Reflections on Interview with David Coleman, College Board President and Common Core Architect - Cardinal Newman Society

Reflections on Interview with David Coleman, College Board President and Common Core Architect

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in The Cardinal Newman Society’s exclusive interview with David Coleman, president of The College Board (a testing company which provides the SAT and AP exams) and one of the developers of the Common Core Standards. As a critic of certain aspects of the Common Core and its influence in Catholic schools, it was an opportunity to learn about Mr. Coleman’s educational philosophy, his support for Catholic liberal arts education and his clear and emphatic statement that, “A child excellently trained in the traditional liberal arts will do superbly on relevant sections of the SAT and other aspects of Advanced Placement work — rest assured.”

This was indeed a welcome statement. Since the introduction of the Common Core in public schools in 2010, many Catholic school leaders have been sounding the alarm that if Catholic schools did not immediately embrace the college- and career-based Common Core standards, our students would somehow be left at a disadvantage.

To the contrary, even though Mr. Coleman is not convinced that the Common Core standards are harmful to Catholic schools, he insists that Catholic educators should have the “moxie” to retain, defend and even celebrate our schools’ Catholic identity and traditional emphasis on the liberal arts — and if there is pressure to change, we should keep educating precisely as we have done.

From early on, those of us urging a more cautious approach to the Common Core (including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) have emphasized that Catholic schools have a different mission than public schools, and that the Common Core in and of itself is insufficient to guide our more expansive efforts. Some of us have also emphasized that Catholic schools have a long history of success on standardized tests and very high college placement rates already.

Our schools are already at the place where Common Core hopes public schools will be regarding scores and college admission. The Newman Society’s advice has been for Catholic schools to enhance their efforts at Catholic identity and to wait and see what parts of the Common Core may work and which need to be fixed as this latest education reform matures. A number of Catholic schools and dioceses are taking this approach.

Now that the Common Core has been around for five years, early data is starting to come in. Not surprisingly, much of it is mixed. Lower than expected scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests — sometimes called the nation’s report card — have raised concerns, but a correlation to the Common Core is not yet clear. There has also been a significant 36-point drop in teacher support for the standard over the last two years, from 76 percent to 40 percent.

Finally, just this month the federal government has backed off its top-down, high-stakes test accountability for schools and is now recommending limiting the time students spend taking such tests. For the first time in a long time, there is some meager effort at returning more educational authority to individual states as per the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution. This is good news.

It was also good news to learn more about David Coleman’s respect for private faith-based schools and discuss his appreciation for the power of literature. On the desire to see a deeper and more human interaction with literature, we found much common ground, as also in our shared respect for the literary insights of C.S. Lewis. Criticism of the standards that Mr.Coleman helped develop needs to be considered separately from the man now running The College Board (SAT/AP). The formation of the human person, which is at the heart of all educational efforts, will never be without controversy or disagreement. We are grateful to Mr. Coleman for taking the time to express both our shared values and our respectful disagreements.

While Mr. Coleman primarily engaged with us in his role as College Board president, and the purpose of the interview was not to get into a lengthy Common Core debate, we did have some time to discuss a few issues. He was concerned that some of our criticism of the Common Core did not accurately take into account its directive on the percentage of literary texts vs.informational texts expected in the curriculum.

He wanted to clarify, for example, that in 8th grade the 45 percent literary/55 percent informational text reading load was distributed across all subjects. It is not expected that English classes themselves mirror this distribution. As the interview was not a debate, I mentioned but did not push the point that that even prior to the Common Core, 80 percent of 6th grade reading across all subjects was informational. This was already 25 percent more informational text than the Common Core appears to demand — and yet the Common Core states that “fulfilling the Standards for 6-12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional.” Post Common Core, in those English/reading courses that were supposed to be protected, informational text assignments have grown rapidly to now account for 45 percent of reading instruction in 4th grade English Language Arts. If this is not what was intended, it should be rectified.

He also pointed out references in the Common Core itself to exemplar works such as those of G.K. Chesterton and the Bible, and he wanted to make sure that we had appreciated the concept of “literary non-fiction” in our concern that literature or significant critical works were getting short shrift. His point is well-taken, that there is much thoughtful “literary-non-fiction” that can be powerfully used to engage students in profound subjects.

However, there is also a unique role played by literary fiction in human formation which should not be diminished in favor of non-fiction, even literary non-fiction. The encounter with well-written, creative, soul-searching or heart-inspiring literature simply has no parallel for effective student engagement and formation, and also more adequately hones the critical thinking and core reading skills that all educators seek.

The reason we are so jealous of good literature is its unique role in the mission of a Catholic school, which aims at passing on culture and faith. It also aids in human development and relationships, which are at the heart of our efforts. At last month’s Vatican-sponsored World Congress on Education, Catholic leaders were consistently reminded that our educational program is not one of simply college and career training but also of the integral formation of the whole person: mind, body and spirit, into a robust, fully alive, authentically free person.

The latest Vatican educational document stresses that we must not be only focused on “what seems to be useful now, because it is being required by contingent economic or social demands, forgetting what is indispensable for the human person” (II.3). Our focus is broader, “the world, in all its diversity, is eager to be guided toward the great values of mankind, truth, good and beauty, now more than ever” (III.1.c) according to the document, and we must respect our students as integral persons, helping them “to develop a multiplicity of skills that enrich the human person, such as creativity, imagination, the ability to take on responsibilities, to love the world, to cherish justice and compassion” (III.1.e).

Because good literature can play such an important role in this core part of our Catholic school mission, the Newman Society has been a consistent and vocal critic of any attempt to reduce literature in schools and in any approach which might seem to take a utilitarian approach to literature. While we are not claiming that this is the specific intent of the Common Core or its supporters, we do believe that it is a very real by-product of the current educational zeitgeist.

We were encouraged to find that Mr. Coleman’s appreciation for literature — while emphasizing attention to evidence and the attention to reading and understanding — also included the soul-crafting force of literature and great documents, and the value of productive solitude in their presence. He stated that it was not his intention to have any antagonism toward literature, which played such an important role in his life.

We are also grateful for his appreciation of the unique value that religious schools can bring to the educational landscape of the United States. Our concern at The Cardinal Newman Society has been that American Catholic schools not get “caught up” in educational initiatives, or stumble into them in fear of a test, that might lessen their unique gift to our country or in any way diminish their critically important role in the Church.

The Cardinal Newman Society has always emphasized that a Catholic school’s standards should be driven by and reflective of its mission. Catholic schools have a unique mission, one that is much broader and more fully human than that able to be pursued in public schools. Therefore our standards and our emphasis must be broader, and especially in areas of literature and history, significantly different in some areas.

The Cardinal Newman Society is currently working with noted Catholic academics around the country to begin to articulate what these unique aspirations of Catholic education in key disciplines might include. With your prayers and support, we hope to have some simple and basic resources available for Catholic schools this coming fall.

Dr. Dan Guernsey is the director of K-12 programs at The Cardinal Newman Society.

DAN GUERNSEY is director of The Cardinal Newman Society’s K-12 Programs and principal of the Rhodora J. Donahue Academy in Ave Maria, Fla. Guernsey earned a Doctorate in Education (Ed.D.) at Eastern Michigan University, specializing in educational leadership.

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