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What If Failing Schools Were Supposed to Heal Themselves?

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What if failing schools were supposed to heal themselves or at least find the appropriate therapy?

This kind of a radical change from two decades of state directed assistance programs that culminated in state takeovers of the most troubled school districts is exactly the direction that the director of the new California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is proposing.

In an under-noticed video interview (linked above), CCEE executive director Carl Cohn lays out the important breaks from recent history he plans for the state's new school assistance organization.  

PACE Interview

The interview, conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education executive director David Plank, is well worth the 18 minutes it will take you to view it, but let me also extract some themes and draw some lines to issues in California politics and policy.

First, above all, Cohn wants to avoid establishing a new Sacramento bureaucracy, either inside the California Department of Education or outside of it.  In fact, he doesn't want to start an agency at all.  

Cohn wants to be a broker rather than a bureaucrat. He wants his nascent organization to gather and distribute resources from county offices of education, school districts, colleges and universities, think tanks, and foundations.

Second, he wants to build an assistance system designed around helping schools toward a virtuous circle of continuous improvement: this, as opposed to one-shot shock therapy that over the last two decades has dramatically failed to improve struggling schools and systems.

Different from old-style accountability

Cohn's continuous improvement is fundamentally different from the accountability processes we've experienced.  The accountability processes we know start with recrimination and mandated improvement processes, often an "off the shelf" program that had worked somewhere else.  Continuous improvement requires deep understanding of what caused the problem in that specific school or district.

In Learning to Improve, Anthony Bryk and colleagues illustrate techniques, such as fishbone diagrams, to probe the question: Why do we get the results observed?  Then, it's possible to map the system that causes the problem and to identify the most powerful drivers for correcting it.

Continuous improvement also tolerates failure so long as it is an occasion for collective learning and improvement, which leads to Cohn's third point.

This Will Take a While

He's frank that improvement takes a while, and politically this is the most fragile of the pillars underlying the CCEE.  For the last two decades, school reform has been beset by roiling politics that undercut efforts at change, and educational hucksters that make political hay and a good living promising instant results.

Cohn makes the point that in his superintendency in Long Beach, generally considered a model for urban districts, large improvements were not visible until the fifth year. It was during years five to ten that the results started to compound.  Charter school operators claim similar experience.

"It's not just a stall," Cohn says, "It's real respect for what improvement science is all about."

Politics Likely to Push Back

Fourth, despite the plea for patience, CCEE doesn't have long to show that it can move schools in a positive direction or illustrate that school districts are demanding and enthusiastically using its services.  By fall of 2017, the state will be in full election mode, with the governorship in play, along with Gov. Jerry Brown's principle of subsidiarity.

Fifth, CCEE has an alternative to state takeover in mind for those school districts that over time prove to be resistant to best efforts at getting them to improve.  Traditionally, states, including California, have put these districts in receivership, replacing the local board and superintendent with a Sacramento appointee. 

Cohn would change that.  He's open to experimenting, maybe with a "request for proposal" process that would allow other school districts, foundations, or other organizations to propose strong intervention strategies.

The legislature bet heavily on the CCEE when it passed the legislation creating local control funding and accountability.  Cohn's short interview is important because it starts to illustrate the new organization's direction.


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