Remembering Mitchell Chester

A "relentlessly regular guy" with a noble vision of education

David Coleman, the president and CEO of The College Board, shared this remembrance with friends and colleagues of Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts state education commissioner who died this week at age 65. 

I WORRY AS I think about Mitchell I think too much about myself. Mitchell encouraged me at pivotal moments. I met him first almost 15 years ago when he was at the Ohio Department of Education and they were reviewing our proposal to enhance the score reports received by high school students and teachers.

The conversation with Mitchell was like a masterclass — he went so much deeper into the implications of how the data would intersect with the actual life of the classroom. I still remember today how he worried aloud that released items might mislead teachers because they offer one exemplar but do not define a domain. We spent an equal amount of time on the misuse as well as use of data; he was singularly vigilant.

It’s funny, because I later overheard that Mitchell told someone I was the best salesman he had ever met. I am sure he said it with a grin. I got the joke — there is always a hint of snake oil in the word salesman, and I appreciated always his affectionate teasing.

But there was another level to that first conversation. I felt challenged and held to a higher account — he made me and our work so much better. He had the kind of openness that allowed a conversation and a person to make an impression on him. Mitchell was never too worn down by his experience, the bureaucracy, or politics not to thrill to an idea he found worthwhile.

Years later, in a moment he likely did not remember, he made an aside that changed me. We had recently sold our assessment reporting company and I realized I needed to pause my life to find a meaningful next step. Mitchell had just been named commissioner of the great state of Massachusetts and he turned to me over dinner and said, “would you consider being my deputy for instruction?”

It was an aside we did not take further but it had a huge force — he  saw in me a different person than I had been. Jokes aside, he knew I shared his fascination with teaching and learning, and he at least for a moment foolishly considered taking a chance on me. Many experienced educators would instinctually push away an outsider with my background — Mitchell drew me into the heart of instruction.

I realize now that ever since then I have waited on him for a sign, for a sense of direction. When I was so uncertain about taking the College Board job I took a walk with Mitchell. Once again, his premature confidence in me was the bridge I needed to my future. The last time I saw him, he pulled me aside to tell me he thought I was doing good work and I felt his hand on my shoulder once more.

It is strange to talk about moments of encouragement from Mitchell when he spent so much more time making fun of me. His main impulse was to puncture puffery, including in himself. Mitchell could rise to the grand style of the commissioner of the greatest education state in the country, but he much more often broke into a workmanlike tone.

I saw him recently among his fellow state chiefs, and as we all discussed accountability policy he brought it back to the rough ground of classroom instruction. He said, of course, the real work is enhancing each day what students and teachers do. Mitchell knew that only the accumulated power of the daily work of teachers and students could realize education’s promise. He was a relentlessly regular guy with a noble vision of what teaching and learning could be.

Meet the Author

David Coleman

President & CEO, The College Board
No one knows whether to call Mitchell reformer or traditionalist. He was not lost in love of the new; I remember him worrying about the loss of printed books in classrooms. He was the consummate experienced educator who somehow remained fascinated by anyone with an idea, regardless of pedigree.

May your spirit too suddenly ripped from this world continue to guide and mock me, Mitchell.

David Coleman is president and CEO of The College Board.