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February 2009 | Volume 66 | Number 5
How Teachers Learn
Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough
In a 2007 speech, then-rising presidential candidate Barack Obama called the Harlem Children's Zone a model for combating urban poverty. If elected, Obama said, he hoped to replicate this model in 20 cities across the country.
Drawing on the five years he spent chronicling the Harlem Children's Zone, founded by a man named Geoffrey Canada, journalist Paul Tough gives a fascinating and ultimately upbeat description of the "outsized and audacious new endeavor" that Canada designed for a 24-block zone of Harlem.
The goal of the Harlem Children's Zone is indeed outsized: to put in place a seamless continuum of social services and especially good education that reaches every child in this zone, stretching from conception to college acceptance in what Canada—in one of many metaphors for his experiment—calls "a conveyor belt" of support. Unlike many charter schools, the charters Canada created—although technically open to any student in New York City—deliberately seek out the hardest-to-reach kids and fight to keep them on that conveyor belt to college by any means possible.
This book is bracing partly because Canada's project asks a different question from the one usually posed in poverty research. Instead of asking, "Is what we're doing now working for specific kids?" he asks, "What would it take to lift kids out of poverty en masse?"
As Tough tells it, Canada (who grew up poor and fatherless in the South Bronx) launched the Children's Zone in 2002 with chutzpah. Canada had a teaching background; organizational experience as head of the Rheedlen Centers (which offer programs for at-risk kids in Manhattan); and the financial backing of billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller. But he had zero experience running a school when he set out to create both a parent training program (dubbed Baby College) and a K-12 charter school aimed at Harlem's hardest cases (Promise Academy).
Canada dared because he was fed up with the "superhero" model, a menu of fragmented programs that help a few children in vast, blighted neighborhoods, leaving the blight intact. "We're not interested in saving a hundred kids," Canada proclaims. "We want to … talk about how you save kids by the tens of thousands, because that's how we're losing them." Tough notes,
Canada was asking … What would it take to change the lives of poor children not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in a programmatic, standardized way that could be applied broadly. … Which variables in a child's life did you need to change, and which could you leave as they were? How many more hours of school would be required? How early in a child's life did you need to begin? (p. 19)
Tough tells a nuanced tale of how Canada's staff—and the Children's Zone's parents and kids—tackled this question. We see how hard it is for teen parents in Baby College to abandon discipline-heavy parenting practices that work against making childhood a verbally rich experience filled with opportunities for exploration. For instance, Victor, a caring 19-year-old Dad, is dumbfounded when Baby College teachers tell him the system of physical punishments he's devised to train his son is a bad idea. (Although Canada clearly loves the urban black culture he comes from, he is blunt in his opinion that certain parenting styles in that culture present obstacles to helping its kids.) We also feel viscerally how exhausting it is for Promise Academy's teachers to raise the skills of kids who enter 6th grade four grade levels behind, and often as behavioral time bombs.
Tough alternates such stories with an examination of the high-profile research that has surfaced since the 1960s in answer to two thorny questions: What makes poor people poor, and How much can
any school do to raise impoverished students' performance? The reader gets wonderful grounding in the pendulum swings of public policy on poverty and education. Tough explains in layman-friendly language the research findings of the Moynihan and Coleman Reports; the debates between Black economists Glenn Loury and Ronald Ferguson; the work of Betty Hart, Todd Risley, Annette Lareau, and others on parenting styles and economic class; and Charles Murray's explosive claims about racial differences.
The book also shows how Promise Academy's middle school teachers fight to bring students to grade-level proficiency quickly—with both New York state tests and Canada's "no excuses" attitude breathing down their necks. The Children's Zone's charter program starts out with one preschool, one kindergarten, and one 6th grade class, intending to add an additional elementary and middle school grade each year. The program pours on resources: high-quality teachers, a longer school day, Saturday morning classes, monitoring of individual kids.
But although the kindergarteners thrive, progress stagnates at the middle school. No amount of intensive tutoring raises the students' standardized test scores to levels acceptable to the state. Discipline problems flare. Philosophical conflicts erupt between teachers who want to preserve an enriched curriculum and Canada, who focuses on test prep. At the end of the 2005–06 school year, a large number of educators leave (or are fired) and Canada brings in tough-discipline types.
Chapters titled "Battle Mode" and "Last Chance" portray the dilemma the Harlem Children's Zone finds itself in. Research shows that providing impoverished kids with high-quality education at a young age pays off in shrinking the achievement gap, but there's little evidence that interventions for older kids make much difference. The first years of Promise Academy mirror that sad finding. Wealthy backers of the Zone urge Canada to concentrate on the beginning end of his "conveyor belt" and stop trying to turn around Harlem's adolescents.
Tough makes it clear that Canada—like many antipoverty leaders—is torn between the simpler model of providing stellar preschools and kindergartens and the strategy of trying to reclaim older students who are on a downward track (which smacks of the "superhero" model). Canada refuses to abandon the middle school. It's partly personal: Canada sees his teenage self in these kids, knowing that if not for a few persistent teachers, he might have ended up dead or jailed instead of attending Bowdoin College. When Canada finally agrees to shrink the middle school to two grades at the end of the 2007–07 school year, forcing the 8th graders to return to appalling neighborhood schools, his anguish is vivid.
Canada also believes he needs to transform Harlem's teens so they will transform Harlem. Canada is pushing a different antipoverty model. He's determined to pull Harlem's kids out of hopelessness but
not out of black, urban culture. Canada talks about wanting to "contaminate" the Children's Zone's families with certain positive practices now associated with richer families, but, as Tough puts it, Canada
doesn't want them to reject completely the values and habits of Harlem. In contrast to most social critics, there is plenty in the culture of the ghetto that Canada likes and admires. (p. 109)
The Harlem Children's Zone is a model to watch. Since 2002, the area it serves has quadrupled; by early 2008, it encompassed more than 97 blocks, and its schools and programs reached more than 7,000 children. Promise Academy's middle school is looking solid: In 2007, standardized test scores showed that 33 percent of its 8th graders reached grade level in reading and 70 percent did so in math. Whether the powers that be choose to expand this radical model or not, Canada is clearly a grounded visionary and Tough a worthy recorder of his vision.
Naomi Thiers is Associate Editor, Educational Leadership, ASCD,
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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