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Straight Up Conversation: Common Core Architect and New College Board President David Coleman

By Rick Hess — June 11, 2012 11 min read
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The whip-smart and polished David Coleman has been the quiet architect behind the Common Core. With no formal position, he’s played a pivotal role in shepherding and selling the work coordinated by the NGA and CCSSO. Of late, he’s been spending most of his time as the founding partner of Student Achievement Partners, the nonprofit that’s received a substantial investment from the GE Foundation (among others) to implement the Common Core. Well, in one of the more intriguing edu-job changes in recent memory, David was recently named the next president of the College Board, the $800 million a year outfit that designs and sells the SAT and AP (he’ll take over in the fall). In the wake of the announcement, David told Ed Week‘s Catherine Gewertz, “The common core provides substantial opportunity to make the SAT even more reflective of what higher education wants. The real value here is that if the SAT aligns more to the common core, we won’t be giving an assessment at the end of K-12 that’s out of kilter with what we demand at the end of the day.” Given the news and heated debate around the Common Core, it seemed a good time to chat with David about the new job.

Rick Hess: So, how did this whole deal come about?
David Coleman: The College Board reached out to me as part of their search process. I had worked informally with the College Board for over a year so I wasn’t entirely unknown to the institution.

RH: What appealed to you about the opportunity?
DC: I think the College Board is perhaps the most effective institution we now have at delivering rigor across state and district lines. That is, when you walk around AP classrooms whether you’re in Iowa, Idaho, or Massachusetts, you know there is some meaningful similarity in the level of demand. That is something we’ve had a very great difficulty achieving outside of AP in this country. And so I was very interested in what the implications of that were.

The second thing that drew me to it is I felt that the institutional interest in common standards would help the movement towards agreement that college- and career-readiness is the goal of K-12 education in this country. And I mean that equally for the handful of states, say, who have not signed on for the Common Core. In other words, the democratization of that goal towards college- and career-readiness is really for everyone. For me, the embrace of the Common Core is the embrace of that principle.

RH: In your mind, is this a shift from where the College Board has historically been?
DC: No, I actually think it builds beautifully on their past. Their two principles have been equity and excellence. But the Common Core kind of gives it more muscle and tissue than the past. So, while I think they always work for college- and career-readiness for all students, the Common Core begins to make that more concrete, it begins to give that shape as to what kinds of things that might mean in K-12. And so it makes it more of a practical way to talk about rigor more concretely.

It’s also really exciting, despite some dispute about the particular standards--which I respect and honor, by the way--that states like Virginia and Texas have taken other routes to that same goal. They’re firmly committed to college- and career-readiness for all students. Texas, for example, has done breakthrough work aligning its higher ed expectations with high school expectations. So there’s no ambiguity on the goals.

RH: So when you say “aligned to the Common Core,” just what do you have in mind--and, practically speaking, what does that mean for states like Texas or Virginia?
DC: I think you get widespread agreement in Texas and Virginia and other places, for instance, that writing that is truly ready for college and career should show accountability towards evidence. So I don’t think that what Common Core alignment looks like is “Standard five on page 32.” I think it means alignment on the broad strokes of what I believe are now quite commonly agreed upon characteristics of college readiness.

RH: Have you had a chance to chat with officials in states like Virginia and Texas about this?
DC: Yes, I have, I have talked a bit about this with Commissioner [Robert] Scott in Texas, for example. And I think there’s real excitement. For example, in the Texas standards, they’ve emphasized beautifully attention to primary sources, as it turns out that one of the ways you can distinguish a kid who passes NAEP versus [one who does] not is precisely their ability to command a primary source. So the notion of commanding source evidence and expressing that in both reading and writing is deeply ingrained in the Texas standards as well as the Common Core.

And that’s a real contribution Texas has made. And while Texas chose not to embrace the Common Core standards, that did not mean we didn’t study some of the good work Texas was doing in developing them. And I have looked at the Virginia work and I am actually very confident that on these broad levels, that there’s lots of agreement.

RH: As far as the decision to take the job, were there things that gave you pause? You’ve not spent a lot of time working in large bureaucracies.
DC: That’s a good question. I think what was exciting for me was how demonstrable the interest of the search committee was in the social mission of the College Board. I was stunned by it. Their first three questions were not about merely perpetuating the institution. They were about achieving the social objectives on which the institution’s based. So they were very interested in how does the College Board at once be reliable as a measure of excellence while also helping more kids and a more diverse population achieve that excellence.

The board of the College Board is a very interesting group of people. Many of them are from higher education, and also guidance counselors, AP teachers, and so forth. This is not a business board.... I was never asked a word about margins, or how do you make this product more successful. So I think there was a sense of excitement that the College Board platform was strong and that that could really make a contribution. I think there was a wonderful sense of promise...And that a next leader could make that a primary concern or the primary concern.

RH: Do you have any concerns about your ability to get this enormous, entrenched organization to play a different kind of role?
DC: The College Board is not a manufacturer of tires. It does something else: it brings together higher education and K-12 to discuss and agree on what matters most...Those critical decisions made in partnership are a key impact the College Board has in the world; its strategic impact is significant. And so what’s exciting is that while it is large, and for many good reasons does not move precipitously because of its shared work, refining its direction can be very powerful.

RH: When you took the job, what did you tell the board that you’d hope your legacy would be?
DC: I hoped our legacy together would be a visible, advancement of the social mission. In other words, to combine the continuing strength of the organization with visible advances in achievement by diverse kids...I am very interested in making good choices about what is to be assessed. I think it’s fair to say that when one assesses something, particularly in a high stakes way, one should ethically have the obligation that is worth practicing a hundred times. That means you should test nothing that you don’t think that you want kids to practice, because they will. There are enormous consequences to choosing to assess something. And so I envision the College Board as an organization that takes responsibility, that is thoughtful about the design of assessments such that they are worthy of such imitation and such practice.

RH: How confident are you that the team at the College Board is ready to embrace this vision?
DC: I was very impressed, as I was with the board, by the hunger in the senior staff to a devotion to a sense of their mission and to their relevance in the world...I think there is a hunger to be fully engaged.

RH: You’ve got about four to five months until you actually take the reins. What will you be doing with that time?
DC: More time to rest for one. The second is, one thing that made me comfortable with doing this is that the team at Student Achievement Partners [Coleman’s current organization] is very strong. And so that was an essential part of my decision making: would the team at SAP be strong enough to continue its independent voice of helping the implementation of the Common Core standards? And I am really pleased with the team, and really pleased that we were able to confirm the core financial support of the GE Foundation....So I would say over the next few months I am just going to keep working with the team at SAP on any transitional stuff to reinforce that organization strength and keep it really humming.

RH: Are you concerned that this is going to limit your ability to be a voice advocating for the Common Core? How will your move impact the Common Core effort?
DC: I have been surprised at the depth of public excitement about the alignment. In all candor, I worried about that some before I chose to do this. That was one of the considerations that I had, was the anxiety that we could lose a key voice for the Common Core. But I do not think that now that it’s playing out, I think people are hungry to see that there’s institutional support for these changes. You know, there really is a need for kids to do more college level work at every grade level. I think that, more than I could have hoped, this decision by the College Board and my appointment is being seen as a remarkable positive support for the aims of the Common Core.

RH: The College Board has not seemed especially interested in sharing data or offering access to outsiders. Do you have any thoughts on how you might boost transparency and access to data in your new role?
DC: Openness and candor are crucial. [I want] people feeling that when they’re working with the College Board, they can get data easily for their needs to understand the world of children.... [There are] crucial limitations [surrounding privacy]...But even data is cleansed of any personal information--those patterns of information are very powerful. So there’s one form or candor or transparency, which is getting out that data as efficiently as possible. And there’s also candor about results. For example, we should be concerned that SAT scores are declining. So I do think that transparency and candor are very interesting virtues to hold as an individual in an institution. And I do hope as I move into it that can be a real hallmark of what interactions with the College Board are like.

RH: Are there examples of the information you’re hoping to see the College Board make more readily available?
DC: Some of the information is so important to get out there because it could galvanize productive social action. For example, Caroline Hoxby has begun to publish on [the fact that] many students have very high SAT scores but don’t go to college. And it’s a large number, not a small number. Now, of course, many of those students may have made a principled decision not to go to college. But I worry, and I think we should worry, that a large number of those kids don’t go to college due to other barriers that hold them from it.

Also, the PSAT/NMSQT is often used to judge a student’s readiness for an AP course. And of the students who score well on the PSAT/NMSQT, indicating a 70 percent likelihood of thriving in an AP course, of those students, six out of ten Asians will take an AP course, [compared with] four out of ten white students and two out of ten African American students...In other words there is a racial break among kids who could achieve at a high level and are being propelled into more challenging academic experiences; that data needs to be understood. Nothing would make me more excited than if the College Board could commit itself as an institution to working with its members and partners to help change those figures. But you have to then be very clear about the underlying data.

RH: Now, it’s part of the College Board’s role to be a referee and score keeper. If you start to get into partnerships focused on changing outcomes, how do you ensure the integrity of the measures?
DC: Good question. The assessment-oriented judgment of whether or not kids have met a standard does not change. So that’s the referee role; it’s an objective question of whether students do well... What you’d measure and hold the institution accountable to is that more diverse kids did well in that objective setting. But you would not change the setting itself.

RH: Final question. If we think about Wall Street banks before 2008, for instance, we know there was pressure on the folks who wrote lending standards to tweak metrics so as to help generate revenue. How do you safeguard against such tensions?
DC: I think what works about the College Board is the remarkable culture of sustaining the rigor in courses like AP. There have been almost no accusations, interestingly, of any watering down...I think that the opposite is true. The engine of social justice at the College Board is the presumption that more rigor draws students to a higher level. It would be the utmost betrayal of it to water that down.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.