How Children Stop Failing

It takes a village to raise a school.

See “ Schoolhouse Rock,” Paul Tough’s new education blog on Slate.

Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes is an inspirational story about one man’s efforts to boost educational achievement in New York City’s Harlem. The book is also a sobering tale of how such good intentions, alone, are often not enough. Put the two together, and you have everything you need to know not only about inner-city education, poverty, and charter schools but about the realism that is essential to ambitious reform.

For five years, Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine (where I once worked), followed Geoffrey Canada’s efforts to launch a multimillion-dollar initiative, the Harlem Children’s Zone. The Zone refers to a 97-block area that Canada has blanketed with social services and equipped with an elementary school and junior high, both charters within the New York public school system. Canada grew up desperately poor in the South Bronx and was a student radical in the 1960s. For years, he ran a successful nonprofit that provided the usual scattershot offerings to similarly poor families in Upper Manhattan. His goal for the Zone is on a totally different scale. Instead of trying to reach the lucky few and extricate them from the ghetto, he wants to reach all children (and their families) where they live, in every aspect of their lives, in order to boost student achievement across the board.

In Tough’s account, the elementary school seems destined for genuine success. Many of its students (or their parents) have been part of the Zone’s outreach programs for years and thus are able to build within school on the gains they have already begun to achieve outside it. Thanks to the Zone, these families have enjoyed everything from better health care and parenting classes to summer programs and quality preschool. The elementary school’s superb principal and capable staff also help, but the clear implication of Tough’s portrait is that neither the school nor the social programs would entirely succeed without the other.

The middle school, however, is a qualified failure. Its students do considerably worse on citywide exams during its first two years, Tough reports, than comparable kids in many regular public schools—even though, like the elementary school, the Zone’s junior high commands greater financial resources, boasts a significantly longer school day and school year, and is freed, as a charter, from union rules governing hiring and firing. Yet in surprising ways, this failure actually ends up supporting Canada’s broader vision.

Throughout the book, the middle school is compared and contrasted with those run by KIPP—the widely praised chain of charter schools that serves as a kind of stalking-horse for Canada’s own efforts. Like the Zone, KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program) serves mostly poor, minority-group children and has become a media darling. It’s easy to see why: Schools in the nationwide chain, started by two former Teach for America recruits, have shown remarkable and consistent results dealing with the age group every educator would tell you is the most challenging: middle schoolers.

Yet as Tough appreciates, the story isn’t quite that simple. He credits KIPP with having devised a genuinely successful formula for many students. But almost alone among mainstream journalists, he also points out just how much the program’s success depends on superhuman commitment from its teachers, which is always going to be hard to replicate on a large scale, and on culling the best students from impoverished neighborhoods. Although its schools technically operate by lottery, researcher Richard Rothstein has shown that parents who seek out KIPP academies and other charter schools are invariably more educated and more competent than parents who don’t. Indeed, according to Tough, KIPP’s own internal data show that its students enter KIPP already outperforming their poor, minority-group peers. KIPP then builds, albeit more successfully than most charter programs, on these gains.

What distinguishes Canada’s vision, and makes it genuinely radical, is precisely what differentiates it from KIPP: Canada is determined to serve not merely poor, underprivileged students but all of Harlem’s most disadvantaged—the children not only of impoverished-but-earnest strivers but of disaffected gang-bangers, dysfunctional drug addicts, and the like. According to Tough, instead of waiting for students and parents to take advantage of the Zone’s available services, Canada actually canvasses the neighborhood to recruit parents (and their children) who would otherwise be unlikely to participate, whether from ignorance or apathy or both.

Canada likens KIPP’s mission to a kind of reverse quarantine: Take the best kids, who already enjoy distinct advantages because of their home environment, isolate them and thus protect them from the contagion of dysfunction that surrounds them in the ghetto. Canada, by contrast, wants the Harlem Children’s Zone to be the contagion: to reach a significant-enough proportion of youth within its geographical borders (60 percent is the tipping point he keeps citing) to change the educational culture within the entire neighborhood. He doesn’t expect schools to accomplish the transformation alone. Nor does he think dysfunctional families entirely explain, or should excuse, the poor performance of public schools. Canada’s goal is to strengthen both in tandem.

Not surprisingly, it does prove harder (and more expensive), in Tough’s telling, for the Children’s Zone to achieve gains among the middle school’s cross-section of Harlem students than it is for KIPP to achieve even greater strides among its more self-selecting (and thus successful) clientele. And it appears that Canada adds to his own challenges. Impatient to help a broader swath of students, he launches his middle school too soon for it to serve kids who have risen in his service-rich system or who have graduated from the Zone’s own elementary school. Discipline at the junior high becomes a constant problem. While many students are highly motivated and high-achieving, a stubborn core remains disaffected and alienated from the school’s mission. With little time to demonstrate improvement in scores, Canada falls back on calling for endless practice tests: A uniform KIPP-style experience, it isn’t.

By the end of the book, Canada abruptly decides to retrench. Although he originally planned to grow the middle school by adding a new sixth grade each year and providing a high school for his graduating eighth-graders, he cancels plans for both to redouble efforts on the remaining kids. Meanwhile, Canada’s equally impatient board members and financial backers wonder why the Harlem Children’s Zone doesn’t simply hire KIPP to take over the middle school and implement its more successful (if exclusionary) model—an option Canada seriously considers, even as he explicitly acknowledges that to do so would be to gut his entire mission.

Yet it’s a mission that, as Tough usefully emphasizes, hasn’t simply failed by any means. Canada’s middle-school setback is arguably more of a rebuke to his impatience than a decisive disproof of his broader vision of combining schools with intensive social services; let’s see what another five years bring. Canada also succeeds, and the ways he does so are a call to arms. As Tough says, his elementary school is the best application yet of the growing consensus among researchers, on both the left and right, that the home environment, especially in the earliest years of a child’s life, is crucial to future achievement. Cognitive ability is not an inherited trait. It can be taught—although increasingly researchers have found that it’s taught not in schools (as most people assume) but in the home and during summer months, through middle-class parenting practices and attitudes. Schools can then build on this base, but they can’t do it alone.

Indeed, in many ways, Tough’s book is an inadvertent defense of “helicopter parenting.” It turns out that all that angst-ridden, middle-class negotiation with kids about rules (instead of simply laying down the law with a spank), the music lessons and summer camps, the absence of free time—even middle-class kids’ sense of entitlement—are what help them hone the kind of cognitive skills that our increasingly intellect-based economy (unlike the manufacturing economy of the 1950s) rewards. The idea that what goes on in the home is what matters is not, of course, new. It dates back as far as the 1960s, to the Moynihan and Coleman Reports, which stirred controversy by suggesting that such attitudes and practices were more important than school quality.

What is new is Canada’s idea that by blanketing a limited geographic area with dawn-to-dusk, cradle-to-high-school social services, in addition to better schools, an all-encompassing program like the Children’s Zone can serve as a kind of substitute for such parental attitudes and practices where they don’t exist. He’s also arguing that intervening when the most disadvantaged children are already in middle school or high school is too late—as, in a way, his own middle-school endeavor confirms. Rather than await the broader societal changes that many progressives call for, Canada wants, in essence, to create a European-style social democracy within Harlem.

No one should pretend Canada’s vision is readily replicable—or even that anything like a pure model has been created in Canada’s corner of upper Manhattan. For one, the Zone’s borders are porous. American families, especially poor ones, move frequently. Such mobility works against the longitudinal nature of Canada’s approach. Harlem, at this point, is also more racially and economically diverse than many pockets of poverty in the United States. The neighborhood is home to a prodigious amount of philanthropic money and talent, even an ex-President, Bill Clinton. If Canada proves he can marshal the means here to boost achievement—and until several more years have passed, and Canada opens up his results to independent research, the evidence won’t be in—it doesn’t mean the same could happen in, say, inner-city Detroit, where poverty is more entrenched and resources and superhuman talent are less plentiful.

The danger that any grand vision of school reform poses isn’t that it threatens the teachers unions, that ready scapegoat for all that ails public education. (Albert Shanker once quipped to me that he could organize a charter school, too.) It’s that it promises too easy, too sweeping solutions, typically on the cheap. Real, lasting, widespread reform is seldom so simple. Just ask the Gates Foundation. If we’ve learned nothing else in the last 20 years, it’s that there’s no silver bullet for replicable, sustainable reform on a very large scale. KIPP, for example, has yet to demonstrate it can boost achievement for all disadvantaged children within a single urban district. But as Tough’s eloquent account of Canada’s crusade persuasively shows, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done or no more lessons to be learned.