In Memoriam: David Cohen

October 23, 2020

A memorial essay written by James Spillane and Suzanne Wilson

David K. Cohen. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Wilson.

David K. Cohen (1934–2020) passed away peacefully at his home in Somerville, Massachusetts on September 23 after a brief illness, with his beloved wife, Magdalene Lampert, at his side. Professor Cohen joined the faculty of Michigan State University’s College of Education in 1986 as the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor. He was the first College of Education faculty member to receive a Hannah Professorship, a position he held until his retirement from MSU in 1993, and one that he enacted with personal and professional generosity. He also served as acting dean of the College of Education in 1990. 

Prior to joining MSU, David was a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (1968-86) while also serving as president of the Huron Institute (1971-86). He retired from MSU, and became the John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan (1993-2019). At the time of his death, he continued to teach and write as a visiting professor at Harvard. David’s career as an education scholar began as a consultant to the general counsel of the NAACP on schools and race (1964-66) and then as director of the Race and Education Project for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1966-67). Race and inequality remained a central concern throughout his career, most recently teaching a graduate class on race and education. 

A beloved and masterful teacher, for over a half century David mentored several generations of education scholars. Indeed, teaching was central to his professional identity: He once remarked that early in his career that he thought of himself as a writer who taught, but later realized that he was a teacher who wrote. His seminars were carefully constructed, intellectually rigorous and designed for engaging with both evidence and students’ ideas. Whether in the classroom or informally, David listened generously to students’ ideas, carefully questioning their arguments in ways that more often than not prompted much reflecting and rewriting of one’s work.  Many of his former students and colleagues from MSU days will recall manuscripts returned with a couple of questions scribbled in the margins that typically prompted much soul searching and often entirely new research topics. An avid gardener and cook, many colleagues and students will recall wonderful dinners at Magdalene’s and his home in Okemos or discussing a paper or research project over tea in their wonderful garden.   

An internationally renowned scholar of teaching and efforts to improve it; David devoted a half century to studying the technical core of schooling – instruction. His research, often in collaboration with students and other colleagues, documents how efforts to improve the quality of teaching and redress inequalities in students’ opportunities to learn therein ultimately depend on how essential resources get noticed, understood and used in interactions between teachers and students. Policies that increased funding, reduced class size, set standards, held schools accountable for student achievement, and so on, could only improve instructional quality and redress inequality if they managed to transform how teachers and students interpreted and used these resources in practice. He had an uncanny ability for appreciating the significance of the ordinary, mundane and “taken for granted aspects” of the human condition and helping us see its significance to transforming human improvement practices such as teaching. At Michigan State University, David together with Deborah Ball, Penelope Peterson, Dick Prawat, Suzanne Wilson and several other faculty and a dozen graduate students engaged in an ambitious multi-year study of relations between state educational policies and teachers’ classroom practice, the Education Policy and Practice Study (EPPS). That project fundamentally shifted research on education policy by exploring how policies enable or constrain educator learning and how practice and policy mutually shape one another. 

A prolific writer, David authored seven books including Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving (with Charles E. Lindblom, 1979), The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace (with Arthur G. Powell and Eleanor Farrar, 1985), Learning Policy (with Heather Hill, 2001), The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? (with Susan L. Moffitt, 2009,), Improvement by Design: The Promise of Better Schools (with Donald Peurach, Joshua Glazer, Karen Gates, and Simona Goldin, 2013), and Teaching and Its Predicaments (2011), the latter manuscript he often affectionately referred to as his “Al” (as in albatross), as it was several decades in the works. He also authored numerous articles and essays. For David, writing was not about putting on paper what one had already worked out, but rather an integral component of figuring things out. He was fond of noting – even at midcareer – that he would never have enough time to write everything he needed to. Writing was both part of the analytic process and part of thinking about the world, a lesson that he taught all of his students. 

A fellow of the American Educational Research Association (2009), David was an elected member of the National Academy of Education (1991) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2013). In recognition of his work, he received the American Educational Research Association’s Distinguished Contributions to Research in Education Award (1999), Palmer O. Johnson Award (2004) and Division L’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2015). 

David is survived by Dr. Lampert, his daughters Lisa Cohen (partner Vanessa Haney) and Sara Cohen, his grandson, Abraham Cohen Tapia, his brothers, John and James Cohen, and their wives Linda Putnam and Mary Gibson. 

About the authors

James Spillane is the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University. He also is a graduate of MSU, completing the Ph.D. program in Curriculum, Teaching and Educational Policy in 1993.

Suzanne Wilson, a former professor and chairperson of the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, also penned a personal essay about David Cohen published by Chalkbeat. Wilson is now a Neag Endowed Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Connecticut.