George Lucas Educational Foundation

Learning Zone: Harlem Project Gives Poor Students an Edge

Author Paul Tough talks about the community's innovative approach to education.
By Bernice Yeung
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Winning Formula:

Students learn by doing at the Promise Academy Charter School.

Credit: Courtesy of Harlem Children's Zone

In the late 1990s, education-reform advocate Geoffrey Canada began an ambitious social experiment, pledging to do whatever it took to improve the lives of New York City's poor children. The Harlem Children's Zone has since grown into a ninety-seven-block community-service project that includes Promise Academy charter schools, social services, parenting classes, and early-childhood-development and after-school programs.

Through his innovative approach, Canada has demonstrated that it's possible to bridge the achievement gap if disadvantaged kids receive early, continuous educational opportunities. Test results show that in 2004, the Promise Academy middle school's first year, only 21 percent of its students were at grade level in reading and 9 percent were at grade level in math. Three years later, those figures had improved to 33 percent and 70 percent respectively.

Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, chronicles the Harlem Children's Zone's successes -- and its setbacks -- in his new book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. spoke with Tough about early-childhood development, the role of parents in education, and whether Canada's model can work in other parts of the country. In the book, you use social science research to identify tools and strategies that can close the achievement gap. What does the research tell us?

Credit: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Paul Tough: Poor kids need different types of support than middle-class kids. Lots of research talks about what happens in the first few years of a kid's life and how poor children don't get the support and input -- things as simple as language or as complicated as an outlook on life, self-esteem, and how you interact with institutions -- that middle-class kids tend to get. This means that poor kids need something different when they arrive in school. There's nothing inherent about kids in poverty that means that they can't do as well anybody else. It just takes a lot.

Now, we can get to the practical questions: What exactly is it that's missing in the inputs for these kids in early years? What interventions can we make? That's exactly what Geoffrey Canada is trying to figure out.

What can be done if you don't have a Geoffrey Canada in your community?

At a community level, the thing that I'm most surprised isn't being done is parenting programs such as the Harlem Children's Zone Baby College. I think it has to do with an awkwardness around the question of teaching parents, especially poor parents. It makes people anxious, for lots of good reasons. It's easy to seem condescending if you're talking to parents in the wrong way.

Your portrayals of some classrooms and teachers suggest that there are dynamic leaders out there.

I chose a couple of scenes from the middle school as they were preparing for the first round of citywide tests. There were lots of moments of teachers browbeating kids and trying to make things fun and trying to keep their attention and trying to pull them along. But I didn't choose those scenes because I thought they were an example of the kind of teaching that would solve this problem; they exemplified the distance that the kids had to go.

Where it was clearer to me that the teachers were doing something helpful was in the lower grades -- actually, in prekindergarten. The prekindergarten teachers were just so focused on and conscious of language, on how to get language into every part of the day to expand these kids' vocabularies, which all this research shows is exactly what the students need the most at that stage.

At what point in the reporting did you begin to think Canada's methods were actually working?

I spent the first couple of years really focused on the middle school, where I didn't necessarily get the feeling that this works. And then the problems pushed me toward research. These kids were entering sixth grade but reading at a second- or third-grade level, and I just didn't know the answer to the following question: How do you get a kid like that to read at grade level? Geoff just sort of had this faith that he was going to be able to do it by giving them more time in class and more intensity

I felt I wanted to know the answer. I started focusing my reporting on the prekindergarten and elementary school. The research was clear about how effective interventions were in early years, and Geoff was the one person who was really testing it out and putting it into action. The two things began to dovetail.

Do you think the Harlem Children's Zone project, which has a 2009 budget of $40 million, is replicable? How do you see this playing out in other cities?

I think that it's absolutely replicable. It is going to take a lot of money. James Heckman, an economist, makes the most convincing case when he says that the reason to invest in early education and comprehensive education of this sort is not just out of a sense of moral obligation or social justice, but also out of economic necessity. That money will pay off when it's spent earlier on.

As for the logistics about how others are going to replicate it, I don't know yet. I hope people don't just clone it. The members of the education-reform community -- the people who are running organizations such as Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First -- are essential. They already have the right mind-set and resources. They're bringing a way of thinking about working with poor kids that has not existed in the past, which is very scientific and very much about results. It's not about being satisfied with a feel-good story of one kid who succeeds; it's about being satisfied by big numbers and consistent results.

Much of this research shows that parenting is crucial to a child's academic achievement. Do we need to rethink our definition of a teacher? Should our expectations of teachers change?

One thing social scientists and Geoff are saying is that the old division between school and everything else is obsolete. If we want to think about helping kids, we have to think about every part of their day and every part of their lives and how best we can intervene to improve their chances.

I was really struck by the principal of the elementary school, Dennis McKesey. There's this debate in a lot of schools about whether the parents or the teachers are responsible, and if the parents aren't doing their jobs, can we really be expected to educate the kids? What Dennis says is that we have to think of ways to compensate for the parents, but it's also his responsibility to get the parents to do their part. He's asking himself, "How do we make connections with parents and bring them along so they are the asset and resource we need to help the kids in our classes?" It's a new and important mind-set about looking more holistically at what you can do as a teacher for the kids you're teaching.

Have you received much response from teachers?

Most of it came through my Slate blog, Schoolhouse Rock, in September. It's been very gratifying to hear from teachers. They have a hard job, especially those working in poorer communities. Judging from some of the emails I receive, they don't feel like they get any support. They don't get support from their principals, and they're not in schools focused on solving this problem. Those are painful to get, but I'm also hearing from teachers who are inspired by the book.

Bernice Yeung is a contributing writer and editor for Edutopia.

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Mary Burch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am writing you because I think I have an idea that will address the needs of little children at one end of the cognitive ladder, and adolescents, before they matriculate to high school at the other. In the chapter, "Unequal Childhoods," Tough discusses the research, "...that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age three, the children of professional parents had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and the children of parents on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words" (42). Tough then goes on to tell about how the effects of language deprivation also stifles intelligence, "The average IQ among the professionals' children was 117, and the welfare (parents') children had an average IQ of 79" (42).

What if every middle school or junior high had a day care center and pre-school on the same campus? What if every 6th and 7th grader had to take a course in child development that would include a four day program of one-on-one interaction with a two or three-year-old, and a fifth day in the classroom with the teacher to debrief, share ideas and frustrations, learn new techniques, study the research, and gain a greater understanding about how children learn and grow.

The main idea of this program (for little children) would be to:
1.Increase the number of daily one-to-one interactions that they receive using pre-school literacy activities
2.Increase exposure to words and concepts by having more stories read aloud per day
3.Increase the numbers of relationships with people
4.Increase the numbers of people in the community who know and care about them.

The goals for the 6th and 7th graders would be to:
1.Increase their understanding of the basic needs of pre-school children in cognitive development
2.Practice the kinds of developmental activities that increase IQ and develop literacy with the support of teachers to coach and guide them
3.Gain a greater understanding of what will be important in the development of their own children's lives when they become parents
4.Improve reading fluency
5.Confront gaps in their own cognitive development that could be addressed by working with a small child who is learning new information.

These are lofty goals, but I think the time is right to address the fact that too many young people are entering parenthood with few or inappropriate skills to nurture children. Our society keeps our kids so segregated by age that we forget how much children can learn from each other. Because our society does not put different age groups together, children often float from childhood to adolescence to adulthood without looking back, until they become parents themselves.

Parents often repeat the same kind of parenting that they experienced themselves, and today parenting includes lots of TV watching and not much interaction. This verbal and "hands on" interaction has to be built into a child's day, but even with the best day care, a child won't get as much out of a group situation as s/he could with one person giving him/her their full attention. I think that this model would benefit both groups in wonderful ways. It would increase cognitive skills for toddlers and very young children, and it would increase cognitive skills (that would hopefully transfer into parenting skills) for pre-teens.

In our own community, many parents are absent, withdrawn, or uninterested in what goes on in school--this terrible gap creates a huge problem of children lacking the brain stimulation needed to develop academic curiosity and drive. But imagine the difference that increased interaction, vocabulary, questioning, matching, counting, pouring, building, moving, arranging, sorting, planting, measuring, pretending, etc. etc. could make in a small child's cognitive development. If a series of age appropriate daily activities were assigned to each middle school child to share with his/her own "little buddy," I believe the benefits would be tremendous. Each pre-school child would have at lease three or four buddies throughout the day as the junior high aged kids moved through their schedules.

I also believe that the impact on the older children would be remarkable. Adolescents would have that elusive "manual" that we educators talk about. You know, the one that teaches: "How to be a good parent." These adolescents would be better prepared for parenting before they become sexually active themselves. Also I believe that many would be able to fill in the cognitive gaps they might have in their own lives.

William Matthews's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with many disadvataged children and this method seems to be pretty interesting, and also effective. Funding seems like the biggest issue, and it would be nice to see a initiative to help rural schools in the same way as they are in Harlem. In my opinion, children in rural schools have more problems facing them then those in urban settings for many reasons. Funding is scarce, and that's the most obvious answer. Also, since there is a major lack in teachers, you're working with very LIMITED resources. Nevertheless, I've utilized methods of being hands on and community oriented when I have worked with the children that have not been exposed to proper educating. Confidence boosters is a must, and once you get a kid becoming confident and not afraid to be supportive you see a larger scale of progess. Still, you can't subsitute anything for resources like the ones that you just discussed. I would like to see this endeavor go into the rural enviorment in poverty striken places.

tonya thompson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the goals and the main ideas of your suggestion. I think it would be greatly beneficial to students as you pointed out. However, I must say the suggestion for a day care center on the middle school campus, if that what was being suggested, threw me a bit. I agree that teenage pregnancy is a huge problem particularly in the inner city schools because that is where I have worked over the past 14 years in grades 6-12. I did think in some part of your writing that you were suggesting that we help teenagers or young people become better parents particularly when you said "... adolescents would be better prepared for parenting before they become sexually active themselves". However, this comment/thinking takes away from the gist of your suggestion and should not be the focus at all. Your goals and main ideas are great and I would take that last suggestion I referred to out when presenting this idea. Your idea really sounds more like an argument for prek-8 schools where this type of obviously productive type of teaching and learning can take place.

Elaine Schoyen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I appreciated your comments very much and I REALLY believe that you are on to a path worth pursuing. All ages of the spectrum will benefit...on the short term as well as the long term...multi-generational.

You are probably familiar with the James Comer Model, as he also extended his nurturing and pedantic arm to adults from numerous facets of the child's community. If not, check it out; I believe that the results he achieved will certainly be encouraging to you.

Also, what about Dr. Bruce D. Perry from the Child Trauma Academy? Again, seek out his writings on "lost potential due to abuse, neglect, and/or chronic chaos in the lives of 0 to 2 1/2 - 3 yrs. (actually pregnancy to 6 yrs.)".

I have attended presentations by both of the above mentioned and read many of their publications. Your ideas with specific objectives give me cause to be hopeful.

Keep in touch,
Elaine Willingham Schoyen

Avram Rips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is essential that a good early childhood program provides strong language enrichment. I am seeing great success in our collaborative early childhood sites with the Newark Public Schools. the Increased use of language and writing is invaluable. However the models such KIPP academy etc. are not the answer to urban education. They focus on formulaic methods of skill and drill instead of teaching children how to learn. How come a gifted education in the suburbs teaches an inquiry based approach,comparing precision and accuracy and many other cognitive functions. In the urban districts we get a lot of repetitive skill and drill. The National Urban Alliance for Reforming Education is working in collaboration with the Feuersein model to achieve high performing schools:

Howard B. Esbin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great idea! Check out Roots of Empathy []. This is an award winning, evidence-based classroom program that has shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8. In Canada, the program is delivered in English and French and reaches rural, urban, and remote communities including Aboriginal communities. Roots of Empathy is also delivered in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood infant and parent who visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. A trained ROE Instructor coaches students to observe the baby's development and to label the baby's feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the "Teacher" and a lever, which the instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. This "emotional literacy" taught in the program lays the foundation for more safe and caring classrooms, where children are the "Changers". They are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy) and are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying and other cruelties.

Bob Foster's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In regard to CNN's Black in America special, I totally agree that there are a lack Grocery Stores in inner city neighborhoods. Before retiring as a City Planner in Chicago we
tried to get Supermarkets to locate in such neighborhoods which proved to be difficult. In all, potential stores would
pull out because there were not enough home owners within a
defined area and others said that the average income was not high enough. In sum, all that I'm saying is that neighborhoods
need to understand the criteria that these companies use to locate in Cities and undertake a strategy to combat it, or at least call out these companies. Otherwise, it's all fast foods
and obesity and even very difficult to attract a sit down restaurant, let alone a grocery store that sells fruit and veggies.

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