With Choice of New Leader, College Board Hopes to Extend Its Reach

Angel Franco, The New York Times, Redux

David Coleman, who will take the organization's helm in October, is an architect of a set of common core curriculum standards that are meant to ensure all high-school graduates are prepared for college.
May 16, 2012

David Coleman has read a ton of Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare. He has earned degrees from Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge. As a lead writer of the common core curriculum standards adopted by all but a handful of states, he has become known as a dynamic—and controversial—reformer.

Now, Mr. Coleman is poised to lead the College Board, one of the most powerful forces in American education. His appointment could bring further changes to the nonprofit organization's best-known product—the SAT—and its wide blanket of other programs.

As the College Board announced on Wednesday, Mr. Coleman will become the nonprofit organization's next president and chief executive officer this October. "This is an extraordinary platform to help achieve some very urgent goals in this country," Mr. Coleman said in an interview. "The College Board is the most effective system we have for working across state lines."

Mr. Coleman, who is 42, is a co-founder of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization that has helped develop and support the Common Core State Standards, which prescribe what students should learn, in English and math, from kindergarten through high school. Designed to prepare all high-school graduates for college, the standards have ignited debates about teaching, learning, and creativity, not to mention the meaning of "quality."

What Mr. Coleman's tenure at the College Board will mean for its member colleges and high schools, and for millions of students who use the organization's products and services, one can only begin to guess. Right now, it's fair to say that the College Board has made a bold, unconventional choice. Unlike several of his predecessors, Mr. Coleman has not led a university or chaired a department. Nor has he held public office like Gaston Caperton, a two-term Governor of West Virginia, who is stepping down as the organization's president after 13 years.

By other measures, the College Board's choice seems both shrewd and timely. Over the last decade, the organization has pushed more deeply into the same K-12 terrain where Mr. Coleman has made his name. Under Mr. Caperton, the College Board has expanded its Advanced Placement program, which includes both high-school curricula and exams. It has introduced ReadiStep, an assessment test for middle-school students. And it has developed SpringBoard, "the official pre-AP program" for students in grades 6 through 12.

"We saw new synergy," Lester P. Monts, a former College Board trustee who led the search committee, said of Mr. Coleman. "We need linkages. The College Board's programs and services, the AP and the SAT, these only reach down so far. When you consider that the Common Core reaches all the way down to pre-kindergarten, it just seems to be a linkage that will benefit both K-12 and higher education."

Mr. Monts, who is senior vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said members of the committee wanted someone with an entrepreneurial spirit like Mr. Caperton. "The ability to take risks," he said, "that is sort of David Coleman's profile."

'Accountable to Evidence'

Mr. Coleman has already said that he hopes to align the SAT with the Common Core standards, which could further alter the identity of an exam that was long ago conceived of as a measure of students' abilities—and not as an achievement test. Moreover, he believes the standards provide a blueprint for helping more students succeed in Advanced Placement courses. "What the Common Core does in combination with the College Board is make it more realistic for us as a society to make sure that a kid's educational life is richer and more rigorous every year," he said, "so there's not this sudden rise in challenge when it comes time to take an examination."

Mr. Coleman also said that he would encourage members to re-examine various aspects of the admissions process, including admissions essays. "Let's look at the fact that some colleges demand two personal statements," he said. "Maybe what they really need is an analytical essay. If an essential requirement of success is to make an argument and write analytically, then why wouldn't the admissions essay ask for that?"

Similar questions may define the future of the SAT's required essay. Mr. Coleman said he would welcome discussion of the essay's shortcomings—and its unintended consequences. For years critics of the SAT essay have lamented that students' scores reflect how they write, but not what they write.

"On the SAT, when kids use examples today, they can use them without being accountable for the evidence they're using," he said. "As kids move on to colleges and careers, you have to be accountable to evidence. Since we've given them no source material, we have to say, 'Wait a minute, what have we done?' We've created this as a performance."

Mr. Coleman has criticized what he describes as an overemphasis on "personal narratives" in high-school curricula. During a speech in New York last year, Mr. Coleman said such writing did not prepare students for college and careers. "As you grow up in this world, you realize that people really don't [care] about what you feel or what you think." Mr. Coleman also said that it would be rare for someone in the workplace to say, "Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood."

To say that some teachers and commentators found this statement offensive would be an understatement. Susan Ohanian, a writer and former teacher, wrote on her blog last year that Mr. Coleman was on a mission to "slash" the personal writing students composed and the fiction they read. "As though literacy is to prepare children only for a working environment," she wrote. "And as though personal opinion isn't vital in a working environment." Letting education reformers "steamroll our schools into a neat and tidy standardized product," Ms. Ohanian concluded, "puts our children in great peril."

On Wednesday, Mr. Coleman insisted that he was by no means opposed to encouraging students' creativity or self-reflection. After all, his own study of literature had shaped him, he said: "Carefully reading literature, in my judgment, is a most beautiful form of concentration."

Some things cannot be measured in education, Mr. Coleman agreed. But students' capacity to analyze and describe what they have read most certainly can, he said. He then read a favorite passage from a book by C.S. Lewis that had influenced his thinking about the Common Core. In the passage, the author describes possible interpretations of a Tintoretto painting of the "Three Graces." "Real appreciation demands the opposite process," it begins. "We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles."

A New Identity?

The tension between objective and subjective evaluations of students has long defined the realm of selective college admissions, which the College Board was founded to serve more than a century ago. Since then, its mission has broadened and its clientele has grown more diverse. Mr. Coleman must steer the organization through a historic transition in college admissions. The economy is sagging and budgets are shrinking. Meanwhile, the demographics of high-school graduates are changing in ways that will challenge enrollment officers for years to come.

Those are just some of the reasons Mr. Coleman believes the College Board must do more to bridge the gulf between K-12 and higher education. "We're at the intersection," he said. One of his goals is to mold the organization's identity, "making it one and the same thing for the College Board to succeed in its social mission and to succeed as an institution," he said.

Robert A. Schaefer, public education director for FairTest, a testing watchdog group, is among the College Board's most outspoken critics. In an e-mail he described Mr. Coleman's hiring as "the next logical move in the drive to dominate U.S. public education with 'one-size-fits-all' products in its self-appointed role as the country's non-elected, national school board."

Others were more optimistic. Phillip A. Ballinger, assistant vice president for enrollment and director of admissions at the University of Washington, wrote in an e-mail that although he had yet to meet Mr. Coleman, he liked "the focus on something that is clearly important for education."

Earlier this spring, Jerome A. Lucido, a former College Board trustee, offered his view of the organization that the next president would inherit. Mr. Lucido, who directs the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, said that Mr. Caperton's successor would have an opportunity to "marry" colleges' interests with those of high schools. "The College Board needs to be known more for what it does than for the SAT and its other products," Mr. Lucido said. "It needs to understand the limitations of what tests do and what they're capable of doing."

In an e-mail Wednesday evening, Mr. Lucido said that he didn't know Mr. Coleman but that his hiring sent a strong signal about the College Board's commitment to curriculum reform. "Some were hoping for a leader who could bring higher education and K-12 membership into strong alignment," he said. "Given his prior K-12 focus, one challenge will be how the higher-education leaders and members will respond. It is a signal, though, that the organization is going forward boldly. This does not appear to be return to the roots, so to speak."