With Waiting for Superman, movie-goers this fall got a close-up view of the disparities in educational opportunities for children who grow up in poverty. But to many people in early education, the documentary failed to take into account the inequities in learning opportunities that poor children experience from as soon as they are born up through the early grades of elementary school.
In Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, which was published in 2008 and is now out in paperback, readers get a broader picture. The book tells the story of how Geoff Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has tried to halt the cycle of poverty through a series of support programs including parenting services, early childhood programs and the Promise Academy charter schools in a 97-block section of New York City.
Last month, I had a chance to talk with Paul Tough, the author of Whatever It Takes, about the Zone's early childhood programs, the Promise Neighborhood program started by the Obama administration, and his reaction to Waiting for Superman. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:
What is remarkable about Whatever it Takes is the level of access that you were given, enabling you to have a front-row seat at some of the most tumultuous times for Promise Academy and some of the most personal moments for the soon-to-be-parents participating in Baby College. Which personal stories continue to resonate with you the most and what do they tell us about the impact of Harlem Children’s Zone?
Certainly Geoffrey Canada’s personal story, which was a big part of what drew me to his work, but also the stories of the families in Baby College stuck with me the most. As a journalist, I was compelled by the fact that those parents were so open, interesting, candid and thoughtful about what they were going through.
What struck me was the extent to which cultural forces and a person’s upbringing can shape parenting. Recount for me one of those stories from Baby College –what was going on in the room, for example, when the leaders of Baby College were talking with the teenage parents about time-outs?
The thing that I found most surprising was the fact that the parents were so willing to take on new information. I thought there would be much more resistance or silence, but there was really lively dialogue, especially in the discipline classes. What [Baby College] was suggesting was so different than what these parents had experienced themselves. In every discipline class I went to, 100 percent of the parents – when asked about their own experience as kids – had experienced corporal punishment. And yet Baby College was saying: Never use corporal punishment. It was a 180-degree difference in message. And most of the parents in those classes had started from the point of view that corporal punishment was necessary.
There are a couple of scenes where there are real arguments between the instructor and the parents who say how crazy it is to think about not using corporal punishment. One young man, Victor, a teenage father, couldn’t believe that they were saying never pinch your daughter or son. But in talking to Victor and some of the other parents afterward, I found that this process of really being listened to and being able to voice their opinion – hearing the opposite opinion and having a chance to yell about it – really did have a big effect on them. I think all of the parents really thought about it differently by the end of class.
Are you still in contact with Victor?
I did stay in touch with Victor and Cheryl [his girlfriend]. They were still together when I last talked to them, about year ago, and their baby was a toddler. But I don’t have up-to-date information on them.
With the Promise Neighborhoods program getting started, I’m wondering what the expectations are considering the tough budget situation now and the sense that there’s no new room for new programs. Can these programs survive? Can they continue to flourish?
Earlier this year I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about Promise Neighborhoods funding. I think that it will be a real shame if the Senate approves the much-reduced budget that went through the Senate committee.
[President Obama requested $210 million for fiscal year 2011, but subcommittees in the House and Senate set the amount at 60 million and $20 million respectively – and it is still unclear whether these amounts will mean anything because Congress has still not passed a budget. For more, see the comparison chart in this Early Ed Watch post.]
I think that on the whole if you look at the money we’re spending on education and services in low-income neighborhoods, this will be a lot more cost-effective. And unlike a lot of federal money that gets spent, this money gets leveraged. Already it has produced tens of millions of dollars in philanthropic commitments. This seems like such an opportunity for the federal government to try something very new in communities where the federal government has been pouring all sorts of resources for decades. This is a way to try a different partnership with a high likelihood of success.
But I’m not super optimistic because this next Congress is not going to be more likely than this last Congress to spend money on new initiatives. So yes, I’m pretty worried about it.
In the book you talk about “the conveyor-belt model” for helping children succeed. This concept has been lifted up in the early childhood community for years –the idea of providing a seamless system for children, starting prenatally and at the very youngest ages and carrying children through preschool and up through a high-quality elementary school. But it’s not exactly a sexy education reform topic. Do you agree? Can it gain traction among the education reform community?
I definitely think it can gain traction. We’re at a moment of trying to figure out what the education reform community is and is all about. So whether this would be part of education reform or will happen separately –that’s one question. But as to whether it can happen –I sure hope it happens. I think it makes so much sense. It’s why Promise Neighborhoods makes so much sense to me as a model. Considerthe Head Start Impact Study-- it shows that Head Start works for a year and a year later it doesn’t work. And it seems to me that the main reason for that is that kids go on to elementary schools that aren’t that good. We now know that an average public school in a year can erase the positive gains of Head Start. We should be thinking about how to make Head Start better, but it also seems so obvious that we ought to be thinking about how to improve the schools.
If we tie those things together –a great pre-k program with a great elementary school –we’re going to get so much more bang for our buck.
Geoffrey Canada’s ideas got a lot of play in the documentary Waiting for Superman, though we didn’t see much in the movie about the Harlem Children’s Zone model. What was your reaction to the movie?
I have mixed feelings about it. As a movie, it’s well-made and incredibly powerful. So my hope is that at the very least it is affecting millions of people who wouldn’t be focused on these issues of educational equity and the difficulties for parents in low-income neighborhoods to get a good education for their kids.
It’s giving people an emotional connection with that that I think and hope is very powerful, and I hope that will translate into a long-term commitment to the issue.
My worry is that by oversimplifying the issue or allowing the issue to be oversimplified, the movie is defusing that potential political engagement at the same time that it is creating it. What has to happen politically is that people have to feel like this is their issue. It doesn’t often feel like that, like it’s an overall American issue.
But suggesting that the answer is all about teachers unions and charter schools –that gives people an easy way out. They come away with the idea that it’s not that complicated and that it’s not that hard to fix –that if we just got everybody in line we wouldn’t have these schools and poverty would end. And at the same time, it’s also provided an opportunity for a backlash –for opponents of the movie to take an equally simplistic counter-argument of just saying that charter schools aren’t really any better than regular schools and that there’s nothing we can do about it.
For me, I feel like the reality is much more complicated. There are some charter schools that are doing really important work for finding a new model for educating poor kids, and that’s incredibly important. I think some of their results are incredibly powerful. That’s the discussion we should be having: How do you educate poor kids to that level of success? The fact that we’re not having that conversation –that in the public sphere the conversation is just about teacher contracts and charter schools –it seems like a real missed opportunity.
In the book you offer an intellectual history of the quest to ameliorate poverty in the United States. Are you seeing signs of anything changing since you wrote the book in 2008?
What’s promising is how much more central it has become. The President is talking about education – talking about it in more complex and interesting ways, and he’s talking specifically about the Harlem Children’s Zone and weaving programs together. The basic idea is that education is a way to give poor kids a way to get out of poverty –and people are thinking about it in practical terms instead of as just as slogan. That’s a big and new deal.
Also, I’m working on a new book that has me back out visiting a lot of schools, and I’m interested in the so-called non-cognitive aspects of persistent poverty and educational opportunities that help people escape from poverty. I’m looking at how –both at the preschool level and also the high school level –interventions may focus on aspects of character or personality or executive function. For me personally that’s the most interesting thing going on out there. It’s really early and less connected and less well-formed as an argument than what I was writing about in Whatever it Takes, but it contains the germ of having new ways of thinking about poverty and what is going on in the lives of poor kids and what kinds of interventions might get them out of poverty.
One of your New York Times Magazine stories was about Tools of the Mind, a pedagogical approach and curriculum for teachers in pre-k and kindergarten that focuses on improving children’s executive function skills by providing outlets for role-play. Is this new book tackling programs like that?
Yes. Tools of the Mind is one of the examples of programs that is being explicit about non-cognitive pathways. I was just out in Cape Cod talking with a researcher who is doing a much more ambitious study of Tools of the Mind than has ever been done before.
But that’s just one part of it. Another part is at the high school level, where people talk about these issues without necessarily calling it “executive function.”
When will the new book be out?
It is supposed to come out in the fall of 2012.
Great. I’m looking forward to it. Speaking of older kids –in Whatever it Takes, I sensed by the seventh chapter that you were conflicted over whether it made sense for Geoffrey Canada to be putting so much emphasis on the middle-school years and Promise Academy when he was seeing much more success in the early years and in elementary school scores. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, to a certain degree. I think part of the issue with the middle school was just that they made specific organizational errors in those first few years. When I look at how some other charter schools start –they hiring a team a year early and have them work out these problems a year before any kids arrive. Harlem Children’s Zone didn’t do that. I think it is working much better now.
But yes, I did have difficulty reconciling those two things. One of the things I was trying to do in that chapter is talk about that. To Geoff Canada, taking these two approaches together made sense to him. He saw it not as a conflict –that these strategies make perfect sense together. I still am drawn towards the idea of a conveyor belt, the idea of starting early, but he is coming from the point of neighborhood transformation. And there just isn’t that much data on neighborhood transformation. His theory is that you need an intensive pipeline for kids AND that you have to surround that with less targeted approaches to teenagers and young adults. It makes sense, but we don’t have a lot of evidence yet. It’s what makes Harlem Children’s Zone continually interesting to me.
I think we do know well how early childhood works. But how to change teenagers? And change a school? And change neighborhoods? That’s really up in the air. I do hope that with Promise Neighborhoods we get a chance to test these ideas out, because there is a lot to learn there.
What did you think about the Brookings Institution report by Russ Whitehurst and Michelle Croft that came out this summer that played down the impact of the Harlem Children’s Zone? It showed that children at many other charter schools in New York were doing better than those from the Zone’s Promise Academy. The authors took this as evidence that the parenting classes, nutritional services and other community support programs were not having much impact.
That op-ed I wrote this summer –it was also in response to that report. There were three conceptual problems I had with it. Russ Whitehurst was mostly looking at the middle school data, which is less useful than the elementary school data, and he was comparing that data to some really high-performing charter schools. I think it’s definitely true that Promise Academy generally doesn’t have scores as high as KIPP schools. (I think the elementary schools have been up there with some of the KIPP schools in Harlem over the past few years –or at least comparable.)
But to suggest, as that report is doing, to say that we have the answer already, and it’s KIPP schools –I think that was really premature. I think KIPP schools are great. But they are two very different models and they are tiny drops in the bucket of how we run education in this country, especially for low-income kids. To me these are two very promising models that we need to study more. But to stop the conversation now seems like a mistake.
And my other conceptual disagreement: I get the idea that it’s worth looking at Harlem Children’s Zone results to judge Promise Neighborhoods, but I think the President and the people in the Department of Education have been pretty clear that it’s an inspiration for this idea but there are different inspirations as well. There’s lots of evidence out there that suggests that tying programs together makes a lot of sense and might leverage lots of programs in a more cost-effective way.
So [I don’t buy] the idea that we shouldn’t test this out –that we shouldn’t spend this relatively small amount of money to try to solve this problem. It seems like an idea that is worth experimentation. If there’s a government system that’s working, then you can make the case that you shouldn’t try anything too different. But I don’t think anyone can make the case that we’ve solved the problem of how to educate poor kids in this country. And so I think it really is a moment of crisis in that realm. And when you’re in a moment of crisis, you’ve got to try new things. And the fact that we’ve got a couple of programs that are pretty small –Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP model –where things can be tested and tried, that’s exactly what we should be doing. To me that seems like a smart great investment of money. So the fact that the Brookings report was saying, well, we know the answers to these questions, no point investing any more study or investing in anything new, that seemed to me to be really short-sighted.