Learning Zone: Harlem Project Gives Poor Students an Edge

Author Paul Tough talks about the community’s innovative approach to education.

November 19, 2008

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.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • K-2 Primary

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.