School Improvement Guru Justin Cohen On Teacher-Led School Innovation

School Improvement Guru Justin Cohen on Teacher-Led School Innovation

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For the majority of the past two decades, Justin Cohen has been a leading advocate for fairness in public education. Since his appointment as the director of school innovation at D.C. Public Schools in 2007, Cohen has dedicated much of his time to improving schools and ensuring that they provide high-quality educational opportunities for all students. While he has also been involved in other causes such as criminal justice reform and political campaigns, education has remained a top priority for him.

This autumn, after conducting interviews with approximately 100 teachers in 15 cities who were actively engaged in significant improvement initiatives, Cohen is set to release his first book, Change Agents: Transforming Schools from the Ground Up. The book aims to answer a crucial question: "What would it truly mean for teachers to be at the forefront of discussions on school transformation?"

Change Agents will be available starting tomorrow, October 25th. I recently had the chance to sit down with Cohen to discuss his book and his thoughts on the future of public education as we navigate beyond the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Please note that this interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

: Your book revolves around profiles of Partners in School Innovation. Could you tell me more about them and how you became aware of their work?

Justin Cohen: Around 15 years ago, when I was working for D.C. Public Schools, we were exploring the idea of forming a collaborative effort across multiple districts to identify students who were at risk of not completing high school. Although this initiative didn’t materialize, it allowed me to meet a man named Derek Mitchell in Prince George’s County. Years later, Mitchell joined Partners in School Innovation (PSI) and became involved in improvement science and continuous improvement in schools.

At PSI, Derek brought forth the idea that continuously improving an inherently unfair system is not sufficient. Zoretta Hammond articulated this concept by stating that "making small improvements at the edges of a system that was originally designed to segregate students based on their race, class, and language will only make the inequitable sorting process more efficient." Therefore, Derek emphasized that continuous school improvement must prioritize racial equity, and PSI has been working towards this goal for the past 13 years.

Recently, Derek reached out to me and expressed his excitement about the progress PSI has made. He proposed the idea of sharing their story on a broader scale, allowing their approach to be codified and replicated in more schools.

So, this book provided an opportunity to capture their approach, document it, and make it accessible to a wider audience.

Exactly. From the beginning, my vision was similar to Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto. Gawande applied the lessons of improvement science to healthcare, demonstrating how incremental change can be implemented on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to create something similar for education, specifically tailored for teachers. I aimed to write a practical, teacher-friendly book that educators could pick up and read during their limited free time. I wanted it to be inspiring without falling into what my editor calls ‘toxic positivity.’

One particular aspect of the book that I found fascinating was the emphasis on conditional reasoning, which involves "if/then" statements at the core of any behavioral change initiative. This kind of thinking is essential for pragmatic and realistic approaches to change. Every school improvement, as well as personal growth, begins with a commitment to try something new ("if I do this…") in the hopes of achieving different results ("then we’ll see this outcome…"). However, it’s not necessarily a natural way of problem-solving for humans. It requires a deliberate shift in thinking. What advice do you have for teachers who want to cultivate a more constructive mindset regarding improvement?

In the book, I introduce an acronym: ROCI, which stands for Results-Oriented Cycles of Inquiry. The fundamental idea behind ROCI is to gather a group of colleagues for weekly collaboration sessions. During these meetings, you establish a target for process improvement. It could be something as simple as implementing a 15-minute check for understanding at the end of each lesson. The key is for everyone in the group to commit to trying it out together. In the following week, you allocate time to observe each other as you implement the new practice. Then, in the subsequent week, you discuss and reflect upon the experience.

This approach promotes a collaborative environment where teachers support and learn from each other, fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Absolutely. That is the fundamental element that sets it apart from many previous approaches to reform. The essence of this approach lies in asking teachers at the classroom level, "What can you do differently tomorrow?" and allowing their expertise and judgment to guide their next steps. The process of inquiry is just as significant as the resulting enhancements. It involves cultivating the habit of trying something new, evaluating its effectiveness, providing feedback to one another, and either continuing or discontinuing based on the outcomes.

I understand that this may sound simplistic, but people spend vast amounts of money each year on unused gym memberships. Building habits is a challenging task!

In relation to this, there is a new dashboard that showcases innovative ideas in education.

On the flip side, we have the Heckman Equation, which highlights the positive outcomes of investing heavily in early childhood education for marginalized and underserved communities. During the early years, children’s habits are not yet formed, and their long-term paths are still flexible due to their high neuroplasticity. Most people grasp this concept. However, the other side of the coin is rarely discussed: changing adult behavior is extremely difficult. Anyone who has attempted to lose weight or modify their television habits can attest to this.

Yes, in my book, I am careful not to adopt an overly optimistic tone of "it’s easy, you can do it!" because the truth is, it’s challenging, despite its rewards. One notable aspect that emerges is the joy individuals experience when they witness the results of shifting their practices on their own terms, rather than being coerced by external forces or authorities threatening school closures unless changes are made. In the past few decades, the focus has primarily been on punishments rather than incentives.

However, in this teacher-led approach, there is a sense that individuals can have some control over their own destiny and decisions.

Teacher agency is of great significance, and it is clear that our country has not prioritized it thus far.

Indeed, one of the key advantages of this teacher-driven approach is that school improvement becomes more sustainable. Even when funding is limited and pressure for top-down reforms diminishes, the habits formed by teachers persist. They continue collaborating with their peers to discuss their innovative practices. Once they become accustomed to this way of operating, they maintain it.

Furthermore, part of empowering teachers involves granting them the permission to fail. Unfortunately, failure has often been used as a weapon against teachers, families, and even students, with slogans like "failure is not an option anymore." As someone who has occasionally resorted to this language, I recognize that it is unhelpful and can even be psychologically jarring. We need to create an environment where individuals have the freedom to experiment and may not succeed initially, especially when it comes to educational institutions like schools. With millions of teachers across tens of thousands of schools and districts, this is a complex endeavor.

This brings us to the next point. In your book, you explain that there are valid reasons why we find ourselves in the current situation and why we have pursued certain reforms. The lack of data on student outcomes and achievements has led to situations where students were placed in English as a Second Language classrooms based solely on their Hispanic-sounding last names rather than their actual needs. Educational disparities and civil rights violations thrive when we fail to monitor what students truly know and are capable of. Perhaps we need to modify the policies that enforce these consequences on schools. Can you elaborate on a policy agenda that allows more room for teacher-led inquiry and improvement? A policy that permits teachers to fail?

I will address this question indirectly.

In the realm of education, we lack a mechanism for evaluating "Student Achievement" when a new administration takes office. It simply does not exist, and we must acknowledge this fact.

I want to make it clear that I am not opposed to accountability. In fact, my book promotes a profound and rigorous form of accountability at the individual practitioner level. This level of accountability is largely overlooked by current policy regimes.

Let’s not pass judgment on the individuals responsible for crafting these policies or those who have earnestly attempted to implement them. However, it is evident that the specific measurements enforced by these regimes, such as academic tests, have not yielded positive results. This is not a recent issue; it spans across generations. It is a simple fact.

Therefore, I believe it is time to let go. We must admit that the test-and-sanctions approach has failed. Rather, policymakers should focus on implementing continuous improvement at the practitioner level. This could involve creating more opportunities for collaboration at a local level, relaxing some of the annual test-based accountability measures, and establishing multi-year accountability systems that encompass various longitudinal measures. These measures could include civic participation, graduation rates, and post-secondary attainment – all the factors that test scores were meant to reflect.

So, are we heading in the right direction? We replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which weakened federal school accountability systems but still retained some transparency mechanisms for monitoring students’ progress. However, the previous administration showed little interest in implementing the law and the pandemic further sidelined federal accountability systems.

I propose that we put an end to this weakened and ineffective system. Many believe that completely eradicating federal testing and accountability policy would lead us back to an educational policy utopia. However, we must recognize that the era before this one was far from perfect in terms of equity in public schools.

In my view, we need to start afresh and establish core principles, such as transparency in outcomes, equity, and ensuring that schools do not continue to produce the same results without prompting a reevaluation of their methods.

Accountability is still necessary and desirable. However, we need to move away from punitive measures and focus on implementing genuine improvement strategies that we know work.

Currently, there is little appetite for top-down accountability. Therefore, we should consider accountability as a process that begins with practitioners at the inquiry level. This involves planning assessments, setting targets, engaging in grade-level team discussions, observing each other’s innovative approaches, evaluating their impact, and continuously repeating this cycle.

At every level, from the school to the district, state, and federal level, there should be longer-term inquiry cycles to assess whether these short-term returns contribute to meaningful, long-term, equitable improvement.

This transition will undoubtedly be challenging, raising questions of autonomy, empowerment, and decision-making authority. However, it is a better alternative to persisting with the ineffective accountability approaches currently in place.

We have three million teachers in the country, making it one of the largest professions. If we genuinely believe that education and schools will improve without a significant investment in the ongoing development of these millions of individuals, we are deceiving ourselves.

Of course, part of the systemic education reform argument is creating policy structures that establish conditions for success and reduce reliance on individual teacher quality as a variable. While I understand this perspective, it would be nonsensical to overlook the importance of teachers and treat them as interchangeable components. Therefore, when reimagining teachers’ agency and expanding their roles as agents of change, the book does have implications for their trainers and schools of education.

I have not written this book with the intention of solving this problem, but fortunately, the cycles of teacher-led inquiry can assist in bringing those individuals up to speed.

These cycles offer a sense of accountability that revolves around learning opportunities, which can be seen as an extension of the analogy mentioned earlier. If you were to join a gym on your own, you might end up wasting your membership. However, if you join a running group that meets at the same corner every two days at 6 a.m., you have a sense of accountability towards each other and a shared commitment to improvement.

Indeed, collaboration leads to increased observations and discoveries. It is all about opening the doors to each American classroom, which are often closed as teachers operate in isolated settings with little knowledge of what is happening in other classrooms.

Unfortunately, observation has become tightly intertwined with evaluation, leading to frustration. We need to reverse this trend. It is not conducive to job satisfaction if every time someone observes you, it is solely focused on criticism and causes anxiety about potential harm.

If there is one thing I hope readers take away from this book, it is this: when you open your classroom door for a peer or superior, it should be a valuable learning experience. You should gain insights into your practice as an educator.


  • jessicawilson

    Jessica Wilson is a 33-year-old essay writer and blogger from the UK. She has been writing since she was a teenager and has always been interested in writing about personal experiences and thoughts. Jessica has written for a number of online magazines and websites and has also published a number of essays and short stories. Jessica currently works as a freelance writer.