially detrimental -- boost in 2009. That year, the Obama administration incentivized higher learning standards with billions of dollars in its Race to the Top competition, and recession-stunned states signed on to the Core. "The states were so desperate for money they were willing to just do it," said Andy Smarick, a Republican education policy expert who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Education. "So many states signed on so fast with a push from the federal government and there wasn't a fuss -- until now."
As schools begin to implement the Core, far-right and far-left advocates are trying to roll it back. People like Ron Paul, the former libertarian-leaning Republican U.S. congressman from Texas, are waging campaigns against the Core, making the fight a tea party priority. Reached by phone, Paul said that he sees the Core as an "encroachment" that increases the federal government's control. "This is just another step, putting pressure on states to have a one-system, universal curriculum," he said. "This is the kind of thing that should not be permitted." Paul said he had not read "all of the standards, but that's in some ways irrelevant, because the principle is so bad."
On the left, advocates such as Diane Ravitch, a former George H.W. Bush education official who is now a leading figure in opposition to the so-called education reform movement, say that the Core could lead to more assessments when students are already overburdened by excessive testing.
"The conservative right is using it as an example of government control, a break with states' rights -- but it's voluntary," said Sherman, who now works as a special assistant to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "People like Ravitch are saying it has all of the testing and blah blah blah. I don't go along with that, either."
Ravitch and other critics, though, also worry about the Core's contents. "There is no evidence that those who study these standards will be prepared for careers, because there is nothing in them that bears any relationship to careers," Ravitch recently wrote on The Huffington Post's blog.
A major component of that evidence, according to the Common Core appendix, relies on the ACT's benchmark reports on college and career readiness. To define college and career readiness, the ACT surveyed U.S. colleges and determined how much a student has to know in a given subject to have a 50 percent or higher likelihood of earning a B, or a 75 percent or higher chance of earning a C. The reports follow students who take the ACT's through college. But even the ACT's education director has conceded that the reports are limited because they don't tie the students being studied to data about their life outcomes or careers.
"It's like pointing a shotgun at a football field," said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who oversees the school's Center on Education and the Workforce, in an earlier interview. "The things mentioned in the ACT subject exams don't show up in tasks and activities of jobs -- any jobs." That limitation leads Carnevale to believe that the Core's academic focus could ultimately deepen rifts between students who are already on a path to college and those who plan to pursue a career straight out of high school. Those students, he says, could lose interest in more abstract subjects, like higher algebra, and drop out. "[Core proponents] can argue much more persuasively that the standards make you college ready, but not career ready," he said.
To rebut arguments such as Carnevale's, Coleman has said that the Core will teach students how to think critically, a crucial skill in an ever-changing economy.
Coleman said he thinks that when people like Paul do read the standards, they will support them. It's the substance, he said, that's brought Republicans such as Mike Huckabee and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on board. "Whatever missteps were made in the past with the administration and Race to the Top, the secretary has made very clear, this is and remains state led," Coleman said. "And any state can withdraw at any time, which is being demonstrated."
But if more states drop out, the effort could lose momentum. "If it's adopted by a tiny number of states, it ceases to have the meaning it once had," said Tim Daly, president of the teacher placement firm TNTP.
As the fight over the Core plays out, Coleman has taken a broader view on education. Last summer, the College Board announced that it would hire him to lead the organization. Since then, he has engaged the organization's members in redesigning the SAT, whose newest iteration will be unveiled in 2015.
He's heard from organization members, who have said they want the SAT to test things that are relevant to college success. They've told him that students should be able to read and write clearly, and also have mastered a core set of mathematical concepts. "The core aspiration is to build an exam that much more clearly focuses on the skills that matter most," he said. Instead of obscure vocabulary words, students should be expected to show deep understanding of academic terms such as "synthesis" and "transform." Overall, Coleman hopes the exam will be more relevant to high school learning. "It has to engage teachers more deeply," he said.
As students go back to school and stress over college applications this year, they probably don't know about the man with the funny socks in the Columbus Circle office who, in a sense, influences their future. "He's in this position to tie what kids are learning to what colleges are expecting," Smarick said. "Very few people in America today are having a bigger influence on what kids are learning than David Coleman."
This story was written in partnership with the Jewish Daily Forward.