The promise of the Harlem Children's Zone can be seen in Garry Kasparov playing chess with one of its Promise Academy students

The Harlem Children’s Zone and it’s chief executive, Geoffrey Canada, have not only exemplified what school reformers can do when they take a community-based approach to improving education, but has even spawned a movie, an American Express commercial, and the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods program for tackling poverty and education. So naturally, the release of a report this week by the Brookings Institution criticizing the performance of one of the Harlem Children’s Zone’s charter schools (and by proxy, the underlying approach of Promise Neighborhoods) was certainly going to get some attention (along with a terse response from Canada himself). While Canada and the report’s co-authors, Russ Whitehurst and Michelle Croft, get to sparring, here is Dropout Nation‘s analysis of the report and the competing philosophies behind both Harlem Children’s Zone and the Brookings report:

  1. Certainly Harlem Children’s Zone can — and should — do better in improving student achievement in its schools: The fact that its Promise Academy does a better job of improving student achievement than traditional public schools in the community it serves isn’t enough, especially when those schools are abysmal in the first place. Harlem Children’s Zone isn’t just proving itself against those schools, but against other public charters that don’t offer such a wide array of services. More importantly, it comes down to this: Black and Latino children in its school have to do better than average because they often enter school so far behind academically. So Harlem Children’s Zone needs to take a hard look at its performance and get going on improving its outcomes.
  2. But the Brookings report argues unconvincingly that the model doesn’t work: The report doesn’t really attempt any sort of true longitudinal snapshot of academic progress at Promise Academy over time; there is some evidence that Whitehurst and Croft had opportunity to do some longitudinal analysis for grades six-through-eight (from 2007, 2008 and 2009 results), but the report doesn’t offer evidence that such an attempt was made. Certainly the analysis provided offers a sobering glimpse on Harlem Children’s Zone’s success and challenge. But itĀ  also comes to some headline-grabbing conclusions about the program’s future success with incomplete analysis.
  3. The report also underscores an amazingly thoughtless conceit among Beltway school reformers — that grassroots networks don’t really matter: This may not be intentional on the part of Whitehurst and his co-author (or from folks such as Sara Mead), but it seeps through the entire piece. It is also quite incorrect. As Dropout Nation has argued ad nauseum this week, it is the very lack of bodies — especially networks of grassroots activists and churches — that has posed the single-biggest problem for Beltway-based reformers in sustaining their prescriptions for overhauling American public education. It isn’t enough to argue for policies: It also requires getting the hands dirty, working with the 51 million single parents, grandparents and immigrant families ready to embrace school reform (but who lack the resources, especially knowledge and guidance on what high quality education should look like, in order to make it a reality). Given the remaining strength of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and their allies on the ground, Beltway reformers need get into the grassroots game. This means understanding that you can’t solve educational issues without also working with those who understand the other social issues (and who can rally support around reform solutions). [By the way: There is also a major difference between the family empowerment through educationĀ  approach taken by Canada — who is a co-signatory on the Broader, Bolder manifesto Brookings so rightfully criticizes — and the rest of the crowd, who are defenders of traditional public education and argue that education cannot overcome poverty. Sadly, however, Whitehurst (an otherwise excellent researcher) and Croft neither notes those differences nor provides much nuance on any of this. They should have done so. Period.]
  4. But this doesn’t mean the Harlem Children’s Zone approach is for everyone: The idea behind Canada’s program is powerful and exciting, as is the promise and even the reality. It will serve well the children and families under its umbrella. But there are plenty of successful programs on the community end which can do the social services work better than any school reformer can; after all, there is something called comparative advantage. What Beltway-based school reformers can do (and, in the case of the grassroots-based reform counterparts already do) is form networks of organizations that can handle those social needs, then create data systems that can track how kids are doing over time. Easy to do? Not in the age of FERPA (traditional school districts don’t do this well). But school reformers have the resourcefulness to make this a reality.