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Saturday, October 15, 2011

SYSK: How Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone hurt education

Adopting the motto “whatever it takes,” the charismatic and energetic Canada set out to fight poverty and low academic achievement in a 97-square-block zone in Harlem. Private donations and accolades poured in, and Mr. Canada’s ambitious (and breathtakingly expensive) project was chronicled in a well-reviewed book (“Whatever It Takes,” written by journalist Paul Tough). The Zone’s two charter schools initially showed positive results, but more recent studies have illustrated just how hard it is to break the interconnected cycles of poverty and low achievement.

First, it should be emphasized that two-thirds of Canada’s funding came from private donations, making his project a virtual private school and unsustainable or reproducible on a large scale. Second, despite his emphasis on hard work, Canada attributes his own academic success (despite growing up poor) to his avid reading. Ample studies show a strong correlation between reading, especially in early childhood, and later academic success. Yet low income families tend to read less to their young children and expose them to fewer new vocabulary words than middle class and wealthy families. This creates an achievement gap before kids have even started kindergarten that tends to increase as children get older, a problem that cannot be surmounted simply through hard work, accountability, or testing.

Canada, to his credit, acknowledges the strong impact that poverty has on academic achievement, and has sought to mitigate these effects with health care, adult classes for expecting parents, after school programs and other social supports. What he fails to realize or address (nor can he) is that the effects of poverty cannot be reversed through superficial means that occur only part-time (e.g., at school). The students and their families have spent much or all of their lives in poverty. Students continue to be poor when they go home. They start school with a disadvantage in terms of literacy and school readiness. Many lower income students have long histories academic failure and come to school with low self-efficacy. Poor kids are more likely to be born premature, with low birth weights, and to suffer malnutrition, lead poisoning or iron deficiency anemia, each of which can impair cognitive development or lead to learning disabilities. All of the best teaching and support services combined cannot overcome all of these problems for all low income students.

From the blg Modern School by Micheal Dunn

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