David Coleman-The Cheshire Cat of Education

September 28, 2012 — 7 Comments

 David Coleman, incoming president of the College Board is staring out from the front cover of the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic . Actually, he is not staring. I think he is smirking…a Cheshire Cat smirk.

He has every reason to smirk. Coleman one of the architects of the Common Core State Standards has emerged as one of the more influential education policymakers to change what will be taught in classrooms and how this content will be taught without ever having spent time in the classroom himself.

Yes, Coleman has never taught in a public school classroom, although he was very successful as a student. He was educated in the Manhattan public school system, the son of highly educated parents, his father, a psychiatrist, and his mother, president of Bennington College. His privileged liberal arts credentials are immersive and include Yale, a Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford, and Cambridge.

His perspective on education has been informed by the business side of education which included pro-bono work at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He developed and sold the assessment company Grow Network; co-founded and sold Student Achievement Partner; and most recently, accepted a position as president of The College Board.

Coleman has materialized, like Lewis Carroll’s enigmatic Cheshire Cat, as the cool outsider who surveys education as a Wonderland ruled by nonsense. He has promoted an agenda of close reading and an increase in non-fiction, to a ratio of 70% of all required reading by grade 12, from his perch high above the daily dust-ups of the average classroom.

Now, after developing the CCSS, replete with new batteries of state tests, he has moved on to the pinnacle of high stakes testing, the SAT. His arrival comes amid renewed concerns from studies about the SAT that demonstrate the unfairness of the test for minorities, females, and students living in poverty.

While I can embrace many of the standards in the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS),  I remain unconvinced by Coleman’s sweeping claims that “close reading” lessons  of several days focused on a complex and difficult text is critical to improving understanding. I have practiced close reading, but not with the singular and tortuous focus Coleman advocates. There is little research as to how this approach will improve reading skills for all students. For 21 years, I have been a “boots on the ground” promoter of reading to a population of students who are reading less and less of the assigned materials, so I speak from experience when I state that Coleman’s emphasis on close reading can have an adverse effect on an already poor reader.

Furthermore, Coleman negates the effectiveness of the past 35 years of having students engage with a text using Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory. His blunt charge “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think” is simply not true. I cannot imagine any author who would not want to know what a reader thought. Writing is supposed to inspire; writing is an invitation to a dialogue. Furthermore, how will not listening to what students thought engage them in writing at all?

The question is how did Coleman get to place his large footprint on education, and why did teachers let him move into this position? Were teachers so preoccupied with teaching that they failed to see how the dynamics of education were moving from engaging leaders from public school institutions to accepting leadership from more commercial enterprises?

Dennis Van Roekel alluded to the rise of Coleman and others like him when he delivered an address to the National Education Association 91st Representative Assembly this past July:

Are we willing to assert our leadership, and take RESPONSIBILITY for our professions?
The demands of our work are changing as our students change, and the world around us is changing too – ever so fast.I say it is time for us to lead the next generation of professionals – in educating the next generation of students!

I’m so tired of OTHERS defining the solutions… without even asking those who do the work every day of their professional life.
I want to take advantage of this opportunity for US to lead – and I’m not waiting to be asked, nor am I asking anyone’s permission.

Because if we are not ready to lead, I know there are many others ready, willing, and waiting to do it for us. Or maybe I should say, do it “to” us.

Van Roekel’s quote echoes the question rhetorically posed by noted educator Lucy Caulkins at her presentation of the 82nd reunion at Columbia Teacher’s College, “Where is the proof, David Coleman, that your strategy works?”

Coleman’s ascent to the top of American education policy has been steady. He made contributions to the CCSS which will result in nationwide metrics for grades K-12. Add this testing to his new control of the SAT, and his influence on American education and the tests that measure learning will continue through the college level, all without his having the informative experience of teaching in a classroom. That any one individual without any teaching experience could have had this impact on the daily workings of the classroom is a commentary on the current state of madness that public education now finds itself.

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.

7 responses to David Coleman-The Cheshire Cat of Education


    Sorry that I’m leaving so many comments, but I am finding your posts well-written, thoughtful, and inspiring. Thank you very much for this one. Although I believe in close reading (as David Coleman encourages), I find him smug. Your balanced approach of close reading, Reader Response, and independent reading (like Kelly Gallagher) is, for me, the better way to go.


      Thank you for taking the time to comment I often wonder who is reading this blog. Of course, I am not surprised that like-minded teachers find each other, but hearing from someone is a validation.
      Thank you.


    I am a retired teacher (40) yrs. in elementary school. I am also speaking about a successful poetry program I developed and think helps build literacy skills in a very engaged way. Nothing reallya new idea, rather a new twist on an old one. In the meantime I have been reading a lot about the CCSS and trying to learn as much as I can so I can be more helpful to teachers still at work. Since I am not really interested in the retirement lifestyle, I hope to be a consultant eventually. I am enjoying the detail in your blog posts and have read and skimmed a number on the CCSS. I read Pathways to the CC by Calkins and saw her speak many times but not in the last 10 or more years. So that was the first post I read. Very good and helpful! I am giving a session on my poetry and the CC at our state reading conf. and while I think it is a great thing to make sure all kids are getting a great education, I have my reservations and doubts. Especially the way we have this new plan, no money, not enough time and wham! tests, high-stakes to boot and no really great visions about what effectively will work. Yet I am not against rampnig up what we do for kids. But I agree that if kids do not choose to read on their own and we bore them to death, they are not going to engage….We are definitely in a time of change and hopefully not too much turmoil, but I think that is not necessarily a wrong term. I will keep reading your blog and thank you for your effort to share your ideas and information.


      Thank you for taking the time to write and being so complimentary. I fear poetry is not on the priority list, although I always thought poetry was the ideal close reading topic. Need to really consider those “thoughts recollected in tranquility.” Best wishes on your non-retirement. I fear I may do the same one day! Thank you again.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Literally….David Coleman « Used Books in Class - August 24, 2013

    […] Finally, many of the most beloved children stories are saturated with metaphor.  Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is filled with metaphors that address life’s absurdities, and one specific metaphor brings me back to an entry I wrote titled  David Coleman, the Cheshire Cat of Education. […]

  2. Diane Ravitch to the Defense of Teachers at the Saturday Reunion at Teacher’s College « Used Books in Class - March 23, 2014

    […] Her objections to the CCSS are rooted in its creation, and in its rapid adoption and implementation in 45 states. She objected to the lack of educators involved in developing the standards. She reminded the crowd that only four agencies were involved in the creation: the  National Association of Governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO); and two educational organizations, Achieve, devoted to improving the rigor and clarity of the process of standard-setting and testing, and Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students. She  specifically called out David Coleman, a non-educator and a former treasurer to the controversial Michelle Rhee’s Student’s First enterprise,who now serves as president of the College Board. (See my previous posts on Coleman here and here) […]

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