Teaching Profession Opinion

New School Improvement Agency to Be ‘A Dramatic Departure’

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 14, 2015 7 min read
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The Legislation that created California’s Local Control Financing Formula and the companion Local Control Accountability Plan called for a new organization to account for the legislation’s results and help schools perform. The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence got a broad legislative mandate, including the expectation that it would deviate sharply from the punishment and compliance-driven intervention efforts of the last decade.

Carl Cohn, who started teaching in Compton 45 years ago and went on to lead Long Beach and San Diego schools, has been named CCEE’s first executive director. Cohn is also a former State School Board member and faculty colleague at Claremont Graduate University. Here is our slightly condensed and edited interview:

This organization you’ve agreed to lead bears an uncanny resemblance to prior organizations that the state used to intervene in schools and districts the state labeled as failing. These past efforts produced results that were modest at best. How is CCEE going to be different?

I think this is a dramatic departure from the past. Most of those other efforts were driven by state capitols and the federal government, but this is a major departure. The reason that I’m involved is that it is an opportunity to prove that the state of California has it right to emphasize teaching and learning and support for schools as opposed to embarrassing and punishing and shaming, which is what some have been all about since No Child Left Behind.

This isn’t a new version of previous CDE [California Department of Education] efforts at intervention. It’s a completely new philosophy and execution independent of the state bureaucracy. It’s designed to listen to people in the field and to bring them together around improvement. It also draws heavily on the principle of subsidiarity where those at the local level actually know better how to rescue kids that we care about. So, I see this as a fundamental departure from what we’ve done in the past.

How does that look different on the ground? I’ve got the 30,000 foot view.

Sure, I think as opposed to a lot of dictates and mandates coming from Sacramento, we start with the idea of collaboration, which is very different from what we’ve seen in the past. We start with best practice that is developed and honed at the local level. The idea is a powerful one in that you actually spend time in these places that have been labeled as failing, and you build their capacity.

In the past, it was a lot of one-off luminaries coming in and regaling people with their skill set, how to reach poor kids, how to reach ELs. In stark contrast, this is about embedding people in schools so that once you leave after an extensive period of time, the locals have the capacity to better serve kids who are poor, kids who are in foster care, kids who are learning English, kids who have special needs. Very different on the ground than what we have seen in the past.

Are there existing models in California or elsewhere you plan to borrow from?

Interestingly, the L.A. Times had a very compelling [op-ed] piece recently on Mission High School in San Francisco where extraordinary results have been achieved by taking this approach of starting with the voices of teachers and students in the school, and building their capacity to do better. I’m not sure that there is an existing state agency out there that does this. I’m interested in talking with Michael Fullan, Linda Darling-Hammond and others to find out whether or not internationally there is a model out there. But I’m excited about the philosophical underpinnings of this new agency.

The legislature in its beneficence has given you a $10-million budget, which in California budget terms is less than a rounding error. How are you going to get all this grand stuff done--embedding people in schools--with a budget that small?

I will spend two days in Sacramento, starting tomorrow, and I’ll be asking some questions about the $10-million: whether or not it is a placeholder, whether or not there will be additional funds, what are the expectations with regard to raising more funds in the philanthropy community.

I don’t find the initial investment of $10-million as an obstacle.

It has been suggested that a lot of what CCEE would do can be done through or aided by technology. Has this come up on your radar?

I think it’s an important part of how we will go forward. The whole issue of sharing and collaboration is important, and using the latest technology is a no brainer.

There are some other organizations using collaboration that are farther along: the Collaborative for District Reform and the CORE districts, but linking partners together with similar demographics to help the process move is a valuable and important idea.

I don’t automatically see technology as “Oh boy, because we’ve got technology we’re going to fix these schools or districts in a year.” This is a long, hard slog. Anybody who has really been involved in turning around schools and districts knows that there aren’t a lot of quick and easy shortcuts because of technology.

Is it possible to get the unions involved? Dick Gale’s organization that sits on the borders of the CTA, for example.

I’m a huge fan of Dick Gale, and actually worked with him when I was superintendent in San Diego. I think there are tremendous opportunities both in terms of the CTA and the CFT.

I will be sitting down with Joe Nunez (CTA executive director) in Sacramento, and I look forward to sitting down with Eric Heins (the CTA president) and Joshua Pechthalt (the CFT president)

Based on my experience in the second and third largest districts in California, I look forward to working with the teacher unions, and I think they will be very positive contributors to the work of the Collaborative.

The civil rights community has been seeking assurances that there are going to be hard number indicators of success or failure and demonstrable sanctions for people who don’t meet those indicators. This doesn’t sound like where you are headed.

I’m looking forward to sitting down with the civil rights and advocacy folks. When I was on the state board and this was unfolding, I was very moved by my experiences listening to representatives from faith-based and advocacy organizations including PICO, the Advancement Project, Ed-Trust West, and others. I’ll never forget the young people that I encountered at Our Lady of Solitude in Palm Springs, and St. Bernadine’s in San Bernardino, who spoke so eloquently about how this change in governance and finance might influence their chances for a better life.

What we have to get to is a conversation about how we get to a bias for action that better serves kids that the advocacy groups care about. Based on the feedback that I’ve received so far, we’ve made the LCAPs a huge new compliance exercise. What we need to get to is what I call a bias for action.

It shouldn’t be about “plan-itis"; it should be about better serving kids, and whenever we find that something isn’t working, we pull people together, we talk about how we can do it better, but the whole focus is on action. It’s not about checking boxes that some group is going to say, “well, that box isn’t checked, and therefore, you’ve got a problem.” We have been bureaucratic in the past, and I would argue that we need to take time, and we need to be better focused on how we can really serve these kids that we all claim we care about.

There are two impediments. One is the need for a metric to determine whether people are doing the right things, and, if they’re not, the ability to go to court. The other is the extremely low trust environment. The organization that you are going to head is really in the middle of trying to get advocacy organizations to do something other than sue people.

I don’t expect instant Kumbaya, but over time, I hope we are all saying this or that school district has a real bias for action: they are not doing the same things that they were before. They have new monetary investments, and they are spending it in ways that we think are reasonable given their circumstances. I don’t expect to wave the magic wand or for anybody to say that Carl Cohn has worked with whatever groups in the past. I believe there’s going to be a period of time where trust is going to have to be built. So, I’m hopeful that we avoid a lot of quick lawsuits and have some deep conversations about progress. What does a good outcome look like attained by this bias for action?

Your name keeps popping up in LAUSD as a desirable candidate for superintendent. Are you are at all wooable?

I don’t think so. I do appreciate Superintendent Cortines’ recent revival of his decentralization plan. If I thought that there was a real commitment to meaningful decentralization, and ultimately to full empowerment at the local level, I might consider it. But I still think that, as I argued in the EdSource piece, there is a lot that’s broken that needs fixing, and I don’t think that you want a superintendent who believes in ultimate breakup.

(Photo: CTK)

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