The Outsider

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New York

Audrey Cohen is surrounded by dead white men. Gray and blue business suits. Moustaches, thinning hair, wire-rimmed glasses, pocket watches. The elite of early 20th century New York glare down from the walls with sour expressions at this intruder.

This is our space, they seem to say. The fireplace, rare books, mahogany tables, antique lamps, and executive chairs backed with maroon leather.

Cohen ignores them, deliberately operating in their world--the private, midtown Manhattan business club known as Lotos--to conduct much of her official business. Or, in her words, to "do what college presidents do."

For such work, the cramped office space of the Audrey Cohen College--located on the second and 14th floors of a nondescript office building in a lower Manhattan no man's land between SoHo and Greenwich Village--just won't do.

And if the tiny, wire-thin woman sprouting a crop of dusty red hair stands out in sharp contrast to the dour-faced men whose likenesses adorn the walls of Lotos, she is no less incongruous in the world of education and academia, where she is sometimes held in awe--and sometimes in contempt.

That is, if she is known at all. For the name Audrey Cohen lacks the familiarity and drawing power of such education thoroughbreds as Ted Sizer, James Comer, or Debbie Meier. "The Audrey Cohen folks," one acquaintance confides, "are a rather different breed."

Audrey Cohen, says Frank Newman, the president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States and one of the few well-known education "names" who says he knows the college president well, "is not mainstream."

Maybe so. But thanks to a grant from the New American Schools Development Corporation--one she applied for almost by accident--Cohen has joined a new club that includes many of the leading education players. The design team assembled by the college that bears Cohen's name remains one of nine funded by NASDC since 1992 in its quest to build new and better schools. The team has received $4.65 million for use through June of this year.

And if initial impressions mean anything, the design team could become among the most successful, according to observers of the NASDC process.

"She probably has the capacity to expand into schools better than some of the other designs," notes one NASDC insider. "It's just straightforward and simple."

"There's one thing of talking good and another thing of doing good. Some of the big names--and don't get me wrong, they're good people--are having trouble getting it done," says Saul Cooperman, the former New Jersey state schools superintendent who chaired the NASDC education advisory board that chose the design team winners. "And Audrey Cohen is a meat-and-potatoes person. She's one of those diamonds in the rough that nobody ever heard of. And that to me is the beauty of NASDC."

Audrey Cohen traces her life's work back to two seminal experiences in the 1950's. As a high school student in 1952, Cohen was one of two Pennsylvanians chosen to attend a short summer seminar in Washington. The students would work in government offices during the day and hear from high-ranking government officials during the evenings.

"It was a very growth-enhancing experience," she recalls. But one thing troubled her: The sponsor, the y.m.c.a., was forced to rent a private dining area where the students could have their meals and listen to speakers. Many facilities in the city would have refused to serve the few black students in the group.

"I saw a disparity between doing daily work in a government office and the policy that was being discussed by the Secretaries," she says.

As a college student, Cohen was chosen to lead the U.S. delegation to a model United Nations conference. She sponsored a resolution banning the worldwide manufacture of atomic and nuclear bombs, and the action was written up in The New York Times. She was left with another strong impression: "What I could do was something that people were interested in and could make a difference."

These experiences, she said, "gave me a sense that there was a better way to structure education."

But Cohen's ideas on education were put on hold. She married, toured the country and the world with her husband, who was in the Navy, and gave birth to two daughters.

After settling in New York, she sought a way to both raise her children and "do something intellectually stimulating." In 1958, she co-founded a social-science research company--an emerging field--that employed only women. "I stumbled upon the gap, and these corporations that ordinarily wouldn't have hired a woman for a project within the corporation were thrilled to be able to come to my door," Cohen recalls.

She wanted to hire only women, and particularly those with low incomes in an effort to do something socially useful--introduce a new cohort into the workforce. But most low-income women did not have research backgrounds.

By the mid-1960's, however, Cohen had secured a federal grant to train low-income people, particularly women, for such emerging occupations as paralegals, teachers' aides, and social workers. This organization, the Talent Corps, served as the foundation for the College for Human Services, which was chartered in 1970.

That year, Cohen began phasing out the college's associate's degree program and spent the next four years analyzing the U.S. labor market and global economic trends. "Out of that came these overarching areas, activities that everybody seemed to have to have to be successful in this new world," Cohen says.

The College for Human Services, which was renamed the Audrey Cohen College in 1992, then began using its peculiar--and, thanks to some unconventional jargon, somewhat confusing--method of educational instruction to provide bachelor's degrees in social-service fields. Today, the college has some 1,100 full-time students and offers bachelor's degrees in human services and business and graduate degrees in business and administration.

In 1983, the College for Human Services Junior High School was established in Manhattan's community school district 4. Later, an elementary and high school linked up with the college. Then a 1989 grant from the Hasbro Children's Foundation allowed the college to collaborate with elementary schools in San Diego, Phoenix, and Hollandale, Miss.

Cohen learned of the New American Schools Development Corporation when she was asked to attend the 1991 announcement at the White House by President Bush. She hadn't been asked by the White House, but rather to take the place of a friend who had been invited but could not go.

"It was very exciting," she says. "I'm not sure I would have encouraged my staff to work on all of this if Ihadn't gone that day to the White House."

Since the college's design team won the grant, the program has expanded to two additional schools in San Diego and five schools in Miami. Thirteen schools in five states now use the Cohen method. The college is negotiating with NASDC over future growth.

The college had always planned to increase the number of schools using the Cohen method, but the NASDC grant has helped it do so more rapidly. The schools project, Cohen says, "is our destiny."

For most people familiar with the Audrey Cohen College design, seeing is believing. Cohen herself knows this. Although some members of the NASDC educational advisory board, which reviewed the nearly 700 design proposals submitted to the corporation, showed enthusiasm for her ideas, they did not fully understand them. Some had to read the proposal several times before making sense of it.

"We underwent heavy questioning," Cohen says. "They had read the material, but they kept asking us over and over again to explain it."

This is why: Students learning under the Audrey Cohen model don't study such traditional subjects as mathematics, science, and English, per se. Instead, they study "Dimensions"--Self and Others, Values and Ethics, Skills, and Systems. Consider them ways to categorize subject-area knowledge.

Each semester, these Dimensions are built around a "Purpose," which is another way of saying "theme." For example, the two semester-long purposes studied by kindergartners are called "We build a family-school partnership" and "We care for living things." The purposes studied in 5th grade are called "We improve the environment" and "We use technology to meet human needs." The purpose provides the basis for a semester-long "Constructive Action," which is another way of saying "project."

This structure, says Cohen, allows for rapid transformation of an entire school by putting student learning at the center of instruction. Traditional subjects are still taught, but within the context of the dimensions. For example, traditional mathematics and English, with standard texts and instructional materials, can be taught as part of the study of values and ethics; the coursework is crafted around these issues. State and district curriculum requirements are incorporated into the Cohen method. Giving students a purpose or theme, Cohen says, and asking them to undertake constructive actions related to it, makes learning relevant to the outside world.

Last month at two of San Diego's elementary schools, Louisa May Alcott and Benjamin Franklin, students were engaged in a variety of constructive actions, which they had chosen themselves.

Alcott 2nd graders, with a purpose of making "our neighborhood a better place to live," were organizing a canned-food drive for the homeless in their area. They read about homelessness, discussed what they read, developed presentations to give to other grades, graphed their collection of cans and did other mathematical measurements based on the food drive, and got in touch with a local television station to publicize their work.

Franklin 5th graders developed informational videos as part of their technology semester. One video focused on drug prevention; another explained the Audrey Cohen instructional method for parents, other community members, and other schools. The students serve as technology assistants to other children in the school.

"Do you know what I haven't heard in two years?" asks Gail Barnes, who teaches kindergarten and 1st grade at Franklin. "'Why do we have to go to school?' 'Why do we have to do this?' I haven't heard it because the 'why' is there."

Parents report that their children in the Cohen schools have a renewed interest in learning for its own sake and use what they've learned in their own lives. One student, after spending a semester on health, asked his mother to pack more nutritious lunches. Another, studying the environment, set out to ask people she saw littering to stop.

"There isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't talk about what she learned in school," Maria Moreno says of her daughter, a 5th grader at Franklin.

Teachers say that once they understand and become comfortable with the jargon, they cannot imagine teaching any other way. The Cohen method, they say, requires the kind of collaboration that fosters better teaching.

"I bought into it right away," says Franklin teacher Carla Waldron. "It's the best thing I've ever done."

Audrey Cohen College officials point to increased student, teacher, and parent enthusiasm; greater collaboration and a sense of ownership among teachers; and a greatly reduced student absentee rate in most participating schools as evidence that the program is working. Student performance is more difficult to measure--the college is developing an assessment system linked to purposes and dimensions. But officials acknowledge that student scores on standardized tests have remained steady.

The Audrey Cohen College requires schools that want to use the Cohen design to undertake an intensive self-examination before signing on. It is a process that could take as long as a year, but Cohen says it is necessary for parents, teachers, administrators, and students to know their strengths, weaknesses, and resources before making a dramatic educational change.

"It's quite a leap, and we want them to understand that," Cohen says.

In other words, once a school makes a decision to "go Cohen," there's no turning back. Moreover, she does not want schools to pick and choose pieces of her method--it's an all-or-nothing package. "I simply didn't want this to become a fad," she says. "I believe it is too important and has too much potential."

Cohen is fiercely territorial--some observers would say paranoid--about what she has developed. The terms Purpose, Dimension, and Constructive Action are copyrighted, and she is ready to take legal action against anyone who appropriates them without permission. She struggled with NASDC over the intellectual property rights of the design teams and was prepared to forfeit her grant over the issue.

She also seems wary of the media. During a three-hour interview at the Lotos Club, she turned down a reporter's request to use a tape recorder.

Her battle to protect the college's design, she says, "is not so anyone can't use it. It's so it doesn't get torn apart." The squabble over intellectual property rights, which was resolved in her favor, "wasn't an issue of money. It was an issue of attribution and wholeness," she says. "I just feel so strongly that we can make a major difference in education."

Cohen is also an entrepreneur, and she admits that, should the design prove to be successful, receiving credit is important to her. In light of those feelings, she and other college officials have only recently stepped up efforts to promote themselves and the design--something a recent advertisement in The New York Times Magazine referred to as an educational "revolution" in a field that hasn't "changed much since the Middle Ages."

She's aware that her name, and her work in education, are seldom recognized. And she realizes that her efforts to shield her creation are partly responsible for that.

"I've always felt that you should know what you're doing before you talk to the outside world," she says. "I do feel confident now that we should let a little light shine on what we're doing....We're definitely exposing ourselves as we have never done before in a major way."

Other observers, particularly Cohen supporters, say she has not gotten due credit from educators and academia--including other design-team leaders--who consider the college, the instructional method, and Cohen herself too offbeat. One design-team leader, asked to describe Cohen, said sarcastically that she has set herself apart from the others: "She's the only design-team leader who has a college named after her."

Cooperman and others close to NASDC, however, believe that Cohen's design will ultimately succeed, despite her current lack of renown. They caution, however, that her success over the past 30 years is largely attributable to her determination and drive.

"The design is intellectually sound, capable of being understood, and the staff development is not beyond the ability of mortals to figure out," says Cooperman. "She's got a winner. Now, she's got to figure out how to go to scale."

"She's kind of got a small, homey group, and that's going to be one of her problems--going to scale," he adds. "Can she delegate? Can she train people? Can she let go? Or will she be Gepetto, having to have control?"

Cohen responds that she and her colleagues at the college are already engaged in scaling-up activities that will lead to a national infrastructure of Audrey Cohen schools.

The college has applied to the state of New York for certification of a new program that will train teachers to teach with dimensions and purpose. An assessment system is being developed as are instructional materials related to dimensions and purposes.

Also in the works is a national computer database that Cohen hopes will be accessible by all participating teachers, who will be able to review what has worked at other schools. As envisioned, students and teachers will be able to contribute to the database at their leisure.

Meanwhile, current schools are connected to each other through teacher leaders and a college employee in charge of schools development. With several years' experience using dimensions and purposes, they travel to newer schools in Phoenix, Hollandale, and Miami--a process that Cohen says allows for school-by-school training by school personnel.

Eventually, more and more teachers and administrators will develop expertise with the method, which they will be able to share.

"It's another paradigm," says Cohen. "But once you get in the paradigm, it becomes simple."

"Breaking the Mold: The Shape of Schools To Come" is an Education Week occasional series on the projects and progress of the New American Schools Development Corporation's nine design teams. Coming up in the series: A look at the National Alliance for Restructuring Education. The "Breaking the Mold" series is being underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Vol. 14, Issue 18

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