Common standards≠national curriculum

“Ladywonk” Dana Goldstein has written, and The Atlantic has just published, a mostly on-target profile of David Coleman, who takes the helm of the College Board in just a few weeks. This influential new role makes him—and his values, goals, and ideas—more important than ever in American education.

They were already moderately important, thanks to his previous role as a drafter of the Common Core state standards—and his subsequent advocacy for those standards.

The standards are strong, which is why advocating them is important and deserves praise. And David has indeed been effective, particularly in regard to the English language arts standards, his specialty and passion, although along the way he has been attacked by educators (and others) who either don’t believe that all kids are capable of rigorous academic work or who don’t cotton to the kind of deep analysis of literary and non-literary texts that David favors. (“Tell me what’s the evidence for stating that Brutus stabbed Caesar; don’t give me your opinion of whether stabbing is a nice thing to do—or whether you’ve ever been stabbed.”)

Maybe because Ms. Goldstein is, fundamentally, a person of the left (her main day jobs involve the Century New America Foundation and The Nation magazine Institute), she either doesn’t quite grasp or doesn’t much care about the distinction between voluntary common standards—which most but not all states have adopted, some but not all will take seriously, and some may yet repudiate—and a “national curriculum.” She implies that David doesn’t see that distinction, either. But he does. And it’s profound. It’s one thing to give Ohio and Oregon a common target to shoot for—if they want to—and a common metric by which to gauge and compare their students’ performance (again, if  they want to). It’s quite another to prescribe—especially from Washington—what Dayton’s Ms. Jones and Portland’s Ms. Smith should teach their fifth-grade classes on October 3. David is pressing for the former, not the latter. Me too.

The other semi-blind spot in Goldstein’s profile is the tricky business of “college for all.” She basically says David wants everyone to attend a four-year liberal arts college, and that he’ll use his new perch at the College Board to try to make this happen across the land. That’s not how I understand him—or how I interpret the Common Core. What I understand is that everyone—repeat everyone—needs, by the end of high school, to have acquired knowledge and skills in core subjects that are equivalent to what an entering college student will need to do to succeed at introductory college-level work, but that these are necessary to succeed and prosper in twenty-first-century America whether one goes to college (much less a four-year liberal arts college) or not.

I’m pretty sure that’s what David thinks. Me too.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.