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GSEHD Master Class Examines Urban School Reform
Carl Cohn, the nation’s longest serving urban school system superintendent, outlines the keys to successful reform.
September 10, 2012
By Jay Conley
Educators with strong passion and the perseverance to succeed amid the politics and bureaucracy inherent in public education are the keys to urban school reform, said Carl Cohn, one of the country’s most successful urban school superintendents, during a lecture in the Marvin Center Continental Ballroom on Thursday.
The lecture was the culmination of a Master Class on the Politics of Urban School Reform led by Dr. Cohn this week at GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Dr. Cohn’s four decades as an educator include 10 years as superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District in California from 1992 to 2002. That length of service—the longest of any urban superintendent in the country—was a testament to his ability to successfully manage a range of political and socio-economic issues and make Long Beach a model of success for school systems across the country.
“We here are very aware of the role of politics in all things educational,” said GSEHD Dean Michael Feuer in introducing Dr. Cohn, noting the presence of GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus in the heart of the nation’s capital.
Dr. Cohn is widely credited with transforming the underperforming Long Beach school system into one with record attendance, the lowest rate of suspension in a decade, decreased student failure and dropout rates, and an increase in the number of students taking college preparatory classes. Dr. Cohn implemented, among other reforms, a school uniform policy, new reading comprehension standards, and a strategy of building trust between school administrators and school board members to strengthen working relationships.
He went on to serve as an independent court monitor for the Los Angeles Federal District Court, and superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District from 2005 to 2007. Dr. Cohn currently is co-director of the Urban Leadership Program and a clinical professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
Dr. Cohn said his focus in Long Beach on school uniforms may seem to some as less important than academic progress, but not if one understands the context of gang violence and urban turmoil that sparked the Los Angeles riots in 1992 while he was superintendent.
“In the rush to improve test scores, other issues are sometimes overlooked, like school safety,” he said. The Long Beach school system was praised by President Bill Clinton in 1996 for its use of school uniforms to restore order in classrooms and help dramatically reduce youth violence.
Dr. Cohn also worked with higher education administrators in California to help better prepare students for college, and in turn mentor aspiring teachers to be more effective classroom instructors.
“We were determined to work together to enhance outcomes for students and teachers,” he said.
The intent of the inaugural Master Class was to bring educational leaders to campus with the highest levels of expertise to engage with students in a unique immersion style program patterned loosely after master classes in music, said Dr. Feuer.
“The problems of education are complex,” he said. “The good news is we have people like Carl Cohn to pave the way for us and make us feel optimistic about our future.”