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HotSeat Interview: What Next For The Harlem Children's Zone?

The dust is still settling around Helen Zelon's City Limits re-examination of the Harlem Children's Zone, one of the biggest, most critical looks that the program has ever received.  It's unclear what happens next for HCZ or the replication efforts that are taking place around the country.  Will momentum lag, or program requirements change? 

500x_scaleFor myself, I came away from reading Zelon's article with deeply mixed feelings.  I was reminded of the power of easily graspable phrases ("conveyor belt," "tipping point," "contamination,"), the organizational zigs and zags hidden beneath the surface narrative of many nonprofits, the collateral damage among teachers and kids who function as guinea pigs, the reality that the impact of so many efforts have "eluded measurement" (as Zelon so delicately puts it).  But Zelon's article also makes clear that big-sounding ideas and big personalities are, for better or worse, often a key element of what's needed to motivate change.  Smaller, perhaps better, more consistently effective ideas may exist, but they fail to capture the imagination needed to motivate action.  We want -- we need -- bold  risk-taking from our leaders.  If that's the case then perhaps we need to be grown-ups about the failures large and small that come from taking big risks.

On the Hot Seat, Zelon describes the "juggernaut" of praise that's surrounded the HCZ effort, the realization that there were lots of unanswered questions about HCZ, the challenges of reporting on the effort, and the uncomfortable experience of digging into a program that everyone seemed to think was a big success. Read Zelon's interview below. 

CityLimits_March2010How would you describe perceptions of the Harlem Children’s Zone up until now?

HZ: There's been a kind of juggernaut of positive praise that seems to have gathered overwhelming momentum.

Who's most to blame for HCZ hype -- Geoffrey Canada, journalists, or elected officials?

HZ: Canada himself is an enormously charismatic and appealing subject, which perhaps makes it tough to critique the work of his organization. Elected officials are looking for fixes (that's why they're elected, after all), so they too may have less desire to critique than to adopt a popular, celebrated model. I think the biggest challenge is separating the man from the work, and that it's complicated by the conflation of Canada's story and his tremendous, unquestioned dedication with the agency itself.

What are your favorite lines, or quotes, from the piece?

HZ: I'd have to say Canada’s repetition of the phrase "there is no science" [from the online interview] is a big deal. I also thought Lee Schorr and Anne Kubisch made good points about believing in the potential without knowing outcomes with certainty, and appreciated Pedro Noguera's distinction between praising Canada (who I respect enormously) and a blanket endorsement of the work of the HCZ.

How did you get interested in writing about HCZ in the first place -- what got you hooked?

HZ: I've been an avid follower of all things HCZ for years, but the idea of replication really made me ask the questions we tried to answer in the City Limits story: Does the HCZ work, can it be exported or replicated, and is it the best solution for the greatest number of children.

How much did you know or think you knew about HCZ before you got started on the project?

HZ: I read everything I could -- and realized that I knew what people in the media and at HCZ wanted me (and the general public) to know, and that I needed to learn a lot more.

How long did you end up working on the project, and how was it funded?

HZ: The project began with a pitch about 14 months ago, as part of a weekend workshop at Harvard's Nieman Center, but the active reporting didn't really start until summer 09 and continued up into January of 2010. City Limits supported the research and reporting, for which I am enormously grateful.

How much access did you get from HCZ in terms of time, field reporting, data?

HZ: Access was a challenge, but it's fair to say they're a service agency, not a media shop, and that a lot of outlets, many more prominent than City Limits, wanted their time and attention. We were able to get other data from the city and state, after persistent pursuits (and a FOIA or two).

Who did you have to FOIA, and for what?

HZ: The city and the state ed departments, mainly school-related stuff; I do have to credit the charter office at the NYC DOE, which gave me a giant data dump in a file too big to email (had to go in and pick up a CD) -- it was a lot to sift through, but very helpful, and no FOIA needed.

What are the numbers that most jump out at you from the piece?

HZ: I continue to be amazed that they're not tracking the cohort of 8th graders that got summarily "graduated" from the Promise Academy middle school, now that they're well into high school, as it seems to contradict their cradle-to-college ethos; their financial landscape is pretty staggering (count the hedge funders); the per-capita spending per child in the schools is high, too.

What's the reaction been since the article came out, from HCZ or others?

HZ:  So far, so good -- the reaction has been largely positive, and I've been happy and surprised to hear from people all over the country.

Helen zelon How did you think the Brian Lehrer segment on NPR affiliate WNYC went, over all?

HZ: I think that any conversation that brings critical questions to light is to the good. Paul Tough, who also participated in the segment, brings his own perspective and experience to writing about the HCZ. I was not surprised by the passion callers expressed -- and I hope that readers (and Lehrer listeners) will take the time to read the piece and form their own opinions.

What was the biggest surprise along the way in terms of what you found?

HZ: No critics! I really felt alone in the woods, and occasionally wondered if I'd lost my way.

You can find some of Zelon's other writing here.


NB: Interview edited for flow and condensed for space.

Previous Interviews: NYT Sunday Magazine Writer Paul Tough, The "Anti-Hollywood" Teacher's Book, Elizabeth Green To The Rescue!, Teacher - Turned Blogger - Turned Author, Former USDE Official Dishes On Spellings, Popular Reforms,

See previous posts:  HCZ Hype Questions Slowly Reaching Mainstream, How HCZ Hypnotized Anderson Cooper, The "Harlem Children's Zone" Juggernaut, Updated Hype Warning Levels. Obama Hypes Harlem Children's Zone On MTV, When School Reformers Meet The Real World, Paul Tough On The HotSeat.]


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Americans (I'm Canadian) love the one person narrative since before Gary Cooper cleaned up the town in High Noon. They love a Jamie Escalante "Stand and Deliver" story even though the movie contained a little excess and Escanante was unable to duplicate his results. If the government or a large group, (teachers' union) or a whole staff or a community is involved it is hopelessly corrupt or compromised or socialistic or something "un American" and so it is with Geoffrey Canada and HCZ. The fact is if you rely on superstars or superteachers and then say why aren't all teachers like Escalante you might as well say why aren't all bb players like Jordan, why aren't all hockey players like Gretsky, why aren't all guitar players like Clapton.

The fact is you need whole schools full of competent journeymen and journeywomen teachers who are much better trained than today (see Finland system), you need to reverse your funding so that much more money goes to poor schools and much less to rich schools, you need much smaller classes, in much smaller schools, with much bigger budgets full of teachers who have their pay cheques roughly doubled and have, at their finger tips any resource they could possibly want.

For those of you who even let the cost pass through your brain let alone come out you mouth I have one word for you, IRAQ.

A Very Good Article.

I really enjoyed this article. It brought me back to 1959 when I was forced to take Analytical Geometry during my freshman year at college. The problem was that I had barely passed Algebra I in high school and was basically at an eighth grade level in "arithmetic." Fortunately for me, the professor believed that "if you pay for the class, you should get the credit" and so she gave each of us the examination to take home and study. My friend and I asked capable math students to solve the problems for us and then we memorized the answers. When the exact same test was given to us in class, we "passed."

Did I learn anything? No. Can I even give a definition of analytical geometry? No. Did I ever take another math class? Definitely not!

Sadly, this is the strategy being used at the Promise Academy and many other schools in impoverished areas. Children are just being drilled on the test, which of course invalidates the results. We really don't know what they've learned. What I would like to know is why did the Harvard researchers use this data for their study when Mr. Canada admitted that the children were basically drilled on the test?

The Iowa Test of Basic Skills is a time-honored test that compares the achievement of children across the nation. This test, if administered properly, is valid and reliable. If the Promise Academy students did not do well the ITBS, Mr. Canada and the Harvard researchers should have known something was wrong. Am I missing something?

That said, what I consider to be the solution to the black/white achievement gap was presented in the article. In describing Mr. Canada's childhood, Ms. Zelon wrote that he was rescued by his grandparents and sent to a suburban school during a crucial time in his education. "He escaped."

We need to help children escape from poverty-stricken and dangerous neighborhoods. This can be accomplished by providing jobs throughout the United States, providing limited low-income housing in all communities, providing public school vouchers for students as well as private school scholarships paid for by private individuals and corporations. We need to get the kids out.

Like most people, I admire the vision and the zeal of Mr. Canada, but drilling poor kids on tests is not the "education" I'd want for my own children.

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