Monday, October 17, 2005 | In the weeks and months ahead, the Carl Cohn era will slowly unfold in San Diego City Schools. Yet, even before his first official day, last Monday, Cohn was a hit with teachers, principals, other educators and parents. The teacher’s union applauded his openness and commitment to teamwork.

Cohn understands it is the teacher, working with students, principals, parents and others, who ultimately determines school quality. The teacher is at the front line of performance.

This does not mean teachers are responsible for under-performance. That view is naive. Schools use a 100-year-old curriculum and instructional system that is not capable of producing universal student proficiency. It is the primary cause of under-achievement.

Today, we believe every child should be engaged in education programs that enable her, or him, to become a successful learner. The performance goal is universal student proficiency. It redefines schooling and school reform.

With respect to universal student proficiency, not every child will master every California Curriculum Content Standard. That is understood. But most children, 90 percent or more, should, and every child ought to be in an instructional program in which they experience success as defined by the continuous acquisition, to their highest potential, of skills and other capabilities.

Cohn knows that existing curriculum and instruction programs are not capable of achieving these goals. First, they do not adequately develop the student capabilities required for successful learning at each level of schooling; and, second, most students are not provided with the amount of instruction and practice necessary to achieve proficiency in each performance standard. This is why reconditioned curriculum programs and invigorated professional development, alone, have been unable to significantly reduce under-performance.

To achieve universal student proficiency in city schools, it is necessary to re-engineer curriculum and instruction. This is a massive undertaking that requires the involvement of every teacher and principal.

Cohn does not believe that faculty participation, alone, is sufficient to carry out this mission. What he seeks to cultivate is widespread teacher leadership and an unprecedented level of teamwork at each school.

Beyond this, what is required? Faculty must engage in curriculum improvement activities capable of producing significantly higher achievement. They include: redesigning curriculum to meet each student’s learning needs; embedding content standards into instruction; regular assessment of student learning; and assuring that students persist in studying a standard until it is mastered.

These activities are essential. As the substance of school site planning, professional development, and implementation problem solving, they enable faculty to develop new programs and practices capable of producing universal student proficiency.

The basic school site questions in this endeavor are: what must we do to enable every child to learn new skills, concepts and other capabilities on a daily basis; and how do we redesign curriculum and instruction to achieve universal student proficiency in state performance standards?

Each school’s faculty must engage in these activities because they produce the expertise and skills teachers need to raise students to higher levels of performance.

Because variations of the above questions will be asked over and over at each campus, Cohn will want to promote collaboration among schools. He can do this with joint school improvement parleys and online sharing of agendas, problems and solutions.

Success, at each school, will be determined by: dedication to the mission; the capability to identify and solve problems; inventiveness; the thoroughness of planning and program development; expertise; availability of support services; persistence; and inspiration.

Principals, teachers and other staff have not been adequately trained to do these things. Although some teachers and principals are inclined toward them, few have had the opportunity to develop and refine the skills required to excel in these tasks. This means the district faces an enormous organizational development project.

The political and technical complexities of improvement should not be under-estimated. Nationally, despite decades of involvement involving tens of thousands of reform programs, no district has yet succeeded at producing universal proficiency.

Cohn is committed to turning each school into a dynamic center of innovation and excellence. He knows it is impossible to do this without exceptional principals and assistant principals. Every school needs a principal capable of inspiring its faculty to engage in the ongoing search for new ways to make each child a successful learner.

One of the first chores Cohn faces is to formulate a reform strategy the school board can embrace. The board is composed of strong, independently minded reformers, each of whom brings different predispositions to the dialogue. Forging a unified strategy will not be easy. But this morning Cohn and the board are at work, together, seeking to do just that. The Cohn era is underway.

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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