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NCLB Outrages

Author tracks one man's quest to fix Harlem
Ohanian Comment: Back in 2004, I noted Canada is right that you can't separate school problems from socio-economic problems. I wonder why there's a need to denounce teachers to do this. And I was discouraged to see that the only two reading programs mentioned were "Hooked on Phonics" and a "computer-assisted after-school reading program."

You might do well to look at a few more of Paul Tough's judgements on education. Here he is on people who dare to criticize Ruby Payne.

Noted researcher Gerald Bracey took Tough to task in a letter.

Here we see the Standardisto Paul Tough version of "a teachable moment"--agreeing to go to school 11 hours a day if you don't get your homework done on time.

In this interview below, Toppo asks the critical question: After the first bad year at Promise Academy, Canada seems to become obsessed with test prep: "There were morning test-prep sessions, a test-prep block during the school day, test prep in the afterschool program, and test prep on Saturdays." Isn't that inappropriate, given the dearth of rich cultural experiences these kids have?

I find the answer alarming. I think anybody who knows anything about children would. Geoffrey Canada's work presents challenges and complexities for us to ponder. Wholesale kudos do nobody any good. The title of Tough's book offers warning about his exaggerated premise. We can hope that the exaggerations are his and not Canada's.

By Greg Toppo

In 1999, Geoffrey Canada, president of a respected non-profit for families in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, embarked on an "outsized and audacious" endeavor. Programs that helped dozens or even hundreds of kids, he'd concluded, weren't enough. So he traced out a 24-block "children's zone" and blanketed it with social services: a health clinic, parenting classes, an intensive charter school, after-school tutoring and more. The idea, says author Paul Tough, was to create "a safety net woven so tightly" that kids couldn't slip through.

Tough, an editor for the New York Times Magazine, spent five years following Canada's efforts as the zone grew to 97 blocks. USA TODAY spoke with Tough about his new book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America (Houghton Mifflin, $26).

Q: The book is as much a primer on poverty as it is a book about education. What's the most important insight you took away?

A: Poor children turn into poor adults for one simple reason: They lack the skills and the knowledge to compete at a high level. It's not about a lack of will or native ability, it's not about a lack of opportunity, it's about a lack of training. Because of a variety of problems in their homes and their schools and their communities, disadvantaged children never get a chance to learn the skills they need to succeed. The good news is that if you find a way to teach them those skills ΓΆ€” and that's entirely possible, though it takes an innovative approach and a lot of hard work ΓΆ€” they're going to have a much better shot at a successful life.

Q: You spend nearly half of the book talking about parenting and children's early language development. Do poor and middle-class people really parent and discipline their kids differently? Is it true, as someone says, that "time-out's for white people"?

A: Well, it's easy to oversimplify, and it's clear that every parent does things in their own unique way. But what Canada has found is that in Harlem, many low-income parents don't know about or don't believe in this whole set of parenting strategies that in middle-class neighborhoods have become second nature: early mental stimulation, creative play, constant exposure to language, negotiation rather than corporal punishment. Time-outs are a perfect example. That quote comes from an instructor at Baby College, the Harlem Children's Zone's parenting program. She was describing an attitude that she said she sometimes hears from low-income parents: Time-outs aren't for us, they aren't for Harlem. Her response: No, time-outs are for everyone. They're not cultural, they're just sensible.

Q: After the first bad year at Promise Academy, Canada seems to become obsessed with test prep: "There were morning test-prep sessions, a test-prep block during the school day, test prep in the afterschool program, and test prep on Saturdays." Isn't that inappropriate, given the dearth of rich cultural experiences these kids have?

A: These were kids in the seventh grade who were two or three or four years behind in reading and math. Geoff's argument ΓΆ€” and there's a lot of evidence to support it ΓΆ€” is that poor kids in that situation are really on the edge of a cliff. If they don't master those basic skills soon, they'll never catch up with their middle-class peers. But if they do learn how to read fluently now, they're going to be able to have rich cultural experiences the rest of their lives. Sure, schools can go overboard with test prep. But if you do it right, preparing a kid for a standardized test basically just means expanding his vocabulary and math skills and ability to read. And for a disadvantaged child who is behind on those skills in middle school, nothing else is more important.

Q: Near the end, you note that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has embraced Canada's work and wants to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities. Given the difficulties you describe, is it worth the considerable expense and trouble?

A: Definitely. I think Obama's plan is very exciting. The difficulties I describe in the book almost all had to do with the middle school, and they were mostly temporary. Meanwhile, Geoff has two big ideas that have been very successful and that deserve to be tested elsewhere. One is the "conveyor belt" for younger kids, starting in infancy, which leads them from parenting programs through all-day pre-kindergarten to an intensive charter elementary school. It gets them on grade level early and keeps them there, so they don't need to catch up when they get to middle school. The other is the tipping-point idea, what Geoff calls "contamination" ΓΆ€” that if you can reach enough kids in a single neighborhood and convince them that doing well and going to college are the normal things to do, you will change the neighborhood's whole character. Both of these ideas are new and original, and both have been very successful so far.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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