Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Interview with Carl A. Cohn

Carl A. Cohn is the Professor of Education Policy Analysis at USC's Rossier School of Education and the former superintendent for the Long Beach school system, where he lead the turnaround of that district into one of the leading urban school districts in the country. Cohn, along with Rudy Crew, Candy Lee and Stephen Jones, was a finalist for the DC superintendent position. Cohn withdrew his name from contention last week (see this post) citing DCPS's need for a long term commitment from the superintendent, something he was regretfully unable to provide.

Since Mr. Cohn had become more familiar with the District's school system during the superintendent search I asked him if he would be willing to be interviewed about his thoughts on the DC's public schools. Mr. Cohn graciously accepted and answered the following questions via e-mail.

Click on Read More for the full interview.

DC Education Blog interview with Carl A. Cohn


DC Edu Blog: What structural changes to DCPS and its District oversight should be made to allow the superintendent to succeed?

Carl A. Cohn: A single direct reporting line for the superintendent would be consistent with those urban school systems across the country that are improving student achievement. In Boston and Chicago, that direct reporting line is to the mayor. In the Broad Prize-winning Long Beach and Houston systems, that direct reporting line is to an elected board of education. During my discussions there in DC, I tried to point out that "I didn't have a dog in this fight," but whatever structure the community wanted needed to be stable for 4-6 years. It's clear that reporting to multiple jurisdictions (council, mayor, school board, and the Congress) hinders the superintendent's ability to bring a laser-like focus to fixing the schools.

DC Edu Blog: Which changes / initiatives implemented by a District superintendent would have the largest impact in the shortest span of time, i.e. what are the "low-hanging fruit" that could show results in the span of one school year?

Carl A. Cohn: Initiatives focusing on safety and security, including student dress and behavior, are likely to have a big impact in a short amount of time. Those efforts force you to connect with parents and community immediately because you cannot establish new high standards for students without parental and community support. At the same time, you have to shore up the operational aspects of the school district, e.g., the buses must run on time, the facilities including bathrooms must be clean, and the adult employees must be held accountable for the fundamentals associated with the workplace. Those fundamentals include showing up everyday on time, staying until the job is finished, dressing as professionals no matter the job assignment, and modeling good citizenship and decorum for students.

DC Edu Blog: Conversely, which changes / initiatives would be long term and/or difficult, but you feel are essential to the success of a school district? What things must a superintendent be ever vigilant about and not "drop the ball?"

Carl A. Cohn: The big long term initiative in any urban school district is always around building the capacity of teachers and principals to improve individual student performance so that all youngsters realize their academic potential. This takes both time and sustained effort because you're working simultaneously on both the schools and the central office support systems. The central support folks have to abandon the "silo mentality," which is often pervasive in these large bureaucracies, in favor of a team approach which brings together and aligns standards, professional development, and data and assessment. These central pillars of support, operating as a team, are then charged to work with principals and teachers in an organized consistent manner. Some sort of a triage system that identifies the lowest performing schools determines how you first deploy these new team resources. Adult accountability for results is the hallmark of this new organizational culture.

A superintendent should always be vigilant about safety and security issues because they have a profound impact on how parents rightly view the school system.

DC Edu Blog: What do you feel are the toughest problems that the District superintendent would have to face? What would be your advice to a superintendent for tackling them?

Carl A. Cohn: The toughest problem is fixing the schools while simultaneously getting a handle on the governance challenge. I was hoping that a prominent citizen would step forward, convene a summit in advance of my arrival, and working with Mayor Williams and others, streamline the governance structure so that I would be free to fix the schools. In my judgment, asking the next superintendent to do both is asking too much.

DC Edu Blog: Does the situation in D.C. present any unique challenges? Are there issues here that you have not encountered during your tenure as an educator / administrator?

Carl A. Cohn: The multiple governmental jurisdictions with some form of oversight for the schools would have been a completely new challenge for me. In Long Beach, I worked with a five-person elected school board that had no history of serious dysfunction. However, I had heard good things about the recent history of the DC hybrid board that made me feel that I could work well with them. A national school board trainer who had worked with them told me that they were "a cut above" most urban boards that he had been exposed to.

DC Edu Blog: What have you found to be the best ways to engage parents with respect to their children's academic achievement?

Carl A. Cohn: Listening to parents and engaging them in a conversation about their hopes and aspirations for their children. Reducing educational jargon to "kitchen-table talk" so that all parents have a solid grasp of what we're trying to communicate. Making sure that schools are more welcoming and parent friendly. Getting secondary schools to adopt those elementary school practices (parent conferences) that we know are successful in keeping parents supportive what's going on in the classroom.

DC Edu Blog: In your experience with successfully turning around the Long Beach, CA school system what actions or initiatives surprised you most with their results?

Carl A. Cohn: When it came to our slogan of "High Standards: Dress, Behavior and Achievement," parents turned out to be our biggest supporters, which flew in the face of those who argued that the parents were the problem. Also, we found surprising parental support for our 8th grade initiative which did not allow multiple "F" students to go on to high school.

DC Edu Blog: It's taken to be a truism among some segments of the population that public schools are under-funded in general and therefore, if they're failing, the under-funding must be particularly severe. However, despite its low performance rankings DCPS is better funded than most other public school system in the country. Based on your experience, how would you respond to the "just spend more" critics?

Carl A. Cohn: You really do have to look at where the money is going. Long Beach educates 97,000 students for about $750 million, while DCPS educates 65,000 students for upwards of $900 million. I'm told that the special education transportation budget there is about $75 million per year. It doesn't take a financial genius to know that that should be looked at. And that's why it was very important to me that the financial officer be in the superintendent's reporting line. There's nothing worse than trying to hold people accountable when you don't really control the expenditures there in the school system.

DC Edu Blog: Aside from Long Beach, which urban examples would you point to as models of how to turn around a failing school system? Are there any particularly innovative or well-administered urban school districts that you feel are showcases of success?

Carl A. Cohn: The Broad Prize winning and finalists districts include Long Beach, Houston, Garden Grove, Boston, Norfork, Jefferson County, Kentucky, and Aldine, Texas. These are all urban districts that are closing the achievement gap.

DC Edu Blog: In your experience other than simply voting at school board elections / joining the PTA what can residents do to help improve their neighborhood schools?

Carl A. Cohn: Volunteer on any school project having to with early literacy. The more we can teach kids to read early on, the more these later life problems and challenges, such as unemployment and incarceration, are going to disappear.

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Thanks again to Mr. Cohn for his time.

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