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Monday, October 03, 2005 | Welcome to Superintendent Carl Cohn, the district’s new superintendent. Today is his first official day on the job.

It is not a moment too soon. The school board, principals, teachers, parents and almost everyone else remotely associated with city schools harbor enormous expectations. I suspect, however, that their expectations are not as large as those that Cohn, himself, brings to town.

He is ambitious. Not for himself, but for the district and its children. He believes in the promise of universal student proficiency. He wants every child to be a successful learner.

You probably share this dream with him. I’ve met thousands of parents, civic leaders, school board members, teachers, principals and other educators over the last 40 years. Each one wanted to find the magic button that produces student success.

It doesn’t exist.

That’s a reality check. Another one: Alan Bersin came to the superintendent’s job in 1998 with similar expectations. No one could muster a higher level of ardor or commitment than Bersin. The lesson? Fervor, alone, won’t do it.

Neither will stand-alone strategies such as: small schools; a few well thought-out curriculum schemes; a decent professional development program; or, even, school uniforms. It’s not that simple.

The dream is achievable. That is why Carl Cohn is here. He is too wise, too seasoned, too humble, too honorable, to be here for any other reason.

By all traditional measures, Cohn was an exceptional superintendent in Long Beach. He inspired teachers, principals and others to work hard to improve student and school performance. But, when he retired in 2002, Long Beach, like all other school districts in the nation, including San Diego, faced profound performance challenges.

Three-fourths of Long Beach’s students were not proficient in the core curriculum. More than 80 percent of the district’s Hispanic and African-American students, like in San Diego, were not succeeding in the classroom. Long Beach was improving, it is still improving, but it was and is a long way from the dream of universal proficiency (the nation’s performance goal).

Today, Carl Cohn embarks on a new and different mission. To achieve it he is going to have to do things that never occurred in Long Beach. He’ll have to accomplish things no other school superintendent in the nation has yet to achieve.

To do this he’ll need to develop exceptional leadership at every school. This means principals, teachers and others, including parents, engaged in open, steady performance-centered problem solving and improvement.

The curriculum template for improvement is California’s curriculum content standards. They contain hundreds of things every student must learn. For example, one partial set of fifth-grade science standards is: Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigations. Students will: classify objects; develop testable questions; plan and conduct an investigation; know dependent and controlled variables; identify an independent variable and use it to collect information; select tools for making quantitative observations; record data and make inferences; draw conclusions; and report this in writing.

This standard, and others, embody within them learning and thinking skills essential to a wide variety of scientific and non-scientific endeavors. When San Diego’s children learn how to do this, in the context of acquiring a full range of content standards, our school system will be successful. Today, performance data suggest that less than 4 percent of students, at any age, can carry out the above activities.

Carl Cohn’s mission is nothing less than to generate a redesign of the education system in ways that make it possible for every student to master these operations (and all other standards).

The magnitude of this task can not be underestimated. No school in the nation, private or public, can do this.

It requires a revolution. New working and learning environments must be forged. Teachers need to invent new instructional systems. Skills, concepts and applications have to be taught to proficiency. Most students require more learning time.

What is the first task? Districts and schools have maintained for decades that they teach these curriculum standards. They don’t. Some are not taught at all and others, all others, are inadequately taught. This is the problem of a 100-year-old school system not designed to produce universal proficiency. It cannot be solved if it is not acknowledged.

It will not be easy to implement solutions. The resources required to do this do not now exist. Furthermore, schools are inherently conservative organizations. They aren’t managed for and don’t welcome change.

Consequently, the odds against success are huge. But the alternative is disastrous. It is nothing less than the existence of an unproductive, third-world education system and the end of the American dream.

But this need not be. It is possible to design a learning system in which all children succeed. Eventually, it will be done. Will it be here? Will it be in this decade? Will you support it? Will Carl Cohn be the superintendent to engineer it?

Les Birdsall is an education expert who has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years. Read his education column every Monday.

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