Rookie Mistakes, Bad Apples, & What Happens When School Reformers Meet The Real World
Geoffrey Canada and his administrative team did a lot of things right in setting up a new cluster of schools called the Harlem Children's Zone, according to Paul Tough's new book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. But the New York Times Magazine writer also shows that the Harlem Children's Zone team made a lot of mistakes.
The book chronicles the effort to grow and expand a set of education programs, focusing on a four-year period (2003-2007) of expansion. Focusing on one part of Harlem, Canada and his team of administrators set up a linked set of programs that started young with a program called Baby College and eventually went up through middle school. They focused on concrete measures of academic achievement, and expanded after school and weekend programs to make sure that this particularly disadvantaged student population was getting everything they needed. They avoided creaming only the best kids for into the programs, largely resisted the urge to focus only on the bubble kids, and opted against counseling out those who were being disruptive or unsuccessful.
In these regards, the Harlem Children's Zone was successful –
especially so considering that Canada, a non-educator, was new to opening schools and was doing so in a complicated charter school
environment. But there are a handful of key mistakes that
Canada and his team make, which ultimately lead [SPOILER ALERT] to the failure of the middle school
program. And there are at least two big things missing from Tough's tale.
Lack Of Expertise. An experienced community organizer and social services provider, Canada lacked experience in creating and running schools. And yet, instead of working with existing models or bringing in proven outside help, the Harlem Children's Zone created its own program from scratch. The results weren't always very pretty.
Poor Staffing Decisions. While Canada and his board were accountability-focused, no-nonsense types, they at first hired administrators who were more progressive, "whole child" types of educators. Both approaches can work, but usually not in the same school.
Lack of Program Coordination. For at least two years, the education programs that Canada created did not send students from one HCZ program to the next. At each grade level, a new set of children were accepted – and some graduates of earlier programs left out. This was disappointing to students and their families, and meant that educators had to start over again in terms of creating a school culture.
Delayed Decisions. It was clear from the start that things weren't going well at the new middle school, and yet Canada and his team held off on making any necessary changes at the top until the end of the second year of the program. Letting staff go is hard, but a quicker decision could have saved the day.
Misinterpretation Of Data. In the rush to figure out what to do next, Canada and his team sometimes attempted to do their own in-house analysis of data and got things wrong. In one particularly unfortunate situation, they predicted that a group of students was doing extremely poorly and made a decision to curtail efforts in one direction, only to find out – too late – that the students in question had done extraordinarily well.
Over all, I enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it. But the book does its best profiling Canada and gives too few other characters and action to grab onto for my (ever-changing) tastes. In particular, wanted to get to know at least some the "bad apples" who pull the middle school down despite all that was being given to them. What an interesting group that would have been to watch. And I wanted to know more of what Tough made of the seeming failure of a major part of Canada's cradle-to-grave social services initiative. The experience writing the book could have turned Tough from an accountability hawk into a povertyracer, but we don't really know.
Other reviews: 'Whatever It Takes' tells of a bold plan to save the children of ... CPD
NB: Tough will be blogging at Slate for the next month (here).