Memories of Andrew Coulson

Many of you have heard the sad news that Andrew Coulson passed away over the weekend.  I thought I would share some personal memories.

I first remember meeting Andrew and his wife, Kay, at a conference in Toronto in 2000.  I have to admit that he felt out of place.  Here was this guy without any university, think tank, or other affiliation and without any formal training presenting on the history of markets in education.  And people did not typically attend these meetings with spouses.  Who was this guy?

As it turns out, this guy was a brilliant autodidact who “retired” after being an early programmer with Microsoft to devote his time to studying and advocating education reform.  And he was really good at it.

The thing that struck me most about Andrew was his incredible optimism and quirky sense of humor.  Liberty-oriented education activists tend to be on the losing side of policy battles.  It can be downright discouraging.  But Andrew never seemed discouraged or became bitter.  It was a long game and he maintained a sunny optimism that freedom worked better and people would eventually gravitate towards what worked.

He didn’t mind standing apart from the crowd.  Just because donors, policymakers, and other scholars were drawn to test-based accountability didn’t make Andrew feel like he had to join them.  He even expressed serious reservations about certain methods of expanding school choice, including charters and vouchers, that he thought would invite excessive government regulation.  I confess that I paid little attention to Andrew’s warnings back then but I wish I had.  The experience and wisdom he obtained from studying history made him more sensitive to these dangers than my narrow practice of social science.  The autodidact had quite a lot to teach highly trained people like me.  As it turned out, choice reforms less prone to excessive regulation, like tax credit funded scholarships and ESAs, are now spreading rapidly — just as Andrew had expected and advised.

His humor often seemed to involve plays on words.  For example I once posted to Facebook a photo of what I (incorrectly) captioned as a “Golden Lion Tamarind.”  He made some sort of joke about how the dish was prepared.  Some people of faith find small typos and errors in language interesting because they think they can be unintentionally prophetic.  I don’t know if that was Andrew’s motivation but the thought of me secretly wishing to eat a small monkey is pretty funny.

I will miss that quirky humor, but more importantly I will miss his wise counsel and good cheer.  It’s a long game that must go on but something will be missing without Andrew as part of it.

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30 Responses to Memories of Andrew Coulson

  1. Jason Bedrick says:

    Thanks, Jay. A very moving tribute.

  2. George Mitchell says:

    Very nice, Jay.

    Andrew buttressed assertions that might have been seen as “ideological” with cogent analysis and relevant data. As one of many, many examples, his graph that tracks K-12 expenditures over time with academic achievement is masterful.

    He was a prompt and courteous responder to email queries and observations.

    The ongoing K-12 debate would ratchet up several notches if many in the current crop of “thought leaders” would take a few days off from Twitter and read Coulson.

    A story I recall: Andrew walked up to my wife at a conference many years ago and asked, “Can you direct me to Susan Mitchell? I’m told I should meet her.”

  3. sstotsky says:

    Let me offer my own memories of Andrew Coulson–dating back to the early 1990s. As others on this blog have noted, he backed up everything he said with data and wrote with a sharp analysis of the issues. He was one of the guest essayists for an issue on whether or not the public schools were in decline. I was editor of Research in the Teaching of English at the time and chose the topic for its timeliness then, and his essay appeared in Volume 30, Number 3, October 1996, pp. 311-327, along side essays by Jeanne Chall, Herbert Walberg, Lawrence Stedman, David Berliner, Michael Schudson, and Paul Diederich. I sought him out (and the others as well) because I was determined to put out balanced discussions of controversial topics. He was in the right company–right at the top, then. His essay is still worth reading.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    I also want to record that while he had a strong point of view and wasn’t shy about asserting it, he was not only unfailingly honest and respectful about it (which is praise enough these days!) but he also genuinely listened to what others who disagreed with him said.

    I remember the last time I heard him give his presentation on why tax credits were better than vouchers – a view I disagreed with strenuously and still do – I noticed that he had modified some of his claims in response to his critics. He was no less fixed in his convictions on the topic but he did change what he said in response to serious criticism. It made his case stronger (which I didn’t like!) but it also made me respect him more. Wish we had a dozen more like him.

  5. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  6. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  7. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  8. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  9. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  10. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  11. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  12. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  13. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  14. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  15. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  16. Adam Schaeffer says:

    Thanks for the post Jay . . . I just posted my own thoughts about Andrew here: http://www.cato.org/blog/andrew-coulsons-legacy

  17. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  18. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  19. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  20. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  21. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  22. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  23. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  24. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  25. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  26. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  27. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  28. […] University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform noted Andrew’s humorous, witty, independent voice and his unique professional background, while Nick Gillespie of Reason called him a “free market education radical” — a […]

  29. Tunya Audain says:

    Andrew Coulson & Home Education

    It’s through the literature and videos that I knew of Andrew Coulson. The information and insight gained from his analyses will remain significant, instructive and cautionary not only for home educators but for all who cherish freedom and the primary role of parents in the education of their children.

    Adam Schaeffer’s suggestions for further reading are welcome: http://www.cato.org/blog/andrew-coulsons-legacy

    I know most of Coulson’s work was in aid of the broader topic of choice. But as far as home education goes, these are some of the issues that are informed by Coulson’s interpretations and which bear watching:

    – “professionalization” of teaching will further bar parents from their primary role in education
    – 21st Century Learning Transformations currently in vogue are shifting “transmission” of knowledge and skills toward greater focus on human development, psychology and data collection — a dangerous move
    – compulsory public education as a project is full of oxymoronic contradictions
    – individualism is a “threatened species” in light of collectivist leanings

    I have heard others say in their tributes that Andrew’s work has been key to the spread of choice efforts and successes. Concerning the four cautions above — the field of home education would have enjoyed a longer relationship with Andrew Coulson’s ideas to further advance the choice direction. The deep feeling of loss is profound.

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