Cohen, Audrey C.

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Cohen, Audrey C.

(b. 14 May 1931 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; d. 10 March 1996 in New York City), innovative educator, social activist, and businesswoman whose belief in “purpose-centered” education lead her to found Audrey Cohen College in New York City and to trademark a system of education used in elementary and high schools throughout the United States.

Cohen was born to Abe Cohen and Esther Morgan in Pittsburgh and attended local schools. As a high school student she was chosen to attend a seminar sponsored by the Young Men’s Christian Association in Washington, D.C., where she saw firsthand the segregation endured by the black students in her group. She later said this was a seminal experience in her life. She went to the University of Pittsburgh, graduating magna cum laude in 1953 with a bachelor of arts degree in secondary education. In 1957 and 1958 she did postgraduate work in political science and education at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She married Ralph Wharton, a physician, and they had two daughters.

In 1958, seeing an opportunity for women in the newly emerging field of social research, Cohen founded PartTime Research Associates, employing college-educated women who needed flexible work schedules. During this era, U.S. corporations would not have ordinarily hired women for projects within the company, but they were happy, as Cohen said, to come knocking at her door. PartTime Research Associates became the first U.S. corporation to employ only women. Its clients included the Department of State, New York’s governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Union Carbide.

PartTime Associates helped college-educated women, but Cohen was looking for ways to help lower-income women. During the 1960s she noticed the nation’s shift from a manufacturing to a service economy and recognized the need for worker training in this new economy. In 1964 she secured a federal grant to found the Women’s Talent Corps, which trained workers for such emerging occupations as paralegals, teachers’ aides, mental health workers, occupational therapists, and social workers. Later named the Talent Corps and opened to men, this organization filled a need that was not being met by existing social programs and the traditional educational system. Through the Talent Corps, Cohen found a way to provide new educational and employment opportunities for thousands of unemployed and underemployed people. The Talent Corps, located on Varick Street in Manhattan, eventually transitioned into the College of Human Services, and was later renamed Audrey Cohen College. In 1970 the college trademarked the term “Human Service” and held the first professional conference in this new professional field.

By then Cohen, who felt that the traditional education system was not meeting societal needs, began a quest to design a more practical and useful educational system. She began phasing out her college’s associate degree programs in order to redesign them. During the next four years she studied the U.S. labor market and global economic trends and worked closely with employers to find out what they wanted to see in their employees. She suggested that in order to rethink education one should start from scratch and ask, as if no schools existed, “What kind of schools would we want to build if we could look at our needs, without any presuppositions?”

By 1974 Cohen had designed and (always the businesswoman) trademarked her “Purpose-Centered System of Education.” Her central idea was that education must never be abstract but instead must be closely linked to clearly understood purposes. She saw two main goals of education: teaching students job skills and teaching them to be better citizens. Other facets of “purpose-centered” education came out of Cohen’s concerns for social justice. She maintained that there are five dimensions of knowledge and action: a socially useful purpose; values and ethics; self and others; systems; and skills. These five dimensions became a central core of her system.

During the 1980s Cohen expanded the college’s mission to reform what she saw as failing public schools. She designed a curriculum for school-aged children, using two themes for each grade. She considered the intellectual maturity of different age groups and what she thought children needed to know about the world and their place in it, and coupled these themes with the five dimensions of learning. For example, in kindergarten the themes are “we build a family-school partnership” and “we care for living things.” For eighth graders the themes are “I earn responsibility at my internship” and “we bring our community together.” In 1983 Cohen, working with local public school officials, established the College for Human Services Junior High School. Later an elementary school and a high school also linked up with the college.

In 1983 the college, led by Cohen, received a $1 million grant from the Hasbro Children’s Foundation to expand its pioneering curriculum design into the nation’s public schools, an endeavor that occupied Cohen through the 1980s. In 1992 the college received a $4.5 million grant from the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private, nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Virginia, that supports research toward improving public education. Cohen’s group was one of nine design teams out of 700 to win an NASDC grant.

In 1996 the college was selected for support by the influential Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization that advises the states on education policy. That year, Audrey Cohen schools, as they are called, enrolled about twenty thousand elementary and secondary school students in five states. Audrey Cohen College requires that public schools that want to use the Cohen system undertake an intensive self-examination, sometimes taking a year or more, before signing on. Then there is no turning back, and no picking and choosing what aspects of the system to use. Cohen was fiercely protective that her trademarked system be used in its entirety, exactly as she designed it. At the time of Cohen’s death from cancer at the age of sixty-four, the system was being used in schools throughout the country, from kindergarten to high school levels.

Throughout her life, Cohen displayed a keen awareness of social and economic trends, and she used this awareness to help train and employ people otherwise left out of the economic mainstream: minority group members, immigrants, and the poor. Her social activism was successful because of her drive and determination, sharp business skills, and her ability to work with business leaders. Always a powerhouse of ideas, energy, and social commitment, Cohen believed that education must empower individuals to take charge of their lives and help them make positive changes in their communities.

Information about Cohen’s life and work can be found through Audrey Cohen College in New York. Her views of public education and a description of her purpose-centered system of education can be found in her article “A New Educational Paradigm,” Phi Delta Kappan 74, no. 10 (June 1993):791-795. Two views of her schools project are Mark Pitsch, “The Outsider” (in the series “Breaking the Mold: The Shape of Schools to Come”), Education Week (25 Jan. 1995): 23-25; and Julie L. Nicklin, “Education with a Purpose,” Chronicle of Higher Education 41 (14 July 1995): A13-A15. An obituary is in the New York Times (12 Mar. 1996).

Julianne Cicarelli