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School Improvement Guru Justin Cohen on Teacher-Led School Innovation

D.C.’s director of school innovation talks about his new book, ‘Change Agents: Transforming Schools from the Ground Up’

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For most of the past 20 years, Justin Cohen has been a clarion voice for equity in public education. Since joining D.C. Public Schools as its director of school innovation in 2007, Cohen has focused much of his time on school improvement — exploring how to change schools so that they deliver excellent learning opportunities for all kids. Though he’s broadened his aperture over the years — campaigning for criminal justice reform and running for state Assembly — schools have always stayed on his mind. 

This fall, on the heels of six months interviewing “about 100 teachers in 15 cities” who were working on substantial improvement efforts, Cohen is publishing his first book, Change Agents: Transforming Schools from the Ground Up. It’s an effort to answer a question he asks at the outset: “What would it actually look like for teachers to be at the center of discussions about school transformation?” 

Change Agents comes out tomorrow (Oct. 25). I sat down with Cohen last month to talk about the book — and about what’s next for public education as leaders move past the pandemic. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

The 74: The book is built around profiles of Partners in School Innovation—tell me about them and how you came across them. 

Justin Cohen: About 15 years ago I was working for the D.C. Public Schools, and we were exploring a multi-district collaborative around early identification of young people who were on track to not finish high school. It never really went anywhere, but I got to meet a man named Derek Mitchell, in Prince George’s County, and he went on to Partners in School Innovation (PSI) years later, doing improvement science and continuous improvement in schools. 

At PSI, Derek introduced a notion that you know, continuously improving an unfair system isn’t enough. Zoretta Hammond put it this way: “making incremental improvements at the margins of a system originally designed to sort children by race, class and language will only make inequitable sorting more efficient.” And so Derek insisted that continuous school improvement needed to have a racial equity lens—and PSI has been working on that for the last 13 years. 

He recently reached out to me, saying, “I’m really excited about what we’ve been able to do. What about telling this story at a broader level?”

A chance to capture their approach, codify it and make it replicable in more schools.

Right. Totally. From the outset, I envisioned something like Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, which took some of the lessons of improvement science and showed how to do incremental change in health care on a day-to-day basis…but for education. I was especially interested in writing something for teachers. Something for educators to pick up and read during the very limited time that they have, that’s practical, teacher-friendly, and — hopefully — inspiring without indulging in what my editor likes to call ‘toxic positivity.’ 

I particularly enjoyed the part focused on conditional reasoning — that is, the “if/then” statements at the heart of almost any attempt to shift human behavior. It’s at the core of pragmatic, realistic change thinking. Every school improvement — every self-improvement — starts with a commitment to trying something new (“if I do this…”) in the hopes of seeing different results (“then we’ll see this outcome…”). But that doesn’t mean that humans naturally start their problem-solving that way. It’s an acquired pattern of thinking. What are some tips for teachers trying to get themselves and their colleagues into thinking about improvement more constructively? 

There’s one acronym in the book. ROCI: Results-Oriented Cycles of Inquiry. The foundational idea is that you get together with a group of your peers every week for collaboration. During those meetings, you set a target: some sort of process improvement. And whatever that thing is — a 15-minute check for understanding at the end of each lesson or whatever — you’re all going to commit to doing it together. You make time in the subsequent week to watch each other try this thing out. And then, the next week, you talk it over. 

A big part of this is that it’s not top-down school reform, right? It’s not a principal calling everyone in a room and dictating The Plan. It’s ground-up, teacher-led inquiry. 

Yes. That’s the core thing that differentiates it from a lot of the last generation of reform. This is about asking teachers at the classroom level, “What do you want to try differently tomorrow?” And then, let their judgments and expertise guide next steps. The inquiry process is just as important as the resulting improvements. It’s about building that habit, building that muscle of trying something new, seeing whether it works, observing each other to give feedback on whether or not it works, and then doing more if it continues to deliver results, and stopping doing it if it doesn’t. 

I mean, I know that sounds really basic, but people spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on gym membership they don’t use. Habit-building is hard!

You know, it’s the flip side of the Heckman Equation, this notion that If you invest heavily in early childhood education, you get better results overall for marginalized and underserved communities, because in the early years, kids’ habits haven’t been formed, their long-term trajectories remain fluid, they’re at a point of high neuroplasticity. Most people get that. But nobody talks about the flip side: Shifting adult behavior is super hard. I mean, anybody who’s ever tried to lose weight or shift their TV habits knows this. 

Yes. In the book, I take great pains to avoid a cheerleading, “it’s easy, you can do it!” kind of mentality. Because it’s actually hard, even if it’s rewarding. One of the things that really comes through is the joy people experience when they get to see the results of shifting their practice on their own terms versus shifting practice because somebody told them to or because the state, said “We’re gonna shut your school down if you don’t change.” For the last 25-30 years, it’s been all stick, no carrot. 

But in this teacher-led approach, there’s at least a sense that you can control some of the destiny, and some of what you decide to do.

Meaningful teacher agency … that’s clearly not what we, the country, have been doing. 

It’s not. And one of the key things about this, right, is that when school improvement is driven by teachers, it’s more durable. Even when funding dries up and top-down pressure for reform goes away, when improvement consultants’ PowerPoints go away … those habits don’t. Teachers don’t just stop meeting with their peers to talk through the new things they’re trying. Once they get used to that, they keep doing it. 

Also: part of giving teachers agency is about giving them the opportunity to fail. I know that failure has been rhetorically weaponized against teachers — and families and children, in some cases — like, “failure is not an option anymore.” 

And as a person who’s indulged in this language at times, I think we have to admit that that’s not helpful and is even psychologically jarring in some cases. We have to create enough room for people to try things and maybe not succeed the first time, particularly when we’re talking about institutions like schools. We have millions of teachers operating in tens of thousands of schools and districts. 

This is a good segue. Because you’re clear, in the book, that there are good reasons that we wound up in the place we’ve been in, that we tried the reforms we’ve been trying. The absence of data on student outcomes, on student achievement, meant that, for example, kids were assigned to English as a Second Language classrooms because their last names sounded Hispanic, not because they necessarily needed those services. Educational inequities and civil rights violations thrive when we don’t keep track of what kids know and can do. So maybe we need to modify the policies imposing these consequences on schools, but … can you say more about a policy agenda that leaves more room for teacher-led inquiry and improvement? That leaves room for teachers to fail?

I’m gonna do this in a roundabout way. 

I remember, after the financial crash of 2008, thinking that it’s really nice that economic policy and monetary policy has some very clear available mechanisms. A new president shows up, appoints you to the Federal Reserve Board, and when you walk into the building, figuratively speaking, there’s a big lever labeled, “Interest Rates Down—Borrowing Up.” That’s just what happens. We know how these forces work. 

But we do not have that in education. There isn’t a “Student Achievement” lever to pull when a new administration arrives in the White House. It doesn’t exist. I think we have to acknowledge that. 

I’m not allergic to accountability. In fact, I think my book offers a very deep, very intense form of accountability at the individual practitioner level — a level of accountability that is more or less ignored by today’s policy regimes. 

And look, I’m not saying this to level a judgment on the people who crafted those policies or on the people who’ve spent decades earnestly trying to implement them. But the exact measurements that those regimes insisted upon — academic tests — haven’t shown good results. And we’re not talking one or two years. We’re talking about a generation here. That’s just a fact. 

So I think we need to let go. We need to admit that this test-and-sanctions approach didn’t work. 

I mean, policymakers will have to institutionalize the work of continuous improvement at the practitioner level. Things like, at the more local level, creating time for collaboration or relaxing some of the annual test-based accountability, and creating multi-year, more robust accountability around different longitudinal measures. Think of things like civic participation, graduation, and post-secondary attainment, all the things that we know test scores were supposed to be a proxy for.

Are things moving in the right direction, then? We replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which significantly weakened federal school accountability systems, but retained some transparency mechanisms whereby schools were still publishing data on students’ progress? After all, the last administration wasn’t really interested in implementing the law, and then the pandemic sidelined lots of federal accountability systems

I think a weakened and watered-down system that we know is not working … I mean, let’s just put it out of its misery. I mean, there are a lot of people who believe that fully erasing federal testing and accountability policy would return us to some educational policy Eden. I mean, the era before this one wasn’t some perfectly equitable moment in public schools. 

My view is that we need to, you know, erase the whiteboard and start over with some core principles in mind: transparency around outcomes, equity, ensuring that no school gets to go too long getting the same results over and over again without being prompted to rethink what they’re doing. 

So we still need and should want accountability. But we need to get away from these punitive regimes and focus on doing the real improvement work that we know actually works

You could make the case that, operationally speaking, we’re kind of moving that direction, right? There’s just so little appetite for top-down accountability right now. 

We need to think of accountability as starting with the inquiry cycle at the practitioner level. Plan to assess. Pick a target. Meet as a grade-level team to discuss the target. Watch each other try new things. See if it had an impact. Lather, rinse, repeat. Just keep doing that. 

So: I think that at each level out from the school — district, state, federal — needs to set up somewhat longer cycles of inquiry that look at whether these short-cycle returns are adding up into meaningful, long-term, equitable improvement. 

It’s going to be extremely hard. It opens up big questions of autonomy, empowerment, who decides what and where, but it beats sticking with the ineffective accountability approaches we’re currently using. 

There are 3 million teachers in the country. It’s one of the biggest professions in the country, and if we think that the education profession and the schools in general are going to get better without a deep investment in making sure those millions of people get better and better every day, we’re kidding ourselves. 

Sure. Part of the whole systemic education reform argument is that you can build policy structures that create conditions for success, that reduce the importance of individual teacher quality as a variable, right. And while I get that, as a project, it’s obviously nonsense to skip past teachers, to treat them like plug-and-play widgets. So I’m wondering, then, in rethinking teachers’ agency, in broadening their roles as agents of change … does the book have a message for their trainers? For schools of education? 

I mean, yes. Schools of education, in many cases, teach people completely wrong things about the processes of teaching and learning and the history of racial equity in this country. If you show up as a new teacher with no awareness of the history of racial exclusion here and no knowledge of why systematic inequities manifest in your community and building, and without, say, awareness of the cognitive neuroscience of how children learn how to decode, you are not prepared to be a teacher. A lot is going to need to happen on campus to prepare you to be truly ready to lead a classroom. 

I did not write this book to solve this problem, but fortunately, the cycles of teacher-led inquiry can help bring those folks up to speed. 

Those cycles provide accountability that’s about learning opportunities, right, which, I think, is an extension of the analogy above. If you sign up for a gym alone, you maybe waste that membership. But if you’re part of a running group that meets on the corner at 6 a.m. every two days, you’ve got accountability to one another—and a commitment to improvement. 

Yes. The more you collaborate, the more you can observe, the more you can unearth things. It’s all about opening “the closed door” of each American classroom. So often, teachers operate in relative isolation from each other, with no idea about what’s going on in other classrooms. 

And then, frustratingly, observation has gotten too tightly wound up with evaluation. We need to undo that. You’re not gonna like your job if every time someone shows up to observe you, it’s all negative and you’re anxious about how they’re gonna hurt you. 

If nothing else from this book gets through, I hope this does: most of the time, when you open your classroom door for a peer or a superior, it should be a rich learning experience. You should learn interesting things about your practice as an educator.

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