Who Should Reform Education?

David Coleman is the “architect” of the Common Core and now the driving force behind a redesign of the SAT. He is well-educated to appreciate the liberal arts; his mother, Elizabeth Coleman, was president of Bennington College, and studied history and literature at Yale and Oxbridge. But his path from academe to education reform is interesting: Coleman started at McKinsey & Co., launched a data analytics company to track No Child Left Behind, sold it to McGraw-Hill (2005), started the nonprofit that pushed the Common Core, got mixed up with Michelle Rhee (2010-2012), and in 2012 became president of the College Board, which designs the SAT.

It flummoxes teachers why a private individual with no classroom experience has taken leadership of American educational reform. The Common Core is controversial. There has been criticism from various fronts — teachers, teachers unions, Tea Partiers, university professors, Catholic scholars — but this has not coalesced into powerful opposition. I realize that the Arizona legislature is the laughingstock of the United States recently, but take their debate over Common Core as an object lesson. Recently, Arizona Republicans showed they were divided between those who recognized “businesses want core standards” (and won) and those that thought the standards introduced unspecified “pornographic material”. Again, these are the infamous Arizona Republicans, but still…

Coleman’s rise, meanwhile, is an object lesson in “New Class” consolidation — Paul Piccone’s idea of the dominant information-broker class in American life — when intellectuals, managers, and policymakers come together to share an obsession with bureaucratic social engineering.

Education is the frontline of our inequality crisis. The suggestive correlation of Matt Bruenig’s graphic should save the trouble of unpacking that claim any further:

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Coleman is right to aim for rigorous standards, and testing models, that will help to give low-income students from underperforming schools the chance to go to college.

For now, let’s avoid the thorny issue of whether more students should be “tracked” into technical education. The ideal tradeoff of our present system — theoretically there is the opportunity more social mobility, even if theoretically this means more youth unemployment — may not have any bearing in actuality. Suffice it to say that the ideal American model, which treats education as an individual right, might not align with the ends of the common good.

That debate, for now, is highly abstract. Doubly so, because the decision-makers in American education sit behind closed doors at the College Board, ETS, the big textbook companies, and committees in the Texas and Florida legislatures — not to mention the corporatized universities. Education is a major industry. It has also been a sound public investment — with compelling public interest — since the early 19th century. (Our only classical liberal theorist-turned-president was prouder of this investment than his presidency; I have been thus indoctrinated.) Why do democratically elected politicians at the federal level shirk their responsibility to audit the staggering public investment in education? Is it because they’d rather slough off the controversy to the private sector?


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