Skip to main content

What It Takes to Change a School

Allowing teachers to take a central role is a key step toward meaningful school transformation
School Improvement illustration

Changing a school can be challenging, but possible when you have a group of folks committed to making change, says Justin Cohen. He is a writer and activist who authored Change Agents: Transforming Schools from the Ground Up. As part of his research, he spent time speaking to educators in various schools that had successfully implemented change to better understand how they were able to do so. There's no real secret to making change, he notes, but rather there were key steps that these schools took, including being open to change and giving the teachers the keys to drive and implement it.

"Teachers know more than anyone what needs to happen," he says. "It's when the outsiders and the people with clipboards and the policymakers who haven't set foot in a school, since they dropped their kids off at private school, have a take. That's what I think gets people's backs up. And so when educators come together and talk, they know the challenges. They are deeply aware of what needs to happen, in a lot of cases, and are pretty disempowered when it comes to enacting or adopting the changes." Sometimes that even means going rogue from the district, he admits.

In this episode of the EdCast, Cohen shares the habits of schools that have managed to implement change, and how you can too in your school.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast

The first step in changing a school might seem obvious, Justin Cohen says, but you have to want it to change. He's a former educator, who after years of working on school improvement, turned to community organizing and writing about the topic. Schools are slow to change and, too often, remain stuck in the past, he says.

He looked at the work of the nonprofit Partners in School Innovation that focuses on empowering educators to make change and has seen dramatic improvements to underperforming schools. After talking to nearly 100 teachers in a dozen cities, he uncovered a series of practices that were making school transformation stick on the ground. First, I asked Justin about the complexity of change, and what he means about schools getting stuck cherishing the past.

Justin Cohen
Justin Cohen

JUSTIN COHEN: I think about this in terms of the academic and instructional work that happens in schools, versus the cultural and interpersonal work that happens in schools. I think a lot of times we have deep affection for and memories and nostalgia for what school is. That can get in the way of understanding that sometimes that nostalgia is for a place where kids didn't learn.

Trying to disentangle those ideas is a part of what I think about a lot. So we have schools where, for multiple generations, you have high concentrations of poverty and under-resourcing and teachers who are the least well prepared for the dynamic and important needs that kids bring to those schools. And, like at the same time, because of the social isolation that comes from being under-resourced and that comes from being marginalized, those places end up being the center of communities. Often like the only institution in a community that survives, after everything else is sucked out and destroyed.

That's a complicated dynamic, because on the one hand, people, for good reason, have a lot of inertia bias against changing that institution because it has been the place where people have been able to rely upon, in the absence of other meaningful public and private institutions. And at the same time, it might be like doing a really crappy job of the actual work of instruction and teaching and learning.

So being able to have an ominous conversation about that, is like the foundation and the beginning, I think, in a lot of cases, of change in schools. And getting to the root of that and being honest about that. And acknowledging that being critical about instruction and the academic program is not an indictment of the institution itself. Because, honestly, having spent the last generation working on education policy in politics, there is an enormous part of the quote unquote "education reform" world that is like dead set on destroying public education as a public institution, like full stop.

Like that is the stated goal of a lot of philanthropists, of a lot of people who work on this project. And so I think it's important, in that context, to be really honest about the fact that changing institution and driving towards different kinds of outcomes is not tantamount to destroying it or undermining it.

JILL ANDERSON: Do you think a lot of schools have trouble with that or a lot of educators, rather, have trouble with that honesty piece of this?

JUSTIN COHEN: If you walk into any lunch or break room, in any school in America, you won't find a lot of problems with honesty. Like you're not going to find that teachers are like tiptoeing around the challenges. Like they know. Teachers know more than anyone, what needs to happen.

It's when the outsiders and the people with clipboards and the policymakers who haven't set foot in a school, since they dropped their kids off at private school, have a take. That's what I think gets people's backs up. And so when educators come together and talk, they know the challenges. They are deeply aware of what needs to happen, in a lot of cases, and are pretty disempowered when it comes to enacting or adopting the changes.

So I actually don't think the acknowledgment of the problem is the biggest hurdle. The acknowledging the problem, in a constructive context where people can do something about it, that is. And I think a lot of schools don't create opportunities for educators to come together and to say, hey like let's talk about this and get on the same page about the challenge. Then let's identify some solutions.

That doesn't tend to happen. You tend to get somebody sends you a new curriculum. Like in New York, this is a great example, like right now, we're sort of in the midst, nationally, and then in New York, specifically, of this reckoning with the tension between balanced literacy, whole language instruction and phonics instruction.

So after a generation of embracing the Teacher's College Readers, Writers, Workshop style, like Columbia literally shut down the institute and now New York is going all the way, in the other direction, to phonics. Like will that be a significant over-correction? Who knows.

But teachers, right, now are just experiencing getting a bunch of new stuff and being told to do things differently, without a lot of engagement. And I think that's hard.

JILL ANDERSON: We know schools are slow to change. We know transformation doesn't happen easy. But you've been able to find a group of schools where they are making progress and being successful in this area. Is there actually a secret to transforming schools?

JUSTIN COHEN: I don't think there's a secret, but there is a set of habits. And the habits, loosely described, are what you would call continuous improvement in other domains. And those habits are very simple to describe but hard to do over time. The thing I just described earlier, like getting together with your peers to identify the problem, is the first step. Then committing to doing something differently, doing that thing differently, watching your peers do it and providing real time feedback on that thing, and then getting back together to reflect on the commitments you had made and the changes you had decided to make an instruction.

That is, in a nutshell, what these schools are doing. They also have significant administrative support for that kind of teaming and that kind of work. And they're committed to watching the sort of incremental changes in how the instructional shifts manifest in the classrooms. Not from a testing accountability standpoint, from a really like short cycle, week to two-week benchmark.

So moving away from end of year testing accountability, to short cycle group accountability to your peers and sort of looking at things. If you decide, I'm going to teach dividing fractions differently this year because it's never worked, and I'm in a fourth or fifth grade classroom and I've seen that the three other teachers in the school do better on this than I do. Those are the kind of conversations people are having.  

And then changing their practice with their peers and then reflecting on it with their peers. Observing their peers doing the work. In some ways, it models like medical rounds and residency. It's like any other sector's approach to continuous improvement. It's just putting teachers in the driver's seat of it, which is unusual.

JILL ANDERSON: And so they are constantly making changes, essentially. They're really testing it. Because you just mentioned, too often, it sounds like educators dip their toes in but they practice for a really long time and then decide it's not working.

JUSTIN COHEN: Yeah, I mean, the most common reason that changes don't take hold is because people don't even try. So if you talk to, not just teachers, but anyone who's trying to change a habit, it's usually not, Oh, I tried it a bunch of times and it didn't work. It's usually like, I forgot to try or I didn't have time to try.

And I think building in time to say like, OK, well try again or make more time to try it. Because to say like, Oh, this didn't work because you didn't have time to do it, isn't really an honest response to confronting a challenge. So that is a big part of it, is like building in time to reflect and to adjust, and to try new things in the classroom and to be really reflective and honest about whether or not you did it.

And then like beyond like not even trying, new stuff is hard. And so if you do it once or twice and it doesn't feel great or it feels uncomfortable, or it's not what you learned in ed school, or it's not your pedagogical comfort zone, like yeah, it's going to take a few reps for you to get better at it. And I think that's another part of this I see, and I saw a lot across these schools, is a commitment to keep trying and to continue doing things, even when they don't work right away or they're not comfortable right away.

JILL ANDERSON: Is that what it means to be a change agent? It's really hard to change your behaviors and actions.

JUSTIN COHEN: I, in my head, anyway, have divided change agency into these two big categories that are loosely aligned with technical and adaptive change. Like on the technical side, yes, what you just described is pretty much it. And I've tried to keep it very simple. It's like identify challenges with a team, address, them reflect on whether or not you did it. And then continue to build that muscle of trying and reflecting.

On the adaptive side, it's much more about acknowledging the complex dynamics that exist in schools that have been historically marginalized and under-resourced, particularly in predominantly Black and Latinx communities, where you have still, in most places, extraordinarily demographic gaps between the kids and the teachers. So some of the schools that I researched in the last five or six years follow these patterns where you have 80% to 90% of the teaching force being white women and the majority of the kids are Black or Brown and from [INAUDIBLE] communities.

That is not, like on its face, a barrier to success, but it does create additional challenges. Because when teachers come from ethnic and racial backgrounds that are so dissimilar from those of the kids, you lack cultural context. We live in a very segregated society. And that manifests as a lack of awareness. The proximity alone, doesn't create understanding, but it creates opportunities for it, that often don't happen, until teachers get to these schools.

So one of the teachers, for example, that I think a lot about, Sarah from Grand Rapids, Michigan, like grew up in an all white town in Central Michigan and then went to teach in Grand Rapids, in a community that was like the intersection of the Black, Black and Latinx neighborhoods in Southeast Grand Rapids. And she had this like Holy sh*t moment at the beginning of her teaching career, that she like had been prepared to teach in a classroom where two or three kids came with anything resembling being behind grade level in reading, and she had 70% of her kids were English language learners.

And so it's not just like the cultural familiarity that's important. It's like the technical stuff you need to do, to think about what it takes when a kid comes without phonetic knowledge of the language you're teaching. All of which is to say like you can't really teach that. You can. You can about it and you can build opportunities within schools to think about that kind of stuff, but that is much harder.

And once you start getting like groups of teachers together across lines of racial difference to talk about race and class, and the way that manifests in a school, you're going to open up a lot of cans of worms. And you better be prepared. And one of the things I talk a lot about is being prepared to deal with that. And not to just open the can of worms and leave it there, but to continue to unpack it and understand what's underneath all of this.

And that's deeply emotional and complicated work. And I would argue, having spent enough time looking at this, like completely impossible to do schooling without doing those things. And there are a lot of folks who would like to silo discussions of race and class and American history when dealing with school improvement. I think that's completely impossible and silly. I would just add that, because I do think that it is unusual to discuss the technical aspects of school improvement and also talk about the adaptive challenges related to American history and culture, and I think that that's really important.

JILL ANDERSON: One thing that you have made clear here is you're talking about teachers. Teachers are really important to leading the change, but it seems like too often, they are not involved in the conversation. How is that a piece of this?

JUSTIN COHEN: They're not, and that, honestly, almost more than any other motivating factor, approaching this project for me was about really situating the teacher at the center of this. And trying to, at least offer, an alternative to a political and policy zeitgeist over the last two decades that has marginalized the experience of the teacher. Whether or not that was intentional.

I think in some cases, that was intentional. I think in some cases, folks, policymakers, leaders, adopted strategies that obviated the role of the teacher without necessarily thinking about the consequences of that. But it doesn't matter, at some level. That's what happened.

Like teachers are more dissatisfied with their roles, almost as long as we've been measuring this. And then COVID happened, right? And that made things even worse.

So you have this situation where you have educators, , the people that we rely on the front lines of this work, just demoralized. And situating teachers back at the middle of this was a big part of the project that I wanted to undertake. While acknowledging that teachers don't act alone, right? There's principals, assistant principals, school boards, custodians, people who drive school buses, people who serve school lunches. Everybody is really central to this project that needs to be a part of it and needs to see themselves in it, and they need to see themselves as supporting this core work that happens between teacher and student. Putting that at the center and then having all of these other factors radiate out from it, like a critical part of understanding what school transformation requires. 

And then just, finally, just saying it, though, doesn't make it true. Like just saying like, Oh, we're going to put the teachers in the driver's seat. Like that's kind of BS, unless you do it, and you make some changes that enable that. And if you're an administrator and principal that you actually cultivate and allow to flourish, the things that come out of teacher collaboration. So if you say go collaborate and then you say no to everything teachers come up with, it doesn't really matter. You actually have to do the stuff.

JILL ANDERSON: Can you be a change agent in a school where maybe the leadership is not on board?

JUSTIN COHEN: It's hard. It's much harder and yet it happens all the time. Like ask any parent, at a school that's struggling, who the two or three best teachers are and they can tell you the answer to that question. Even in a school where you don't have a coherent strategy and the leadership is not driving toward something different, there are going to be people in that building trying to carve out their own constructive work.

So I do think it is possible, but it does make things harder. And one thing I heard from teachers in researching this, we talk a lot about what freedom and autonomy educators have in the classroom, what does that mean. Does it mean like once you walk in and close the door that you can do whatever you want for four hours or does it mean somebody gives you the curriculum materials and you have to adhere to that. What does it actually mean to have some kind of autonomy and decision making in what you do?  

And the teachers and leaders I talked to in this book did not have a binary understanding of autonomy. It wasn't like, Oh, like I do what I want or not. It was more like, no, I have a relationship with the leadership in the school in the district to say that you can try things within boundaries. And the boundaries are clear and people can try new things. And they are honest about when they're stepping outside of the norm.  

So, for example, there was a school in San Jose, in California, that was using a district mandated style direct instruction curriculum for reading, where everybody in third grade, at any given time, throughout this entire district, was on the same lesson. That level of scripted. And the teachers at this one school were like, we're teaching fourth grade reading and the kids come into this classroom and most of them are reading at a first grade level.

Like doing the scripted district thing, for what's supposed to happen on September 14, is not useful like we can't do that. And so for like two years they more or less just ignored the district. Until somebody came into the district reading supervision role that understood the need to diverge from the norm.  

It's not optimal for your teachers in a school to be doing something different than the district mandates and trying to hide that, but sometimes it's necessary. And that was the story I wanted to tell, was that people do that. And sometimes it actually works out and sometimes the leadership notices that what they're doing is working and makes that the norm. That is pretty unusual, but that did happen in a couple of cases I looked at.

JILL ANDERSON: So in that circumstance, that's leading change.

JUSTIN COHEN: That's leading change.


JUSTIN COHEN: Yeah. It's like the most authentic grassroots version of it. Where like teachers do something. It works. And the district's like, let's do more of this.

JILL ANDERSON: As you're talking, I'm thinking about data, I'm thinking about accountability, assessments, all that stuff is kind of embroiled in this. And that has been what's driving and leading change, I think, in a lot of ways. But maybe it shouldn't be. It seems like a lot of teachers feel like they're being forced into teaching to tests and well, here's the data and the data says this. How do we reconcile these two things for teacher?

JUSTIN COHEN: So I think accountability and testing have been conflated, in our discussions of education and outcomes and education. And I think we need to disentangle accountability from testing. The people I talk to who have made the most change here, have a deep level of accountability to their peers and to their kids when it comes to outcomes and are ambivalent about testing, a lot of the time. Or totally against it, in other cases.

But I would say ambivalence is the most usual response. Because nobody likes teaching to the test, I don't think. Very few people like teaching to the test. Nobody thinks that the tests have illuminated anything we didn't understand about disparities, or not much.

What testing has illuminated, at least in my narrow opinion, is that not all schools fit the pattern of what we expect from high concentrations of poverty. Like some do do much better on these batteries. Now, are the tests the only thing that matter? No. But like when it comes to understanding rudimentary math and reading skills, like there are some schools that do better.

And I think that's a useful thing to know. I don't think it's a terribly useful thing to beat people over the heads with. Because from what we've seen, is the measurement itself and the sort of sanctions that the federal government created in the last two or three decades, have not led to significant improvements. So we are measuring with more intentionality and with a lot more aggressiveness. And it's not led to much.  

So I think we have to reorient accountability towards these micro improvements and towards educator practice and away from end of year testing. Because we probably need end of year testing and things like NAEP to understand big patterns and trends in progress. But in terms of driving change at the school and classroom level, I don't see much evidence that testing has done much of that. 

JILL ANDERSON: So for educators who are listening, and hopefully it's teachers may be listening, they're hearing this and they're hearing sometimes you have to go rogue and kind of do your own thing. And I imagine for some folks that's going to sound super appealing and for some, very scary and they don't want anything to do with it. But just, as you said earlier, just wanting to make change is really the first step, like recognizing that you want to do something different and kind of committing to that. What are the steps from there that educators can kind of take to try to do this work within their schools?

JUSTIN COHEN: My first piece of advice is always get yourself a crew. Like that's the language I've been using. Get a crew. Like you need a crew.

You can't do this alone. And the change agents concept, when I think of it in my head, it looks a little bit like, this is going to sound silly, but like a Marvel superhero movie, where it's like there's a hero but like it's really a crew of heroes, like it's a group that sort of works together with different skills and talents. And that's sort of the image in my head of what this looks like at the beginning, is like a group of people in a school.

Like maybe it's a second grade teacher who's like, Yo, did you know that we could do this, this, and this? And then the other second grade teacher is like, for real? I can do that?

And then all of a sudden you're building this sort of small, early adopter group that's like trying to do things together. So that's always my advice, is the first step is find who else in your school is open to the idea of doing things differently. And then just start meeting regularly and talk about student work.  

And so I think what, I say that because meeting regularly can mean complaining. Like getting together and just like dishing about what you don't like about the school administration. And that's especially true when you talk about people who are trying to do things differently, because they're often working against the grain.

So the key is when you get your crew together, make sure that you are explicitly talking about student work and instruction. And that creates a little bit of a self-perpetuating engine because other people start to see that. It changes the vibe.

Because a lot of times in low performing schools. You have this nasty energy that is nobody's fault, but just as like the sort of accumulated consequence of years and years of disinvestment. And the people who push against that can generate a positive vibe. It can also become like, Oh, are the overachievers and so like I don't know if you watch "Abbot Elementary" but I always remember the first season, like Jean was always trying to do stuff. Mrs. Howard was always like, come on.

That's real. Like you have that tension in schools, where you have less experienced teachers with brighter eyes and bushier tails that want to do things differently. And a big part of it, and one of the things I've really tried to write about, is the process of doing intergenerational work within a school's faculty, so that it's not just the three recent ed school grads who are doing all of this like change agency.  

It can be really experienced teachers, who have been there for a long time, who are often the best and most sophisticated educators in the school, but keep their heads down when it's time for like quote unquote "change", because they've seen change. Like they've been through change, and it's never amounted to much. And so why would they trust this wave of change? And I think figuring out how to bridge those generational gaps is really powerful.

JILL ANDERSON: When I think about the educators in the cities that you spoke to, I'm wondering about momentum and keeping this going. What did those educators do to keep this on track?

JUSTIN COHEN: It's a great question. And, you, know celebrating little wins is something that I'm a big proponent of. And there's this one school in San Francisco that had this, even within a context where we over discipline Black, male children, this school had an extraordinary number of suspensions and expulsions.

And the principal got the San Francisco Chronicle to write about this and mounted this campaign to just change it, with his teachers. They managed to do it. And in the first year. They instituted all of these alternatives to suspension and expulsion and brought the numbers down like to the point where it was much less but it was still really high, right?  

They celebrated that because you have to celebrate progress. And that's one thing that I don't think we're terribly comfortable with. We look at these absolute numbers. We look at test scores. We look at end of year exams, and then we say, Oh, it's still not great. And it's like, Yeah, but it's much better than it was before.

So there were still like 900 days of suspensions but it was a 10% reduction. They're like, that's a lot to make in a semester or a year. So I think that's one thing, is celebrating the small wins really helps with momentum.

And then as like a corollary to that, allowing teachers to decide, allowing educators to decide how we're going to measure those small wins. When you get to say, like hey, I think this is the way we're going to assess progress here then you hit it, that is way different than when the state or the federal government says this is the benchmark and good luck. When you say, here's our target, here's what we're going to do together, and then you meet it, it's just so much more powerful.

And the last thing I'll say is, one of the things I tried to elaborate on a little bit, was the process of doing network building and relationship mapping within a school, and thinking about how to translate early wins and those successes into more sustained progress. And a lot of that just is relational. And it's lateral relational work, to use like a weirdly technical term.


JUSTIN COHEN: It's not the principal telling people to do things. It's like the really popular teacher getting on board and deciding to do it. It's like figuring out who has influence, who's going to all the meetings, who runs all the after-school clubs. Like who are the centers of influence in a school.

That is work that people do, and like community organizing infrastructure, and that happens a lot in political activism. It doesn't happen a lot in schools, sort of identifying nodes of lateral influence, and that's something that I really looked at and a lot of people seem to be doing, is actually paying attention to who carries influence in a school and intentionally building them into the plan.

JILL ANDERSON: Did you see any sort of range of how long it took, in some of these places? Did any of the educators talk about to actually start to feel like change was taking hold?

JUSTIN COHEN: That's sort of the point, right? Like meeting every week, every two weeks, if you're actually doing stuff, things are going to feel different every week, which is nice. It really looks like it takes two to three years, though. If you go from feeling like, Oh, we're just a ragtag group, meeting in a supply closet, talking about stuff, that phase, to, Oh my gosh. Like there's things happening at a school-wide level here.

Like we're seeing the things we've been talking about manifesting more broadly. That seems like it takes two to three years. Which is hard for people because people want instant success. And two to three years is longer than the tenure of the average principal in an American school. So that is not the optimal window.

JILL ANDERSON: Right. Well, it's actually good to hear that, in a way, despite how long it is. But I feel like that indicates don't give up,if If you don't see change on the ground or right away.

JUSTIN COHEN: Schools that are making progress can look the same, in a lot of ways, or can present very similarly to schools that are treading water and avoiding change, right? And so having more sophisticated accountability systems at a district and state level to sort of disambiguate sort of schools that are putting on a show versus schools that are really doing things differently, that's really hard.  

Because if you say, because when I say, Oh, it's going to take two to three years, like educators, you, people who understand this work, are like, Yeah, of course. Whereas the newly elected mayor who's never paid attention to education policy, he's like, I want to see stuff tomorrow. And you're like, OK, bud. Like, what do you want us to do?

Seriously. Because I just see so much grandstanding and sort of unprofessional, uninformed approaches to managing educational change, that demand results that are unreasonable. And not because they're high expectations but because they're unreasonable expectations and they're uninformed expectations.  

And I think educators have been treated really poorly by political leaders who don't understand their craft, and that we need to get better at understanding that if we want to see significant change, we can't expect it overnight. And that we have to actually provide some runway for it to happen.

JILL ANDERSON: Justin Cohen is a writer, activist, and. Organizer he is the author of Change Agents: Transforming Schools From the Ground Up. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard Edcast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

Related Articles