Dan Cogan-Drew is at the forefront of the education reform movement in the US, having spent the last several years focused on promoting 21st century skills and creating new education models through the charter movement. So it goes without saying that he’s accustomed to change, and to helping others navigate the challenges of the evolving educational landscape.
“A useful piece of wisdom that I’ve evolved to appreciate is the notion of ‘shrinking the change’ when introducing something new,” Cogan-Drew says. “Since there is so much that is novel and surprising in education (‘I didn’t know that was possible!’), it can be very easy to approach colleagues and students with a sense of amazement and awe at how — with this new technology — the world as we know it will never be the same.” Cogan-Drew has learned, however, that even positive change comes with its own hazards. “’This changes everything’ is a popular marketing slogan which, when not said directly, certainly seems implied,” he notes. “But change is difficult and daunting.”
Today, Cogan-Drew is the Director of Digital Learning for Achievement First, which has grown into a charter school network that includes 22 schools in four cities. In 1999, Amistad Academy opened with 84 fifth and sixth graders. Now, in the 2012-13 school year, Achievement First is serving 7,000 students in grades K to 12. These charter schools not only demonstrate an effective evolution of public education, they also address the growing achievement gap between affluent and low-income students – a problem facing many countries around the world. Here, Cogan-Drew shares more of his insights on managing change and dealing with thorny obstacles like too-long bus rides to school. He also offers up his views on the changes in education that are making the biggest impact. Enjoy!
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
I served three years as Director of Programs at the Center for 21st Century Skills at Education Connection in Litchfield, Connecticut. The Center runs blended learning programs for high school students across the state in urban, rural, and suburban districts, in which students follow a web-based curriculum that is developed and supported by the Center and taught face-to-face in participating schools. Each course is a revision of a traditional course, updated to increase its relevance and rigor for the 21st century. So biology became biotechnology; web design became e-commerce entrepreneurship; technology became IT Research and Development, and so on. Students complete individual projects and then combine to form class teams that would compete at regular meetings at a variety of community college locations and partners like IBM, culminating in the Connecticut Student Innovation Expo at the Connecticut Convention Center. Judges from higher-ed and industry evaluate student projects, exhibition booths, white papers, elevator pitches, prototypes, and more. Governor Molloy has been a big supporter, as was Governor Rell before him. The program reaches more than 1,000 students each year. In 2010, we wrote and won an Investing in Innovation (I3) development grant through the Race to the Top program, the fifth-highest rated application overall. I’m very proud of my contribution to the development of innovative programs that reach so many young people across the state.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
It’s hard for me to speak confidently about change at scale, as it often feels as though you take one step forward and two steps back with various shifts in policy and values. I will say that through the personal relationships I’ve developed with young people and with teachers, I’ve helped coach learners of all ages to a more confident, ambitious and successful place in their own learning. A good deal of that has to do with developing a tolerance for ambiguity and failure relating to technology, but not all of it.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I’ve found that it helps most when I can emphasize not what changes but what stays the same. For example: “The rigorous academic expectations and standards to which you hold your students today will still apply tomorrow. Good written arguments will still be based in evidence, cite sources, synthesize concepts, reach logical conclusions.” While it’s true that cloud-computing is very different in a lot of ways from desktop computing, drawing attention to this will only exacerbate the apprehension folks already feel about changing their ways of thinking and working. Whenever possible, shrink the change.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
Generally speaking, I apply technology where it’s allowed me to do something that I always wanted to be able to do but couldn’t, or where it’s opened an opportunity that I didn’t know existed. Here’s one example: this summer we ran a pilot blended learning summer academy here in New Haven. When we tackled all the logistics of getting the kids to the school, we realized that we’d created a bus route that literally traveled all across the city. Some of the kids living farthest from school were going to be on the bus for more than an hour. So the first conclusion was that we needed a teacher riding the bus. Our director and co-teacher was an Ed Pioneer named Tom Arnett who immediately volunteered. We gave the kids a case of water every day. And we gave them 3G tablets so that they could continue their learning on the bus ride. They read digital books in myON Reader and did math problems in ST Math. The bus ride became an extension of the classroom and kids looked forward to coming to school and hopping on the bus to get home.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Probably the greatest obstacle is our current institutional system. Out of the necessity of self-interest, institutions think primarily in numbers larger than one. You can get all kinds of data about a school’s average ranking, test scores, and so on. But a family’s top priority is to think in units of exactly one – their child. Will my child get a great education in this school? And that’s a very hard question to answer. Trying to negotiate that intersection of the family’s and the student’s needs vs. the institution’s is a never-ending struggle, regardless of what role you play in education. We’re now seeing new models, like School of One, which are questioning long-held assumptions about modalities and individual needs, which is fantastic and inspiring. In one way or another I think the individual-meets-institution conundrum is the biggest obstacle I’ve alternately succeeded – and failed – in overcoming.
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
Our country is finally coming together in a unified way behind a common set of standards describing what students should know and be able to do. I am very optimistic that this is going to drive real evolution in public education in the United States. The fragmented state-by-state approach was a disservice to kids.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
Along with the commitment to a common set of standards, I think we as a country must unite around a vision of collective ownership of the future of our kids. We need to share responsibility for the achievement of each other’s children and not just our own. It’s short-sighted to think only of your child and your school and your community. My children – wherever they are born and wherever they grow up – are going to inhabit this earth alongside yours. The sooner we confront the systemic challenges of our school funding formulas that perpetuate the socioeconomic silos in which we live, the sooner we will move our country forward.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
I think the greatest opportunity lies in the trend towards personalized learning. We’ve reached the end of the beginning of the next age of smart tools to drive teaching and learning. For years families and individuals have strained against the standardization of learning, which runs counter to everything we know instinctively and through research about how people actually learn. We’re just getting to the point where we can perceive that it will be possible to customize learning the way scientists and doctors are starting to talk about customizing medications. It sometimes feels in education that the treatment is killing the patient. The rising tide of our expectations is already giving birth to a new way of thinking about what’s possible and a new generation of tools and models (flipped classrooms, MOOCs) that will satisfy them.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Focus on building strong relationships founded in trust. Start with the people closest to you, the people with whom you work on a daily basis. Do what you say; exceed their expectations. That includes your colleagues, but most of all your students. Be consistent and recognize when you haven’t been. Be real. It’s okay to have a teaching persona, but don’t box yourself up and put your humanity on a shelf. Trust your intentions, why you got into this work in the first place. Work your butt off, and be persistent.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
I think the answer to both of these questions may be: big data. We’re developing a higher regard for data as it should be used to drive instructional decision-making. At the same time, we may fall prey to valuing data for its own sake, or data that doesn’t answer the most pressing questions. Information only becomes data when it’s used as the answer to a question. We have to get smarter about asking the right questions, or all the data in the world won’t help us help kids.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
Actual tools – hardware and software – come and go so quickly, I’m not sure any of that will actually help kids. If I had to give a figurative tool to every child in the world, I think it would be perseverance. Be entrepreneurial, be scientific, inquisitive, dogged. Fail early and fail often. I don’t think I did enough failing as a child. I’ve always excelled at coming up with ideas, new ways of thinking about the world, but I haven’t always done enough to put these ideas into practice. Ideas are great, but they are nowhere near enough. Have an idea and act on it. Fail. Repeat. If I could do anything over about my childhood, it would be to have tried and failed more.
About Dan Cogan-Drew
- Birthplace: New York, New York
- Current residence: New Haven, Connecticut
- Education: BA Wesleyan University, MA Brown University, MA Tufts University
- Website I check every day: edsurge.com
- Person who inspires me most: I’ve been inspired by a lot of people in my life, but none more than my father, who’s now 92. Born the year the Model T was introduced, he came of age during the Great Depression and served in the US military during WWII. He’s older than most of my peers’ parents, but has managed to stay current and adapt to life in the 21st century as well as anyone I know. He Skypes, he Googles, he does e-mail. Twenty years into retirement from a career as a psychoanalytic social worker in Brooklyn, he just published a paper last year and gave a series of talks. As he’d love to tell you, he’s still working on perfecting his Spanish (through weekly conversation hours with people from all walks of life who visit the apartment to learn English in exchange for Spanish lessons). He reads insatiably, still swims two to three times per week, and just successfully recovered from back surgery that most of his family thought was likely to prove an ill-fated venture. As he told me years ago when he was in his late 70s, he has so much left to learn. He is the very embodiment of a lifelong learner.
- Favorite childhood memory: My third grade class at Ethical Culture School in Manhattan. Mr. Doran created a classroom-town. We had jobs (rotating bi-weekly) for which we were paid salaries that we would have to spend on school supplies that were sold to us by our classmates’ businesses. I founded “Super Supplies” and built a storefront in the classroom, from which we would dispense paper and pencils. I had a classmate stock trader who helped me purchase shares in other classrooms, which rose and fell in value as attendance fluctuated (we had a tracker on the wall that was updated daily). I ran for and was elected the first mayor of our class, also later serving as a judge. It was the most fun I’ve ever had at school – it never felt like we were “working,” yet I know that I learned so much. And not only through successes – there were plenty of mistakes, too. I remember getting pulled aside after I rendered an unfair judgment as presiding justice. In some ways it felt to me like I didn’t get back to that level of playful learning until I became a teacher myself.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Northampton, Massachusetts. In my spare time, I lead coaching clinics for USA Ultimate, the governing body of ultimate Frisbee for the US. I was a part of developing the curriculum and now lead weekend trainings for coaches around the country. I love to do it because it keeps me in touch with the sport that I love and I get to meet and learn from an amazing cohort of coaches who care deeply about developing teams of players who are focused, spirited, and compete to the best of their abilities.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? Last weekend at dinner we had some friends over, a mom and her two tween-age daughters. Our 8-year-old is heavily into riddles and sent the group down a path of competing word puzzles that grew more and more esoteric. About 15 minutes into the conversation our three-year-old piped up saying that he had a riddle. It involved a man eating pizza (which was for dinner) and trying to get out of a room with no doors or windows. As we each volunteered our best guess as to a solution, he pointed to us in turn and said “Yes!”, “Yes!” in the same voice that Oprah Winfrey used when she gave away cars to her audience. We all burst out laughing.
- Favorite book: A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. I read it years ago and it still sticks with me. A mix of fantasy and old-time New York, if Dickens wrote about a horse that could fly.
- Favorite music: I’m a big fan of Fela Kuti, Nigerian jazz musician extraordinaire. He creates the most amazingly addictive combinations of beats, vocal call-and-response, and horns.
- Your favorite quote or motto: “Creativity loves constraint.”
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