Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Whatever It Takes, Harlem Children's Zone, Ward 6

Several of my friends, along with thousands of people across the nation, have been very excitedly reading Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. From reader reviews, the book has evoked a great deal of hope about improving education and ending poverty in the United States. Geoffrey Canada, along with Michelle Rhee, are the stars of Waiting for Superman. The US Department of Education has funded Promise Neighborhoods, based on Canada's ideas, with one-year grants, including a Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter High School initiative in Ward 7. While it is wonderful that Geoffrey Canada seeks to expand opportunity to poor children across the United States, does his model actually expand opportunity?

The New York Times review of the book presents Canada's project:
...Canada “believed that he could find the ideal intervention for each age of a child’s life, and then connect those interventions into an unbroken chain of support.” Its “conveyor belt” begins when expectant parents learn about safety gates and mothers of toddlers learn to turn supermarkets into learning labs. Prekindergartners were enrolled for 10 hours a day, with an intensive focus on language, including French vocabulary. Canada’s high school, middle school and two elementary schools — all charters — can’t educate all the children in the zone; those left out can still attend computer workshops, fitness classes or college prep. Canada isn’t satisfied with propelling selected children to a better life; his goal is to “contaminate”the entire culture of Harlem with aspirational values, disciplined self-improvement and the cognitive tools to do better than those who came before.
Immediately as I started reading, I noticed several contradictory arguments. First, the book presents the parents as not knowing how to raise their children, or at least not in middle-class ways, which incorrectly blames the parents for the academic failure of their children. The book opens in a lottery for spots in Canada's new Promise Academy. 359 families had applied to have their child at the school, "almost twice as many children as the school had room for" (p. 9). The lottery for the spaces is a completely devastating scene with parents desperately hoping that their kids will get in the school. The parents actively sought out a better life for their children, but the program only lets in very few. As Kozol finds, blaming the parents or blaming a "culture of poverty" has "the odd effect of substituting things we know we cannot change in the short run for obvious things like cutting class size" and increasing funding to public schools to create excellent schools (see the Post article on the funding disparities; students pay $34,465 to attend St. Albans, while the DC Government will pay $8,770 in 2012 to educate each student) "that we actually could do right now if we were so inclined" (p. 56).

Second, Canada's "Baby College" trains new parents to nurture their children through reading, negotiation, and positive encouragement, but the Promise Academy instead focused on test scores and discipline, neglecting the rest of the curriculum (much to the dismay of the school's principal). When I talked about the book with my colleague, she immediately said, take a look at Jonathan Kozol and at (U. Pennsylvania sociologist) Annette Lareau.

In his The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol vividly reveals that public school districts have one method of instruction for poor kids (like Geoffrey Canada's teaching methods) and another one for middle-class kids. In Ward 6, we have numerous racially and class segregated schools (as well as some less segregated ones), such as:

In schools with majority poor black or Hispanic students, Kozol finds rote learning, memorization, pre-scripted teaching lessons, tracking away from college and into menial jobs, and an obsession with discipline: maintaining absolute silence in classrooms, hours of silent standing in line, and, in one school, "Silent lunches had been institute in the cafeteria and, on days when children misbehaved, silent recess had been introduced as well. On those days, the students were obliged to stay indoors and sit in rows and maintain silence on the floor" of the gymnasium (p. 65). Similarly, in Geoffrey Canada's Promise Academy, the teachers continually test the students and enforce SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod and Track), with no sign of training for critical thinking, independent thinking and research, or individual creativity often found in middle-class schools and required by universities.

Geoffrey Canada admirably wants to send all children in Harlem to college. Yet, this form of education is not the education of the middle or upper class. The middle and the upper class would not tolerate this form of education for their children. Not only does Jonathan Kozol's book bring to light the "apartheid schooling" in the United States and in Ward 6, but also he lets us hear the voices of the children who want a better life and see that they have been abandoned to schools that lower expectations and assume children are not worthy of a creative, critical, truly educational education.

A sixteen-year-old girl told Kozol, "If people in New York woke up one day and learned that we were gone, that we had simply died or left for somewhere else, how would they feel?... I think they'd be relieved." Is this happening in Ward 6?


  1. I think I mentioned this in a comment on another post -- it's interesting to compare data for the various schools in Ward 6. "Desirability" (measured by number of waitlisted preschool applicants) correlates -directly- with percentage of students who are white.

    It does NOT correlate with academic performance; Wilson has the highest DC-CAS scores in Ward 6 (possibly excepting Peabody or its school-within-a-school, which don't list scores for 2009 or 2010), and it feeds into Stuart-Hobson, which is a highly regarded middle school.

  2. I just watched "waiting for superman"--essentially the two hour version of Kozol's book. A powerful piece of film making. It left me torn. On one hand the number of structures keeping these kids impoverished overwhelms me. If it isn't poverty itself, there is the lack of jobs in these neighborhoods, the lack of money spent on education, the intractable teachers unions, the rehab version of school being offered...Clearly Geoffrey Canada's solution is too simplistic.
    On the other hand, I don't care. I don't care that it isn't the "right" solution. It is, at least, something. Days after watching the film, I am still thinking of the children in the film who did not win the lottery. They looked like they knew they had disappointed their parents profoundly by "failing" to win at a game of chance. I think of the faces of those moms--so hopeful to find out a quality program is available to their kids, so devastated when they couldn't make it happen for their beloved child.
    Parents who have self-selected enough that they are willing to go the extra mile for their kid shouldn't have to educate their children by lottery. In this one instance in life, desire ought to be enough to make a place for that child appear.

  3. I think I described this in a thoughts on another publish -- it's exciting to evaluate information for the various colleges in Infirmary 6. "Desirability" (measured by variety of waitlisted toddler applicants) fits -directly- with amount of learners who are light.


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