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English teachers: Follow David Coleman

favicon If you’re an English teacher right now, you might be noticing that there’s a lot going on.

If you teach fiction, people might be telling you to teach less of it and to switch to nonfiction. If you believe in teaching texts that are relevant to your students, you might be sensing sneers from colleagues. And if you like independent reading, well, you might be the pariah of your department.

The cause of this ruckus? It’s easy: A man named David Coleman.

David Coleman, now the president of the College Board, is the architect of the Common Core State Standards for English. Because nearly every state is moving to the Common Core in 2014, and because standardized testing will change to reflect those standards, Mr. Coleman is the guy to follow if you’re an English teacher. (Here’s a recent profile in The Atlantic.)

Some reasons why:

1. Mr. Coleman wants students to read more nonfiction.
To prepare students for college and career, the Common Core suggests that 70 percent of reading for high schoolers be “informational texts,” — in other words, nonfiction. English teachers worry that they’ll have to shoulder this shift because teachers of other disciplines often do not include reading as a major component of their curriculum.

2. Mr. Coleman wants to shift back to the canon.
Reading in high school isn’t rigorous enough, Mr. Coleman believes. Teachers don’t challenge students with complex texts and instead opt for works that students find more immediately relevant. The problem, according to Mr. Coleman, is that these texts are too simplistic and do not require adequate critical thinking. Also too easy are books that students choose themselves, so independent reading is a no-no.

3. Mr. Coleman advocates for close reading and text-based instruction.
Prereading activities serve only to offer students a way out of reading. Asking students to engage personally with a text and to make connections allow for answers not rooted in the author’s words. For Mr. Coleman, grappling with text closely is the only way to read.

4. Mr. Coleman shuns personal writing and champions argumentative writing with evidence-based support.
Imagery and figurative language and beautiful syntax are not on Mr. Coleman’s rubric for excellent writing. Neither is the ability to write a personal narrative. Rather, he insists on teaching arguments supported by text-based evidence. Don’t even think of assigning a short story or poem.

As I’m sure you notice, I find Mr. Coleman intriguing. (Here are a few more posts I’ve written about him.) He’s incredibly smart and forceful, and given my social studies background, I can see where he’s going.

At the same time, I worry about Mr. Coleman’s power. He’s just 42, and though he says the right things about teachers (you’re so important!) and kids of color (they can do it!), he comes across as slightly out of touch (and overly confident, bordering on arrogant).

English teachers, I encourage you to get to know Mr. Coleman more, listen to his speeches, and share your thoughts about him. What are your feelings about the Common Core State Standards and how they’ll change your practice? favicon


  1. Michele

    Wow! That IS a lot of power for one person. And it seems problematic that he’s president of the College Board, a for-profit company (which has way too much power already.) I agree with him that non-fiction is beneficial and that students should be writing more evidence-based argumentation. But relevant, accessible fiction and creative writing are so important to a good chunk of students who might otherwise be ready to give up on reading and writing altogether. What about those people? It’s just another reminder that English teachers – try as we might – can’t do it all.

  2. Tony

    I am impressed by how Mr. Mark Isero is so tapped into the most recent trends in ELA instruction. David Coleman has been a big topic of conversation in my research group with P. David Pearson – who has had multiple back and forths with Coleman. Pearson, who was one of the consultants on the CCSS, has been making the point that a particularly traditional, conservative group led by Coleman has taken what was intended to be a set of standards open to local interpretation (varied notions on close reading exist, for example) and implementing a much stricter enactment of the standards.
    NCTE, among other organizations, are actively resisting this turn in ELA. One issue here is a myth that is very prevalent about what has actually been happening in ELA classrooms nationwide since the 1980s. The moves to multi-cultural literature, reader response approaches to reading and strategies based instruction, has been vastly over stated as being the norm now in schools. Truth is, the new criticism approach (looking for themes, symbols, etc) has always been here, and the books in the canon, are still overwhelmingly taught. In 2000 a review of what is taught in HS classrooms, Smagorinsky showed that three most common books were Scarlett Letter, Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet. Same as it ever was.
    However, similar to ED Hirsch in the 90s, Coleman is capitalizing on a wave of traditionalist rhetoric that is increasingly common in a context where standardized testing is privileged. This effort to standardize students and to narrow what it means to read will not only turn the clock back, but it will be especially problematic for students of color.

  3. Mark Isero

    Thank you, Michele and Tony, for your comments. Michele, I think you’re right that Mr. Coleman believes that students will be able to read more complex texts if we teach more complex texts. Though I don’t believe in dumbing down the curriculum, we also know that significant support is needed to engage students who have hated and struggled with reading for years.

    Tony, in addition to appreciating your insightful analysis and knowledge, I liked your mention of Peter Smagorinsky. His article is now featured on Iserotope Extras. You’re completely on point with the false assertion that English teaching is somehow “too multicultural.” And Mr. Smagorinsky makes a great point that Mr. Coleman seems to care only about following orders and getting students ready for menial office careers.

    Thank you both.

Please share your brilliant insights!