Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 2 2008 6:49 AM

How Children Stop Failing

It takes a village to raise a school.

See " Schoolhouse Rock," Paul Tough's new education blog on Slate.

Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.

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.

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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.