Carl Cohn to direct new school improvement agency

August 6, 2015

Carl Cohn, executive director, California Collaborative for Educational Excellence

Carl Cohn, a former longtime Long Beach Unified superintendent, State Board of Education member and sharp critic of federally imposed school sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law, will lead a new autonomous state agency that will direct the state’s evolving school improvement system. The five-member board of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence announced the appointment of Cohn as its first executive director on Thursday.

Calling him “a highly respected leader in our profession,” Sandy Thorstenson, the chairwoman of the agency and superintendent of the Whittier Union High School District, said Cohn is “the right voice to launch the significant work” of the agency.

The Legislature established the agency in the 2013 law creating the Local Control Funding Formula with a $10 million appropriation, although it has just gotten off the ground this year. As its name signals, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature envisioned the agency taking a more collaborative and less punitive approach in providing help to districts and schools that fail to meet either state achievement targets or districts’ own accountability goals.

Consistent with the shift in authority from Sacramento to local school boards,  the law says the agency’s purpose is to “advise and assist” districts and help improve the quality of districts’ teaching and leadership. Those are broad purposes creating two distinct roles, as a broker for promoting best educational practices and as an overseer of the accountability sections of the funding formula, with a direct takeover of a district for academic failure as a last resort.

In an interview Thursday, Cohn said the new position “fits with my philosophy, my passions and approach of trying to motivate and inspire adults who work with kids rather than shaming, embarrassing and punishing them.”

“We will not recreate a bureaucracy,” he said, saying he foresees that the agency will be “flat, agile and nimble, ­ a small operation with few employees.” The goal will be to build trust and “be seen as helpful and focused on offering what districts cannot get elsewhere.”

Cohn began a four-decade career in education as a teacher and counselor in Compton Unified. He served a decade as superintendent in Long Beach, a long tenure for an urban superintendent. In 2003, the year after he retired, the highly diverse district received the Broad Prize for excellence in urban education. He also was superintendent of San Diego Unified from 2005 to 2007.

In 2011, Brown appointed him to the state board; he resigned earlier this year. He currently is director of the Urban Leadership Program and a professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Cohn also served on the board of directors of EdSource until June 30. He is also chair of the Educators Network for Effective School Discipline.

Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy organization, said that Cohn’s experience is consistent with the LCFF statute. “You want someone who gets the bigger picture, shares best practices and understands the inside of district operations.  Carl has a long history of implementing systemic change in districts and working on state-level policy through the state board.”

Cohn will work closely with the superintendents of the 58 county offices of education, which must approve school districts’ Local Control and Accountability Plans. These are the school and student achievement documents that outline goals, along with actions and expenditures, to meet eight priorities that the Legislature set out in the funding formula law. The priorities include student outcomes and achievement, school climate, student engagement and parent involvement. The plans must specifically target money for “high-needs” students – English learners, low-income children and foster youth.

The state board has until October 2016 to issue a set of rubrics or state metrics that will define minimum levels of achievement that all districts must meet. They may include graduation rates, scores on the Smarter Balanced standardized tests and measures of college and career readiness.

One of Cohn’s primary jobs may be to compile a library of exemplary LCAPs and a list of districts, county offices and experts in areas like working with English learners or school discipline. They would be recommended to districts that seek help or assigned to those that have persistently performed poorly.

Under the funding formula law, county offices and eventually the California Collaborative for Education Excellence can intercede in districts that fail to make achievement goals in one or more of the state’s eight priority areas for multiple subgroups of students over several years. Any district intervention is expected to be several years away, since rubrics will first take effect in 2016-17.

However, the agency will not have to wait to act in its other role, as promoter of quality instruction. The collaborative sees its function as prevention, not intervention, in helping districts improve, said Sue Burr, the state board’s representative on the agency’s board of directors. She said Cohn will have influence in shaping what that will look like. “He is probably the most experienced superintendent in the state and nationally recognized,” she said. “We were interested in having someone seen in high regard by colleagues he will be working with.”

Cohn said he not only fully supports but is enthusiastic about the “restoration of local control – something I never thought I would see again.”

“This is a fundamental shift, a very big change because for more than a dozen years, it’s all been about state capitals and the federal government telling schools what to do. This is an opportunity to spread the kind of local ownership that brought a degree of success to Long Beach.”

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