CREDIT: Alison Yin for EdSource
Technology and Augmentative Communication for Learning Enhancement (T.A.C.L.E. ) students at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 17, 2017.

Earlier this year, a representative of a California advocacy and civil-rights organization asked me if the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, the new state agency that I head, has a “genuine sense of urgency” about its work in getting the right kind of help and assistance to districts, charters and county offices of education.

Credit: Claremont Graduate University

Carl Cohn

I told him that the very first meeting that we had in the very first district that we agreed to take on was at Ironwood State Prison, which is located within the boundaries of the Palo Verde Unified School District in the city of Blythe on the California-Arizona border.

There is nothing that gives an educator like me a greater sense of mission, purpose and urgency than walking into one of our state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities and sitting down to talk with inmates about their schooling experiences. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year that our state is now spending just over $75,000 per year, per inmate at our prisons, which is more than the annual cost of a Harvard University education, including room and board.

As part of the state’s landmark reforms of its accountability system to give local districts greater decision-making authority over how they spend state funds — and hence over educational strategies in their districts — my agency has been charged with developing a new approach to assist school districts to improve, emphasizing support for improvements rather than punishing them for failure.

An important part of our work in emphasizing a return to local control of schools is getting to know the local communities that we’re serving. The economy in Blythe, in addition to agriculture, is actually driven by the presence of two state prisons (Ironwood and Chuckawalla Valley), and we wanted to familiarize ourselves with one of the community’s economic engines as we began our work.

After going through the usual security procedures that you would expect at a prison, the warden took us to visit one of the most popular occupational programs at Ironwood to have a chat with the inmates about their experiences in California schools. We sat down to talk with a group of inmates, largely young men of color, who were diligently working on translating textbooks into Braille — part of a contract that the prison has with the California Community College system. It’s a very popular occupational activity at the prison because participants are guaranteed a job when they get out.

I asked the inmate leader about his schooling experiences, and he said: “As a middle-schooler, I was growing up in South Central Los Angeles in a single-parent household, and no one was paying any attention to what was going on with me socially and emotionally. I was fine with the academics, but I realized that I needed to join a gang to get to and from school safely and, if I was going to be in a gang, I was going to be the leader of the gang.”

Later I asked the warden what the inmate had done and he said in a very dispassionate way: “Like most gang leaders, he killed some people.”

As the state launches its new 2017 color-coded California School Dashboard and new system of support, I think about that visit to Ironwood and a more recent visit to Soledad prison in South Monterey County as a source of urgency about getting this right. All of us at the state and county levels are going to have to bring our “A game” to help the more than 220 districts that the state has identified as qualifying for assistance based on how they did on the multiple measures included on the dashboard.

This year’s dashboard reveals that a significant number of districts are identified because of the underperformance of students with disabilities — giving us a unique opportunity as a state to take on a long overdue challenge at reforming our special education system, which we haven’t addressed in a systematic way in the past.

A statewide task force on special education that I co-chaired issued a report in 2015 calling for “one coherent system” that, at long last, acknowledges that improving educational opportunities for students with disabilities will require major changes in general education. Currently about one in ten of California’s public school students are officially classified as special education students, with many more requiring special assistance who have not been diagnosed.

We will take the lead in coordinating the work of a new Special Education Collective that will pull together existing California Department of Education and other state resources. In addition, we will partner with existing models of exemplary practice in this area at El Dorado, Orange, Butte, Napa, Sacramento and Santa Clara counties.

We will also sit down with our labor partners, both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, for a candid conversation about the changes needed to support inclusive practices in schools and classrooms throughout our state. As our statewide task force concluded more than two years ago: “All children and students with disabilities must be considered general education students first.”

At times, special education is a challenging area because of outmoded belief systems, continued teacher shortages, debates about the right kind of teacher preparation and leadership that is too often legalistic and compliance-driven. Because of these factors, changing it is a heavy lift, and I don’t underestimate the difficulty associated with ushering in this kind of change in a system that has viewed it as a place separate, apart and isolated for so long. However, there is a powerful moral imperative at work here that demands that we as state leaders take this on.

As I reflect on that first visit to Blythe and Ironwood State Prison more than a year and half ago, I’m reminded that the CCEE went there because the former Riverside county superintendent Kenn Young told us about a district that had been the lowest performing in the county for more than two decades, and how numerous past state interventions hadn’t succeeded in improving things.

One of the gratifying elements of this week’s dashboard launch announcement is that the Palo Verde Unified School District in Blythe won’t be on the list of school districts needing assistance. Here’s to the school board, superintendent, teachers, administrators, classified staff, parents, students and community who, along with us, have been working very hard at reversing a two-decade trend. We’re hopeful that our new approach to intervention — partnering and collaborating with a local district — has been a contributing factor in their not making the list at this time.

California now has the opportunity to support other districts to make similar progress. We should make special education a priority — so that many students who should be better served by our state don’t end up in circumstances like those I witnessed at Ironwood. But what is needed is a comprehensive approach so that all our schools work for all students. The California School Dashboard is an additional and important tool that should help local communities identify where the need for intervention is the greatest.

•••

Carl Cohn is executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a state agency established in 2013 to advise and assist districts under the state’s new accountability system. A former member of the State Board of Education, he was also  superintendent of the Long Beach and San Diego Unified School Districts.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, we encourage you to review our guidelines and contact us.

SHARE ARTICLE

Comments (7)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Policy

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Carl Cohn 8 months ago8 months ago

    Actually, it only took two years, and I think the state was very thoughtful and deliberative in setting us up.

  2. Jim Sporleder 8 months ago8 months ago

    I commend you on your passion and commitment to make a difference in the lives of students in California. However, it goes so much more deeper than instructional practices. Before we can ever get to the academic learning of all students, we have to address our approach to discipline and begin to implement trauma-informed practices for all kids. Until we truly understand that the path to academic learning comes through social … Read More

    I commend you on your passion and commitment to make a difference in the lives of students in California. However, it goes so much more deeper than instructional practices. Before we can ever get to the academic learning of all students, we have to address our approach to discipline and begin to implement trauma-informed practices for all kids. Until we truly understand that the path to academic learning comes through social and emotional development. The research goes clear back to Maslow, and the compelling research on the impact of trauma, truly provides a blueprint to changing our current traditional system to focusing on the cause and the solutions needed to move every student in our education system forward.

    The foundational platform for education reform, will be built by one caring adult relationship at a time. We know that a student’s life path can truly have a positive impact through the caring adults surrounding each of our students. Love is not a budget item; the punitive educational policies and high stakes testing environment, are causing a heavy price, with very little return.

    Educators know what’s best for their students, they have seen the decline in student behavior and school readiness, but they have been pushed away from the conversation and contributing to the solutions. We are going to continue to see the slippery slope that leads to the Pipeline to Prison, until we allow teachers to focus on social and emotional Learning, which will lead to teaching students how to self-regulate, which leads to a more engaged student in the learning environment. Follow the current evidenced-based research, and you will find how we can change our punitive system around.

  3. Don 8 months ago8 months ago

    If there’s so much urgency, why did it take several years for the CCEE to get up and running?

  4. Gail Monohon 8 months ago8 months ago

    Just listened to the Ed Source podcast on this topic. Such a lot of talk, good talk, but what is needed is immediate change in the instruction and daily experiences of students, right now – not after the entire bureaucracy slowly attempts to “build capacity” to help CCEE to help county offices to help districts to help principals to help teachers to help kids. We need to go directly to teachers and parents with … Read More

    Just listened to the Ed Source podcast on this topic. Such a lot of talk, good talk, but what is needed is immediate change in the instruction and daily experiences of students, right now – not after the entire bureaucracy slowly attempts to “build capacity” to help CCEE to help county offices to help districts to help principals to help teachers to help kids. We need to go directly to teachers and parents with resources to improve how children are taught and nurtured. Go directly to the front lines!

  5. Don 8 months ago8 months ago

    After reading the article I must confess I was puzzled. Mr. Cohn, you spoke sincerely and eloquently of an urgency to act on comprehensive reform for the many and vulnerable who depend upon at public education. What do you propose? There isn't going to be a windfall of education funding given California's massive welfare state. And all solutions that its progressive leaders envision involve giant increases in funding. Therefore, unless there … Read More

    After reading the article I must confess I was puzzled. Mr. Cohn, you spoke sincerely and eloquently of an urgency to act on comprehensive reform for the many and vulnerable who depend upon at public education. What do you propose? There isn’t going to be a windfall of education funding given California’s massive welfare state. And all solutions that its progressive leaders envision involve giant increases in funding. Therefore, unless there are major cuts to the massive education bureaucracy that drains resources from school sites, there’s little chance of any fundamental grassroots renewal.

  6. Gail Monohon 8 months ago8 months ago

    Amen to your statement that “what is needed is a comprehensive approach so that all our schools work for all students” – especially English learners, special education, socially/emotionally-challenged, the poor and homeless. But while it is important for the CCEE and other groups at state and regional levels to meet and talk about the problems, nothing of consequence will actually happen with these students until the talk becomes the walk at the local level. … Read More

    Amen to your statement that “what is needed is a comprehensive approach so that all our schools work for all students” – especially English learners, special education, socially/emotionally-challenged, the poor and homeless. But while it is important for the CCEE and other groups at state and regional levels to meet and talk about the problems, nothing of consequence will actually happen with these students until the talk becomes the walk at the local level. Talking to prisoners may help you to understand better how they ended up behind bars, but the work you must somehow initiate and oversee is at the 9,846 California schools – how are you going to do that, when the people who must do the job are largely unaware of your aims and resources? You must get to teachers, students and parents directly!

    Engaging the PTA is one way – they are doing great work in family outreach. PIQE is another parent education group. WestEd has resources. Live-streaming CCEE meetings is helpful but reaches only a small fraction of educators and very few families. You must honestly face the fact that change is nearly impossible when it consists mostly of top-down informing of administrators at conferences or periodic meetings – there may some head-nodding agreement, some grousing about why it won’t work, some note-taking, and then the folks return to their schools and life goes on pretty much as usual.

    A whole new approach is needed: direct grassroots communication with information reaching students, parents, teachers and support personnel from the get-go. The public must be genuinely engaged to plan, oversee, and evaluate progress. LCFF/LCAP was supposed to accomplish this, but the education bureaucracy has gotten in the way with its slow, reluctant response. Don’t spend years trying to “build capacity” at county and district offices: Go To The People!

  7. Sonja Luchini 8 months ago8 months ago

    Thank you for your dedication to our disabled student population. That you chose to start with the prison system shows a deeper understanding of the difficulties these students face when supports are not present at home and school when it really matters. As a parent member and volunteer of Los Angeles Unified's Special Education Community Advisory Committee for 18 years, we would advocate once a year in Sacramento. I remember using that statement … Read More

    Thank you for your dedication to our disabled student population. That you chose to start with the prison system shows a deeper understanding of the difficulties these students face when supports are not present at home and school when it really matters.

    As a parent member and volunteer of Los Angeles Unified’s Special Education Community Advisory Committee for 18 years, we would advocate once a year in Sacramento. I remember using that statement about inmate versus pupil funding (the first time I used it the figures were $30,000 per prisoner/about $6000 per student) asking our legislators to please consider better funding for education. Most would give blank stares and refuse to comment when I’d say (ironically) we may as well skip K-12 altogether and just put our students in prison. At least they’d have a roof over their heads, food and an education. Families of disabled students can’t afford lobbyists to roam the halls as corporate charter interests do and that’s one of the problems.

    It’s also a community issue. A teacher and school district can only do so much when a child is unable to attend due to poverty/homelessness. We need living-wage jobs for their parents. Safe homes and neighborhoods so children can walk safely to and from school – you mentioned the young man who became a gang leader in order to be safe, that shouldn’t be a first option for our kids. We need policing, local health clinics, transportation and community supports to ensure healthy, safe families so a child is able to attend school healthy, well-fed and ready to learn.

    Your organization is a step in the right direction and I’m grateful for your work.