Education Opinion

Justin Cohen, President, School Turnaround Group, Mass Insight

By Sara Mead — May 17, 2011 9 min read
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What to do about chronically low-performing public schools is one of the biggest--and most debated--challenges in public education today. As President of the School Turnaround Group at MassInsight, Justin Cohen tackles this challenge every day, working with states and schools districts to put in place the right conditions and policies and turn around low-performing schools.

Since graduating from Yale in 2002, Cohen has worked in a variety of education organizations: the D.C. Public Schools under Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Edison Schools, and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. He serves on the Board of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, in Washington, D.C., which recently won a federal planning grant for the Promise Neighborhood Initiative, and the national board of the newly formed Students for Education Reform. He lives in Boston, Mass., with his wife Eleanor Vanden Heuvel, who studies and teaches Italian literature.He blogs here. [Read more.]

Photo courtesy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Used with permission.
You’re the President of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight. What does that actually mean you do?

In 2007, Mass Insight published a report called “The Turnaround Challenge” that suggested that the United States could do a lot better job of turning around failing schools if we did it more aggressively and dramatically. When President Obama and Secretary Duncan decided to make school turnaround one of the big federal priorities in education, Mass Insight responded by developing a new organizational strategy and unit to help districts implement school turnaround. We continues to be a research and policy organization--but the School Turnaround Group allows us to apply lessons learned in the research and policy work to dramatically impact school performance.

The School Turnaround Group does 3 things:

  1. Policy and advocacy around school turnaround (as we did before 2009)
  2. Work with states to implement more robust strategies around school turnaround. One example of this is using School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds to implement an “intra-state Race to the Top” that only gives SIG grants to districts that are going to go further, faster on school turnaround.
  3. Work with districts that want to create partnership zones, in-district turnaround units that create new conditions and apply new capacity in the form of lead partner organizations, which are charter-like management entities.

We’re best known for thought leadership but our vision is to be a leader in fieldwork and implementation around school turnaround.

What have been some of your biggest successes to date?

State level: Louisiana. Louisiana really seemed to break the mold when they did SIG, and Education Sector just did a great piece on how Paul Pastorek and his team have moved the needle there. We worked with them on that. The state department of education only awarded grants to districts that actually were going to do something different. They didn’t use the “transformation” model in all their low-performing schools, as many states did, but 50% implemented the more aggressive turnaround model, which requires substantial changes to instructional staff. So they did a lot of things that were different from most states.

What are some of the biggest challenges?

The schools we work with are the lowest performing schools in already low-performing systems. So you have all the same operational, implementation, and political challenges you see in education but exacerbated by the fact that these are the most challenged schools.

Politically, communities are very wedded to these schools. It’s a low-performing organization, but it’s their low-performing organization and has been a real center of the community for years. From a state perspective there’s a reluctance to interfere in local issues and bring the hammer down when schools don’t improve.

In terms of execution: You can’t legislate and mandate better behavior. You actually have to work on it and build capacity.

What are some pressing needs/challenges that the next generation of education reformers and entrepreneurs will really need to tackle?

Most of the education reform world is good at policy, but we see a big opportunity to help school systems - both state and local - get better at doing their jobs. Right now, there is a fair amount of energy, coming from the entrepreneurial side, going toward building better schools outside of existing school systems. Think charter management organizations, for example. But there isn’t a huge amount of energy around trying to rethink the way public systems are run. That’s what we do at Mass Insight. Every day we confront incredibly rough practice and really tough political circumstances. We try to go into state education agencies and local school districts and dissect what had gone wrong in the past and then we build for the future. We bridge policy and practice in a way I don’t see a lot of other organizations doing.

At some point people went from thinking charter schools are a great way to leverage impact on broader education systems to seeing charters as the solution for education reform. That’s just not enough. We can’t create a bunch of successful charter schools and say “We did it. We fixed education.” If we’re ever going to truly improve public education, we have to translate some of the governance and reforms that high-performing charter schools have been able to implement, and inject them into larger public schools systems.

The massive centralization of urban public school systems is not organizationally sound or designed adequately to deliver results for kids. We don’t confront that enough. There’s a lot of discussion of public school systems as failures. I wouldn’t put it that way. They were never designed to educate all kids in a 21st century economy. How do you take that and rationalize the delivery structure to really deliver results for kids? On the charter side the question has to be: How do you take what is right now a boutique solution and scale it to have impact across millions of kids not just thousands? That’s a question I’m obsessed with and why I’m working on turnaround. I see this as the entry point for system reform.

You could go to Superintendents and say, “let’s completely blow up your system and redesign it!” And that might happen in some places where there is the right confluence of political factors or truly outlier bad performance. But it’s not going to happen everywhere. So the question is what’s the entry point for that conversation in every school system in America? It has to be the clearly lowest performing schools. That’s how I ended up where I am.

How did you come to work in education reform?

The first teacher I knew was my mother. She was a special education teacher, but when I was born she decided to stay home to take care of me and tutor mentally challenged adults. I used to go with her to tutoring sessions. So very early the whole ethos of my life was literally “everybody can learn.” She truly lives that.

My grandfather - Erling Clausen - was a superintendent and a president of the American Association of School Administrators and was an early proponent of the Improving America’s Schools Act (the version of ESEA that immediately preceded NCLB), and the idea that “All Children Can Learn.”

So growing up my whole life was about education. My mother and grandfather always said “The only thing you shouldn’t do is go into education. It’s too frustrating, annoying.” But I’m still doing this, because I’m rebelling, I suppose.

In college I did some work with a political science professor around the distributive impacts of state college scholarships, such as the Georgia HOPE scholarship, and learned that they are fairly regressive in their distributive impacts. So I became obsessed with how K-12 could change the odds for college access and wanted to do something about that. So I went and met with a bunch of people working in education reform.

Right out of college I went to work for Edison and helped design their new charter growth strategy, and then I went to work on charter issues nationally at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. When Michelle Rhee came to DCPS she called me to come work with her. It felt a little bit like being drafted, but it was the most exciting thing I could imagine doing at the time. I led turnaround and innovation work at DCPS.

In 2009 Mass Insight decided to launch the School Turnaround Group. It was a touch decision to leave, because I really didn’t feel finished in DCPS, but it was a clear opportunity to lead a national organization and I had a vision to do some amazing things to move the ball forward on school turnaround and system innovation and I hope we’re able to fulfill that at some point.

You’ve worked in a variety of different segments of the education reform/entrepreneurship space. What have you learned from these different experiences and how do they shape the work you do now?

I’ve never taken an ideological stance on what I do. When some people look at my background they say “public sector, private sector, district: what are you doing?” The answer is: interested in anything that is attempting to deliver better results for kids, whatever that thing is.

I’ve learned that the sub-sectors within education (public, private, charter) don’ t talk to each other that much. Not a lot of learning going on for a sector that purports to be about teaching and learning.

Who are some individuals who you particularly admire (in or out of education) and whose examples influence your life and work?

Not to be cheesy, but my mother and my grandfather are really #1 for me. My mom would bring students home when stuff got really tough for them at home. She always was that teacher who went above and beyond and she actually got crap for it. Her job never ended at 3. My grandfather was always working on national policy issues and bragging about it, so that infected me from an early age.

In my career, Andy Rotherham has been a huge influence. Andy was always an unabashed Democrat but believed that the party was wanting on the education issues. I really respected that. I’m an unabashed Democrat--social justice is at my core--but I was working on charter issues at a time when you were almost afraid to say you were a Democrat. So it was a really formative thing for me: Someone really pushing on education reform from the left in a positive way.

Michelle Rhee is a wonderful leader and fascinating boss to work for. Really powerful to work within the system and I learned a ton from that.

This should go without saying, but Bill Guenther - our founder at Mass Insight - has been a huge influence. The Turnaround Challenge report, coupled with his vision for broader systemic reform, is remarkable.

I read everything that Kevin Carey writes and also Rick Hess. Paul Hill’s vision for a portfolio school system has been a huge influence on me. I tried to implement that in D.C.

More broadly, I try to do a lot of cross-sector reading: Atul Gawande on organizational practice in health care systems. He writes a lot about how basic changes can make huge about of difference in patient outcomes. We haven’t gotten to that level in education but really have to start thinking about how really fundamental changes in practice can drive much better results.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.