Transcription of the episode “Towards the school you want to see: Plan, Act, Reflect, Repeat”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Justin Cohen, a writer, organizer, activist, and dad. His work explores how education, race, privilege, and public policy intersect. He served on the Education Policy Committee for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Justin Cohen’s recently published book is “Change Agents: Transforming Schools From the Ground Up.” Welcome, Justin. 

[00:00:30] Justin C: Thank for having me. Excited to be here. 

[00:00:33] Amy H-L: Would you briefly describe what “Change Agents” is about? 

[00:00:39] Justin C: Sure. “Change Agents” grew out of the work of a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization called Partners in School Innovation. And what they’ve done is fairly simple to describe, but really hard to do. They work with educators, teachers in traditional public schools and mostly neighborhoods that serve historically marginalized families and kids. They work together with those educators to make the schools better over time, relying on the lot of the tools that have been created in the field of improvement science and continuous improvement. And so they have done that work for 25, 30 years, and for about three or four years, I spent time talking to educators who had worked with them to try to craft a more generalizable story about what it takes to do school transformation. So this book is of those stories and also some deep reporting on the historical context and the local communities where those improvement efforts happened. 

[00:01:44] Jon M: I know that one of the key elements in Partners in School Innovations work is results-oriented cycles of inquiry or as they call it, ROSI. Could you talk a little bit about what that is, what that involves?

[00:01:57] Justin C: Sure. I describe ROSI as a really fancy way of talking about habit building. Habit building is really hard. There’s a reason that people pay for gym memberships and never go. You have to build practices to generate sustainable, lasting processes that lead to improvement. Whether you’re talking about habit change in your daily life or in creating a context where educators working at the school or school level can get better together, ROSI is this process that institutionalizes improvement. 

It starts with getting together with a group of your peers and identifying an area that needs improvement, picking some strategies you think might lead to improving that area. Maybe it’s reading instruction, maybe it’s teaching fractions, something very specific. Then you commit with a group, so you’re with a team, so maybe it’s the second grade teachers at a school, maybe it’s the history department at a high school. You say, we’re going to watch each other teach, and then we’re going to get back together and we’re going to give each other feedback on how that went. We’re going to look at whether those changes we made to how we teach had an impact on instruction. If it’s working, great, we keep doing more. If it’s not, we keep trying. And if after a while it’s not working, we try something else. That’s kind of it. And then at the end of the process, there’s reflection built in. And I think that’s really important as a lot of times, because of the speed and and frequency of change in schools, you try new things and you never really reflect how stuff went. And the reflection process is really what a lot of people say leads to the lasting, sustainable changes they see over time.

[00:03:26] Amy H-L: In the book, you make some suggestions for organizing the school community that in many ways seems to resemble organizing any community. Only this time it’s with kids and with a constantly changing population, because kids graduate. Is that correct? 

[00:03:46] Justin C: Yes, I think that’s right. I spend a lot of time community organizing, and it occurs to me that a lot of the tools of community organizing, with a small group, picking really definable wins, celebrating those wins, using those wins to build momentum, are very applicable in a school’s context.

[00:04:02] Jon M: It strikes me that that’s not something that most teachers or administrators learn to do in any kind of structured way, certainly not in their professional training. What are some of the things that you think, if people are interested in doing this, that they should be thinking about? Or what kind of support should they be looking for? How would somebody go about sstarting to do this? 

[00:04:31] Justin C: Yeah, it’s, it’s a great point and, and one of the subtext elements running through the book is you didn’t learn a lot of this stuff in ed school, and that’s okay. It’s not an indictment of your preparation. It’s not necessarily to say that you made bad decisions where you learned how to be a teacher. It’s just to say that some of the skills that we’ve come to see are really valuable for driving improvement, particularly at a systems level, just aren’t the kind of things you would get in standard training in pedagogy and instruction. 

The other things you need to know are how to be a leader in a rapidly changing and unstable context, how to drive the distribution of resources within and between schools, public communications, public relations, building relationships with your community, building relationships with parents, building relationships across linguistic differences. So you see a lot of communities in this country where you have a teaching force that is one demographic and you have families coming from other countries. In the South, it’s predominantly Latin American, Spanish-speaking countries, and you have the situation where families and kids are literally speaking a different language than the teachers. So figuring out how to not just teach in that context, but to build trust, those are really hard things. And again, they’re not often on the syllabus at your schools of education. My hope is that teachers can pick up this book and recognize that, oh my gosh, there are a bunch of skillsets that I may not have encountered yet that are, that are super valuable to this, to this project, and also that you don’t need to do all of it, right? If you’re a math teacher and you teach sixth grade, I’m not expecting you to become a crackerjack community organizer, politician, community development specialist, et cetera, et cetera, all at once. But among the team of teachers that you work with, it’s probably a good idea for you all to figure out how each of you picks up some other skillsets that can help drive this. The subtext there is, it’s a lot of work, and this stuff can feel a lot of work, especially to educators who are still reeling from, from Covid. We’re still in some ways muddling through the government and public sector response to the pandemic. And teachers, almost more than any other profession, have been the ones bearing a brunt of our society’s expectations. All of that. So I think the key here is to do new and creative things without making it feel you have so much more to do that your already hard job has become completely undoable.

[00:06:58] Jon M: In the book, you talk very bluntly, but non-judgmentally, about the importance and also the difficulties of having meaningful conversations about race and systemic racism. What seemed to be the most successful in the schools that you looked at? 

[00:07:15] Justin C: Yeah. I always want to preface this by saying I am a white male who grew up in the suburbs and who, like anyone else is in my generation, was led to believe that racism was a thing of the past, and that while it was an important contextual factor in understanding our history, it wasn’t necessarily the biggest problem in the present. Hopefully, most people in this country have been disabused of that notion over time. But I think that educators, in particular, encounter history and present of structural racism and discrimination in their schools, and often come from communities where it probably wasn’t a topic of conversation. 78% of teachers are white women, and we’re getting to a point where the majority of school children in our public schools are children of color. And so you have these disparities between the demographic of the teaching force on the one hand and the students on the other. And you could either look at that and say, well, this is an impossible problem, so we shouldn’t even address it. Or we could view it as an opportunity to say, look, we need to work with our educator workforce and say, there are blind spots you’re going to have, rooted in the identity you bring to school, not in the identity of your kids. I think that’s the challenge. That’s what drives us to talking about kids with a deficit lens, as saying that certain marginalized communities come to school with more challenges. 

That may be true, but the equal and converse challenges that you, as a white teacher, probably are coming to school with blind spots relative to their experience and which you have the ability to control because you are the adult in the room. And so having those conversations is really hard. People take them really personally. It spikes every kind of anxiety in a world in which people are deeply afraid of being accused of being racist or having racist thoughts or doing racist things. Saying that, hey, we need to talk about the extent to which your practice is rooted in the history of race, can trigger everyone’s flight response. So one of the things we try to do in the book Is describe constructive ways to have those conversations without triggering fear responses. One is through really personal storytelling and sharing among adults about their own personal experiences. So start with your most trusted peers in a grade level team or as a faculty telling your own racial biographies and saying, hey, here’s where I come from, here’s the experience I have. Not to say, oh, this is an excuse for my behavior or this is how I want to be judged or seen. More to say, this is the context that I am entering this environment, and this is how I want to be seen and understood and heard. 

From there, build more complexities. Then have students talk to educators. There’s a thing we describe in chapter three or four in the book where a group of middle school students talk to educators about their own experiences as black children, in particular, at a school where there’s a lot of white faculty and they describe feeling the “other,” and they describe instances where they feel teachers did things that were predicated on race. That might be hard to hear, but it is this truth the students were speaking, so that’s another way. 

And then another way we describe in the book, which is probably the most complicated, is what’s called a fishbowl exercise, where people act out or role play really complicated situations that can be rooted in race. The specific instance we describe in the book takes place at a school in Michigan where the situation basically blew up, and two faculty members, literally in the middle of a role play, start fighting each other. Not physically, but emotionally, fighting each other over one being one thing that the other one was calling a racist. And those things happen, and we have to be honest about it because there’s no way to talk about race without raising some of our worst biases and fears. 

[00:11:03] Jon M: I was very interested in your description of the fishbowl in Grand Rapids, I believe it was. And I’m just curious, and I didn’t see this and maybe I missed it, but did the team figure out a way of moving forward from that? And were they able to get any of the conversations going in a more productive kind of way? 

[00:11:27] Justin C: Just to quickly describe the situation. A parent had come to the school and approached an administrator and said, one of your teachers talked to me in a condescending way, and I think it’s because she is white and I am Black. A different school in the same district heard about this and decided to use it as a role play activity to see. if they could figure out how to handle that situation. One person played the principal who had gotten the feedback from the parent, and then another person played the teacher, who was going to be sitting with the principal to receive that feedback. And it went off the rails instantly. Most of the other faculty in the school thought that the “principal,” the principal I’m putting in air quotes, the person playing the principal, was calling the teacher racist and it heated very quickly and they ended the activity and it was very unsatisying.

What happened after the fact, from what I understand, is that the team learned a couple things. One is you have to build up to those kind of things. This was the first time they’d even used a fish bowl activity at this school and it was probably the most heated thing you could do, right? They picked the most freighted topic possible, and so they just didn’t have the tools as a team to do that well. And so they went back and they did some lower intensity fish bowls. Topics that didn’t have as, as deep an emotional rooting as race and then built back up to having these conversations.

The other thing they did is they just had small team meetings with all the grade level teams after the fact to debrief what had happened and said, hey, nobody feels great about how that went. Let’s talk about it and why it went that way. And I think that was, in some ways, one of the most important stories in the book, although it’s in some ways, the most cringeworthy one, because everybody came back to school on Monday. Everybody had to do their job, and this happens all the time where things don’t go well, and we have to get back together with our peers and try again. More importantly, racist stuff also happens all the time, and people show up the next day as well. 

So, I think on the one hand, I want to be honest about the fact that addressing racism can cause people to get upset, but it’s probably not as damaging as the racism that continues to perpetuate. And if we don’t find ways to address it, we’re going to have be having this conversation, our children are going to be having this conversation, our grandchildren are going to be having this conversation, when we probably should try to put it to bed within our lifetimes. Again, aspirational, but , where, where I’m pointing.

[00:13:54] Amy H-L: With any movement, it’s important to have some early wins, and I’m wondering how you do that. How do you make that happen? 

[00:14:03] Justin C: Yeah, it’s a great question. Early wins are important, and I think the key is to pick manageable changes. So there’s a story in the book about a school in San Jose, California, Chavez School, where a huge number of the young people at the school are learning English as a second language, who speak Spanish at home, who are getting into the upper grades without having done basic English phonemic awareness and fluency work, and so are in fourth and fifth grade without these basic reading abilities. And one thing teachers in that context decided to do is just start doing screeners to figure out whether or not kids are at grade level on some of these core foundational issues of reading comprehension and, and decoding, and figuring out, oh my gosh, if we just did some basic remedial work, we would, we would see some immediate wins. And that’s one place where you can see some immediate wins and where I’ve seen schools very quickly start to address some foundational problems. And so I think discovering that you have an ability to address a problem can be almost as liberating as solving the problem, just being on the right track. And so I think that’s one thing where people really start to feel good. 

The other thing is there are some basic issues around classroom management that just, for one reason or another, don’t seem to be a part of a lot of teacher preparation. Some basic tools of of student engagement, some basic prep you can do in the first few days of that just make your life easier, that one of the teachers in chapter five talks about. I think those are some early, some quick wins, too, where you can just get your classroom feeling a little bit more like a safe and and productive space, and less like a place of chaos. Those wins matter, too. 

And the other thing I’ll say is I take a lot of time in the book to distinguish between measurement and testing, because I think the last generation’s obsession with standardized testing means that whenever you mention accountability or measurement, people assume you mean end of year standardized tests, and I don’t mean that. I mean measurement. I mean things that you can measure so that you can know if they’re improving. And so that’s just another thing I wanted to make sure I say. As we pick quick wins, it’s really important that they’re measurable, but it’s really important that you don’t mistake measurement for testing.

[00:16:46] Jon M: Yeah. As you say, that accountability all too often means punitive measures if standardized test scores don’t rise quickly. What’s your definition of meaningful accountability? You’ve just referred a little bit to measurement, but what does accountability mean more broadly?

[00:17:04] Justin C: I want to differentiate my answer because at the level we’re discussing in the book, the book is very much about some stuff that is useful to educators on a day-to-day basis. And for something to be useful to educators on a day-to-day basis, it needs to generate. feedback within a week. It needs to be actionable. It needs to be connected to classroom practice. So in that sense, pure accountability, and accountability to a group of educators who are working with a similar group of kids, seems more important than almost any other kind. You could be the Secretary of Education and come down on a classroom teacher and it wouldn’t matter. But if you are a second grade teacher and the teacher across the hall and the other teacher down the hall are working together on a similar problem of practice, you want to improve, you’re talking to each other about the data that indicates you’re going to improve. I think that, at some level, is the most important and powerful kind of accountability because it’s rooted in learning and reflection and you getting better as a professional, which is the root of professional growth in every other profession.

In education, we’ve decided that it’s actually rooted in these other things that are much more tenuously connected to classroom practice in some ways. At a more systemic level, I do think accountability needs to start considering the long-term health of communities and the long-term opportunity of families to have economic mobility. This is where my, my lefty politics start creeping more and more into the conversation. If we have massive wealth inequality and we have calcified class and race dynamics but the schools are great, that doesn’t make any sense to me. But I do think there are some people who are, hey, if we can just find the right testing regime.

This is a little bit of a tangent, but I was watching this interview with the Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, who developed chatGPT. He said this thing might destroy tons of job, but we’re going to create better ones. And I thought, first of all, history might disagree with you in terms of technology creating jobs. And he said, we’ll will have the ability to customize education for every kid so they’ll be ready for those new jobs. I’m thinking, see history, sir, because what we see happening is that technology is exacerbating wealth gaps and that education cannot stand in that breach, right? You can’t have a society where a few people have all the wealth and the schools are left to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist. And then we say schools are failing. That is an untenable situation. So until we start thinking about schools and their performance as connected to the long term health and wellbeing of communities and socioeconomic opportunity, I think we’re going to be caught in a really dead end conversation about testing.

[00:19:39] Amy H-L: What strategies did you find were the most valuable in improving communication between teachers and parents, especially when there are race and class differences? 

[00:19:52] Justin C: I talk about this revolutionary technique in the book called listening. I find that the teachers who practice listening really do better on this. And by that I mean legitimately practicing listening, sitting knee to knee with a peer and not saying anything for 10 minutes whie that person tells you a story, listening to hear another person’s experience versus listening to figure out what you’re going to say next or how you’re going to address their problems, really listening. There’s a whole section of chapter two, I think, about techniques to improve your ability to listen. And I think that’s probably the most effective way to work across class, race, gender, generational differences with parents and community members, to really think of yourself as a receiver of information and not a transmitter. Parents of kids in schools, and particularly in historically marginalized communities, are often coming into school with a lot of baggage, often from that very school, and see the teachers, yes, as as professionals, but also potentially as yet another person who’s going to stand in the way of their own opportunities. I think listening is, is probably the the most powerful thing you can do. 

The other thing is taking steps as an educator to learn the history of a place, especially if you’re not from the community. There are some places where the majority of teachers come from outside a neighborhood to teach in it. Other cases, where educators almost all come from the community. If you’re coming into a community from outside of it to be a teacher, you have to take steps to understand the totemic importance of certain elements of a community: why if you change the mascot, people are going to be upset; why, if you discount the history of the marching band, people are going to get upset. You have to understand those things. That’s your responsibility, I think, as an educator. 

And then the last thing. This is next level, but it’s participating in the other struggles that are confronting families. Education is one of a bunch of interlocking systems that are going to affect people’s lives and affect children’s lives. And if the community sees you as a sympathetic partner, if not an outright accomplice, an ally in addressing those things, I think you’re going to have a better time relating to those families and, candidly, a better time pushing back when you need to push back. It has to be two ways. Sometimes you have to say, hey, we’re doing things this way for a reason, and we need your support in that. 

I was just visiting a school, a preschool in southeast DC that’s really struggling with behavior management post-Covid because a lot of kids haven’t been introduced to anything more than their home in terms of a social environment. And so the students are coming in to preschool at three years old, pre-K at four years, never having been around more than one or two other kids. Why are we surprised that we’re experiencing behavior management challenges, in that context? Educators at that school were saying, we need to sit down with families and community members to talk about what our expectations for the school are and how that might be contrary to what expectations are at home around behavior. That can manifest in really paternalistic ways if it’s done ham-handedly. But it can also manifest in really constructive and liberatory ways if it’s done well. And the difference between it being done ham-handedly and can be razor thin. So I think that’s another place where educators need to practice.

[00:23:06] Jon M: Did you see schools that were working in a systemic way on the issue of listening and on the issue of getting out into the community? 

[00:23:15] Justin C: The one story we tell in the book that has answers that is Demetrius’s story. Demetrius Rice Mitchell is the principal of a school in San Francisco. I anonymize that school name. I forget whether it was Amos Freeman School or Susan McKinney Smith School in the book. But one of those two schools, which is a San Francisco elementary school. She took her teachers on a bus tour to historically Black institutions in that city, including churchesand community-based organizations. I thought that was a really powerful thing. She noticed a lot of teachers were driving in from the suburbs and driving out at night. And so they did a bus tour. They visited places and they listened and they set up panels and they talked to elders. And I thought that was a really powerful, systematized way to do that. There are other stories as well, but that one strikes me as important. 

[00:24:05] Jon M: In some districts in New York, there’s been a tension between the effort to improve existing schools and starting fresh with new schools, often smaller, within the same buildings. What are your thoughts on this? 

[00:24:17] Justin C: I have changed my thoughts on this over time. I wrote a piece many years ago about that distinction in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, about starting fresh with brand new schools versus turning around existing schools. Over time, I have come to see that the community strife, the facilities costs, and the communications challenges of opening new schools are pretty extraordinary, and their track record in the aggregate. isn’t much better than existing schools. Big charter school supporters will point to the absolute highest performing schools and be, see, it’s better. And you’re cherry picking the absolute best examples. Traditional public schools could do that, too. We could go to all of the places with magnet schools and pick out the absolute best schools and say that, look, these are better. So I find that it’s a fairly dishonest conversation when it comes to the biggest boosters of school choice in particular. And it’s incredibly disruptive to start schools.

I worked with a foundation a number of years ago to look at the return on investment of starting new schools versus investing significantly in existing schools. And it’s actually a much higher return on investment to invest significantly in existing schools because of the facilities costs, because of the transaction costs, because of the rehiring costs, because new schools all start with one grade and then build up from that one grade. Nobody’s ever made that data public because it flies in the face of what philanthropy’s been working on for the last 25 years. But I’ve come to believe that it is usually a better, again, you’re not talking to a fiscal conservative here, but a better investment to go and work in traditional schools.

Now it is harder work. It is longer work and it is not as immediately satisfying because if you walk into a high school in New York City with a thousand kids, not that there are many of those anymore, but if you walk into a large urban high school and other places, and you’re at the beginning of a change management process, that will look much messier than a sixth grade classroom in a school that’s one grade of kids that just started this year. So I think that there’s an optics issue here too, where we’re judging radically different things against each other. This is a much longer conversation where I have many, many thoughts, but that’s my quick answer to a more complicated discussion. 

[00:26:33] Amy H-L: What are two or three of the most urgent policy changes you’d to see on either the local or statewide or even national level. 

[00:26:42] Justin C: Am I allowed to go super magic wand on this with things that are out of the realm of political possibility? 

[00:26:49] Amy H-L: Sure. Go for it. 

[00:26:50] Justin C: Okay, so I would get rid of school districts as we know them and abolish the linkage between property tax revenue and school finance. A lot of states have corrected the worst disproportionalities and inequities that are linked to that by pulling a much more significant chunk of school funding from the local and making it more state-funded. So there’s some correction of that, but the foundational problem is still there, which is that as a country, we’ve said that real estate taxes finance schools, and so that means basically housing wealth and school segregation will always be deeply connected. So I think that number one would be to get rid of that. 

This is the only place where I think Warren Buffet makes some sense because he was asked what he would do to change schools. He said he would abolish private schools and assign everyone randomly to a public one. He makes a good point. If you distributed privilege randomly in our public schools, you would have a lot less connection between the quality of school and your incoming wealth. So that’s probably the biggest one and the most unlikely. 

The other one that’s connected to that, which again, is totally unlikely, but I think we’re thinking about more deeply, is a constitutional right to a free education. My mom was a special ed teacher, and one of the most transformational things that happened for students with disabilities was in the seventies when IDEA was passed, and you suddenly had standing as an individual citizen to challenge the system on the basis of the quality of education provided to you If you have a disability. If you are marginalized because of sex, race, socioeconomic status, all the other things, you do not have standing, right to challenge the system because there is no constitutional right at a federal level, at least, to an education, A lot of state constitutions guarantee something this, but it’s a lot flimsier from the standpoint of standing.

I think having a constitutional right to an education would be an incredibly powerful thing that would give the individual a lot more power in the face of really problematic, intractable systems. So those are the two really aspirational ones that I think are unlikely to happen in my lifetime, but I like to mention because I think they should at least be a part of the discourse at a much more pragmatic level.

Schools should teach kids how to read. I’m not saying that tongue in cheek. I’m saying that very seriously. Emily Hanford’s podcast, “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong,” is going to push everybody’s buttons from a bunch of different political angles, but people should listen to it because it’s basically about how a lot of schools just don’t teach reading anymore. There are a lot of reasons for it and I try not to ascribe blame. But if schools, and this is not true just of traditional public schools, this is true of private schools, Waldorf schools, it’s true of schools in all different kinds of communities and contexts, is schools have not invested a lot in teaching children how to read at the earliest grade levels. And so that would be something, if we just figured that out and went back to basics, I think we’d be in a different place. 

[00:29:46] Jon M: It’s interesting. We’ve actually had a couple of episodes around a couple of the issues you mentioned. The late Bob Moses was pushing for a constitutional amendment and started an organization or movement called “We The People.” And he spoke about that. And we also had a couple of conversations about a suit in Rhode Island in Providence, which was designed, they went to federal court to make the case for the right to do an education. In that case, I believe they said that students weren’t getting social studies, education. And the judge ruled against them, but basically said, “I have to rule against you, but I think you’re absolutely right.” And in fact wrote a decision that endorsed everything they were saying. But he said, under Supreme Court decisions, I don’t have any choice but to rule against you. I think the other question is certainly a big question. We haven’t had an episode specifically about the latest chapter in the reading wars. I have to say that I’m very skeptical of this whole science of reading movement. It sounds like a lot of things that have been hanging out for a number of years coming back again. But that’s another issue. 

Thank you, Justin Cohen. Justin’s new book is “Change Agents: Transforming Schools From the Ground Up,” and it’s really an exciting book. I just want to really congratulate you. It’s written in a warm and inviting way, and I think it talks not just about how difficult things are, but also very much what people can do on a day-to-day kind of basis. Personally, I really recommend people reading it.

[00:31:42] Justin C: That’s the best compliment I could possibly have gotten for this. Thank you. Greatly appreciate that.

[00:31:47] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. Check out our new video series, “What would YOU do?,” A collaboration with Dr. Meira Levinson of the Harvard Grad School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click “video.” In the first case study, a teacher using action civics faces pushback from a parent. The goal of this series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints. 

If you found this podcast worthwhile, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco areas.

Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week. 

Click here to see listen to this episode.