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Rookie Mistakes, Bad Apples, & What Happens When School Reformers Meet The Real World

28802627Geoffrey 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

Previous Posts:  What Happened To The Middle School
NYT Magazine's Paul Tough On The HotSeat

NB:  Tough will be blogging at Slate for the next month (here).


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Its interesting how we agree and disagree on Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone Middle School. Given the power of his vision and his efforts. I can’t fault Canada. Rookies make “rookie mistakes.”

But I don’t want to pile on, and based on nothing more than my reading of the book, I have the opposite take on some of his specific decisions. I can do no more than speculate on some patterns. Canada is tough-minded, and had a visceral suspicion of some aspects of liberalism. Accountability hawks such as his sponsors, endorsed tough-minded policies - or policies that sounded tough-minded. Had the school been a union shop, there would have been opportunities to cross-examine Canada’s hypotheses. Just as you can not be “a little bit pregnant,” a school must be more than a little bit collaborative, and school leaders must do more than listen to just a little dissent. Disciplinary policy often leads to the most painful decisions in education. Rarely are there “right” or “wrong” answers, and the moral calculus is never simple. Canada apparently prejudged the number of suspensions he would allow. Most veteran educators have joined with his principals in warning him against following a politically correct formula.

I love Canada’s honesty. He could have accurately pointed to increases in student proficiency and repeatedly spun his results. Canada sought to do something that few educators have actually done (although many claim success loudly, repeatedly, and misleadingly). When Canada pulled the plug, he volunteered the truth to Tough, even though the story wasn’t published for another year and a half. But as The Turnaround Challenge explains, the curriculum-driven “best practices” that have raised student performance in less challenging schools are inherently incapable of turning around high poverty, neighborhood, secondary schools. Canada raised test scores but he provides more evidence that we don’t yet know how to turn around poor secondary schools without “creaming.” The best evidence is that the key to transforming high poverty neighborhood schools is building relationships. Also, it is surprising that a community organizer would not see the inherent contradiction between accountability by the numbers and impatience versus and the lack of union protections that kills candor.

Alexander, isn’t that a key theme in Relentless Pursuit, where Teach For America rookies at Locke High learn that educational success is built on relationships with whole human beings?

If you want transformative political accomplishments, I guess, you have to use political tools. But can you use the tools that the business interests use to get their agendas passed in order to create educational futures for children? For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple and wrong.

Learned Hand wrote that the spirit of American democracy is not too sure that it is right. The spirit of education can not be too sure it is right either.

Gosh, what if Canada were to come home to his natural allies? How much difference is there between the principles of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Randi Weingarten’s proposals about the community in schools? I have to also ask, however, where have we veteran teachers and the unions helped to create barriers? What can we do to coax Canada back into a conversation with us?


I know of one way where we teachers are frequently wrong.

No matter how frustrated with get with chronic disruptions, we should never refer to students as Bad applies."


I have to disagree that accountability and whole-child focused administrative types are likely to operate in conflict. As an old hand from community-type organizations this has been a constant gripe of mine. It allows funding to go to sloppy organizations who peddle themselves as some version of "doing God's work." I have personally experienced the popularity of both ("good works" and accountability), when it comes to funders, and have never found accountability to be a barrier to acting on a comprehensive model. And I have seen scammers on both fronts, with probably the most odious being those who justify gaming the accountability system because of the really good (but unmeasureable) work that they believe that they are doing.

I have considered the experience of the Harlem Children's Zone to be an attempted microcosm, within a capitalist society, of the kind of comprehensive support (to families and schools) much more easily offered in highly socialized countries. It is interesting that one of Canada's mistakes was in applying his social service background to the operation of schools. I think this is important to remember as Randi Weingarten and others suggest a reverse experiment. It would be far more useful for schools/teachers/teachers unions to learn how to collaborate with the existing social service supports--such as they are. Better to get along with Public Health, Public Housing, Recreation, Social Services as they currently exist than to try to reinvent the wheel.

Get an editor! That last paragraph was brutal to read.

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