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Saturday, Dec. 22, 2007 | Hopes were high when gravel-voiced Carl Cohn moved south from Long Beach, where he’d spent a decade overseeing the public schools. In San Diego, he was billed as a school-district peacemaker — and a sorely-needed one. Seven years after former Superintendent Alan Bersin took the reins, his top-down reforms had boosted scores, but divided teachers, principals and staff.

As superintendent, Cohn soothed the school district, winning kudos from the teachers’ union. He fended off lawsuits from charter schools — to this day, he said, his school districts have never lost a suit.

But he didn’t elude the bickering school board, or his own share of disputes. Meanwhile, test scores stagnated. Two years into his tenure, he split with San Diego Unified, saying he lacked the will to go on.

San Diego, he says, may not want a peacemaker.

A day before his departure, Cohn reflected on his two-year stint in San Diego — a meditation that spanned from school board squabbles to No Child Left Behind, from charter schools to the allure of Barack Obama.

Reflecting on your experience here, what differences do you see between Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified, and what, if anything, could they learn from each other?

San Diego Unified is still dominated by a pretty big bureaucracy with bureaucratic procedures. … Long Beach, by the mid- to late- ’80s … pretty much got rid of all those administrative procedures, bulletins, circulars, that type of thing. So I was pretty surprised, coming here in 2005 — it was like a trip down memory lane to see “Administrative Procedure Number 794,” and everybody taking it seriously. … If you’re going to have a competitive, forward-thinking school district you don’t want to be mired in all this bureaucratic procedure. …

The other thing — and this goes to the larger San Diego context, not just the school system — the place seems, in terms of its larger political structure, to enjoy conflict. Long Beach, for whatever reason, didn’t really seem to relish conflict so much.

I don’t know if it’s the polarization of political extremes here or what. You have this somewhat emerging, progressive, tingeing blue city in a larger, ruby-red county. … The interesting thing about that is, it’s such an enjoyable place to live. You’d think that perhaps people would be out there having fun and not engaged in conflict.

That reminds me of another division you’ve mentioned — this “North of 8, South of 8” divide. How can the district bridge that gap? Or would it ultimately be better to split the district?

… It’s always easy to look at something and say, the best way out is to split it up. … What’s troublesome is when you look at the reality on the ground, you see fairly significant differences in approach. It makes you wonder if self-determination might produce a better arrangement. But I’ve been around long enough to know that the obvious quick-fixes don’t always work out. … I still believe that a district has a duty to fix schools wherever they are, and has a duty to be consistent in its message to parents.

The district, at times, seems to say to parents south of 8, “If you’re upset with us, going charter is fine,” and then say something quite different to parents north of 8 — “We want you to stay in the district, we want to accommodate you — if your main goal is G.A.T.E. Seminar (a selective program for gifted students), we want to expand it to meet your needs. … If it were a fair and equitable school system, you would say, “If your youngster is far below basic, we need to intervene in a similar way to get your child what they need and you shouldn’t have to go charter in order to get that.”

It sounds like you don’t think those interventions are happening, south of 8.

Right. There’s a lot of good people working hard, but when you look at resources and how they’re distributed, those youngsters are in class sizes that were established by the (teachers union) contract, and some of them are as high as 34, 35 (students in a class.) … And they’re largely African-American and Hispanic youngsters. It’s going to be very difficult to close the achievement gap without significant interventions that put them on a par with the more advantaged youngsters.

Reflecting on your time here, do you think the charter movement is doing what it’s supposed to do, for the school system as a whole?

There are a number of reasons for charter schools. One of the ideas was that they were supposed to be hothouses of innovation that school systems could learn from. … In a sense, we’re paying attention to what charter schools do better than we do. If you look at our family-friendly schools initiative, the K-8 developments, if you look at the attempts to merge charter schools that are failing, private schools that closed, all of that’s about us taking a new mindset of customer service, listening to families. How can we be an engine for capturing families that want a decent public school education for their kids, no matter what part of town they live in? ….

What I’m always concerned about is sometimes what I call these romantic notions about charters, that somehow they’re all the same. They’re not all the same. Some are good, some are bad, and some are criminal. And the practical problem that we face, as the authorizer of charters, we’re tasked with all these regulations from the state … We have to be the ones who are ultimately looking at all this. It’s one of the reasons that several months ago I argued that California should join the other 36 states that have alternate authorizers of charter schools. Sometimes you get this phenomenon of lumping all charter schools together, they’re all wonderful, that type of thing. If entities believe that they’re all wonderful, then ultimately they ought to take responsibility for them. …

But I think we’ve learned some things from the charters. It’s an old lesson, really. People care about schools that reflect good, solid values that families hold. … And here in San Diego, some of the better charters are doing that, whether it’s dress standards, behavior standards, parent engagement and commitment. … For whatever reason, sometimes the big public school system loses sight of that. On balance, I’d argue we’ve learned a lot from charters, and the fact that our enrollment did grow this fall is our recognition that we rolled up our sleeves, understood we were in a competitive environment and needed to do a whole lot more to serve our customers and clients — parents.

You’ve been an outspoken critic of No Child Left Behind. If I get the gist of your argument, it’s that the law sets the bar too high, too quickly, and it’s unrealistic. Are there revisions to the law that would address your concerns, or do you feel the approach itself is fundamentally flawed?

I think it’s fundamentally flawed. … It ignores everything we know about modern management.

There’s a man named McGregor whose Theory X and Theory Y sort of defined large organizations. Theory X is that people are basically bad, can’t-be-trusted, ne’er-do-wells who won’t do the work. So punishment, and identifying people as failures, is the way you improve an organization. McGregor’s Theory Y suggests that most people want to do the right thing, are hardworking, and if you can come up with ways to positively motivate and inspire them, they will get the job done. … For me, No Child Left Behind takes Theory X and applies it to all schools in America. (The idea is that) identifying people as failures is a powerful motivator for improvement. I think that is fundamentally flawed as an approach.

A few years ago I was a keynote speaker at a publishers’ conference in Sacramento. … At the time, (Gov.) Pete Wilson had infused like, $3 billion or some ridiculous figure into textbook acquisition. And so I posed to these private-sector people making millions — I posed to them, in my speech: “How many of you work better when you’re publicly branded as a failure and not a good employee? Raise your hand.”

Not a single hand in the room went up. Now these are private-sector people, and we’re always arguing that the business world is the model (for schools). Nobody raised their hand and said, “Yes — when I’m publicly identified as a failure, I work better.” What I’m arguing is, it’s ridiculous to take that same approach to schools in America. That’s what No Child Left Behind does. … When I wake up every day, I’m trying to figure out, “How do I motivate and inspire the classroom teachers who work with kids all day?” Publicly embarrassing them, suggesting that they’re not hard workers — all of that is, from my point of view, not the right approach. …

The question of the role of the school board versus that of the superintendent and his staff has come up over and over and over, and it’s been discussed and it keeps on coming up. Is there a deeper issue that you think needs to be addressed, to stop those kind of clashes, or is that just a natural dynamic for school districts, to have those conflicts come up?

When you move around the state, you find conflicts all over the place. In a sense, they’re going to be inevitable. I think everyone needs to work harder at fixing them. The most important thing is a school board, if it really wants significant change, (needs) to have a collective sense of purpose. … I think in hindsight, here in San Diego, if I had it to do over again, I would have argued that we needed a third party facilitator to come in and work with us on a more regular basis than we did. That’s out there. That’s available. …

I also think that both superintendents and boards have difficult jobs. You can’t ignore the legitimate constituent service aspect of a school board member’s role. If people are complaining to them, and they are the elected officials, it becomes our job to try and respond to that. But coming up with the right rules, regulations and protocols to get that done — the best way to go is a third-party facilitator who regularly checks in and monitors the process.

Was that part of why you requested a no-meddling clause (in your contract)?

… The press reports on San Diego were that this new board was attempting to run the district on a day-to-day basis. Part of the meddling clause was to attempt to address that. In hindsight, I’m not sure how effective things like that are. The media was interested in it. Superintendents from around the country were interested in it (chuckles) and calling and requesting the language. But [school board members] are elected officials. You don’t want to appear to be a whiner: “If I don’t get my way,” or “The first time anyone does something wrong I’m taking my marbles and going home.” …

The school board started pushing for a clearer, more readable budget this year. Do you think repackaging the budget will change discussions about spending, and if so, how?

… I think repackaging is something that will make it more intelligible to larger audiences, who then in turn may have something to say. In everything we do — how do you reduce it to kitchen-table talk so that large audiences understand what the enterprise is all about? It will be helpful in that sense. But if anybody’s thinking mere repackaging will also remove the conflicts associated with how a political entity spends its resources — that would be naive.

Back in October, (education author) Jonathan Kozol came to speak and he had this terrific quote: “I sometimes think that the job of urban superintendent was created so that one person could die for our nation’s sins.” (Carl chuckles) Why would anyone want this job?

Emily, the truth is I’ve been in education for 38 years or so and I’ve actually enjoyed the superintendent’s job more than any other job. That’s really saying something … Whenever I teach the leadership course at USC, I identify that there are at least two kinds of superintendents — the big-ego superintendent and the little-ego superintendent. I see myself as a little-ego superintendent whose real strength is attracting talent to do the work. If you look at it from the point of view of the big-ego superintendent, where all the issues are on your plate and you have to give a command performance on every aspect of the district and you have to micromanage everything, then it is a lousy job.

One of the things — when I leave the district and get on the airplane I say, you know what, if something really awful happens — if a kid gets killed, if a school is burning with kids in it — call me. If it’s just adults behaving badly, I don’t need to know. Let me know when I get back. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not the type of person who approaches this as a male Joan of Arc, like I’m going to burn at the stake for a cause bigger than myself.

Given that, why did you decide to leave (San Diego Unified), and why mid-year, instead of finishing out the year?

2008. I’m fascinated with this as a political year, and a year of significant change in America. I really want to be free to endorse Barack Obama, help him win the California primary. If I want to go to Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire or Nevada, I can do that. … The 2008 election is unfolding and I really want to get out there and do my thing. I hope that doesn’t sound too selfish. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t really have to work. … I really want to get out there and support those candidates and issues that I think are big-time, generational sea change in America.

Do you see Obama as part of that?

Sure. Definitely. … This really is a candidate who clearly is not part of the polarization of the last 15 to 20 years, and is also very comfortable in his own skin. … He’s at a point now where he sees clearly the big challenges facing Americans, sees them as problems to be solved, and he’s not bound by the extreme polarization in the country. He’s a transformational leader. So getting with that, in my judgment, is the best hope for children. Some people would say, well, being a superintendent in school [gives you] a much more direct impact on children. But you know, I have done this for a while, and the prospects for children in the larger country that we call America don’t seem to be getting better. Leaving the superintendency and getting involved more directly in the political process seems like something I have the luxury to do — and I hope people don’t feel like I’m abandoning children.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments here, and do you have any regrets?

I think the biggest accomplishment is the improved employee morale, along with … San Diego Unified is one of the few large urban districts that isn’t in Program Improvement (a label applied to schools that repeatedly fail to meet No Child Left Behind standards). Avoiding that by meeting our No Child Left Behind targets, even though we have problems with the overall philosophy of No Child Left Behind, is a pretty significant accomplishment.

The other thing is growing the enrollment of the school district in probably the toughest real estate environment in the state. Those are the pluses.

Disappointment? One of the things I tried to do — and this was sort of below the radar, it wasn’t covered in the news media — I quietly tried to start this conversation with the teacher’s union. We went to two meetings of a national group called the Teachers Union Reform Network. … Basically the conversation is, how do you throw out all the district rules and regulations and elements of the union contract that impede the district and the union from creating really competitive new schools? Both Boston and Denver have been involved in this. In Denver they’re called the Beacon schools; in Boston, the Pilot schools. So I was trying mightily to convince the leadership of the teachers’ association that both the district and the union are criticized in some quarters for not doing enough to rescue at-risk kids.

Could we move forward with this conversation? Let’s create a dozen of these types of schools, where both the district and the teachers union agree we’re going to bring people together, we’re going to throw out all our cumbersome rules, we’re going to waive contract provisions and we’re going to start anew on the creation of some schools that can compete effectively with charters, with privates, and have that as a seminal movement that spreads out.

It almost sounds like a charter within the system.

Sure. And that’s what the Boston and Denver experiences would be described as. I was unable to do that. I’m not blaming anybody but myself. That was a big disappointment for me.

— Interview by EMILY ALPERT

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