Does the Harlem Children's Zone Work?

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Technology problems kept me off the blog yesterday. But I'm back with a belated take on Geoffrey Canada, who was the headline speaker at a well-attended Family Service of Rhode Island fundraiser at the Rhode Island Convention Center yesterday

Canada is the charismatic figure behind the Harlem Children's Zone, a sweeping effort to transform the lives of some 10,000 children in a 97-block area of Manhattan. Charter schools, health care services, college counseling, and classes for new parents, called "Baby College," are all part of the effort.

The push has inspired a federal grant program that aims to replicate the initiative in cities all over the country. And Providence is among those taking a shot.

Canada, who has been on "60 Minutes" twice and was named one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential" this year, is an eloquent spokesman for the approach. He is urgent, warm, funny, unafraid. And it was all on display yesterday. But is the Harlem Children's Zone working?

Canada depicted the program as an unqualified success yesterday. And when I asked him, afterward, if the numbers are truly there, he pointed me to a 2009 study out of Harvard University, conducted by Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie, which pointed to major gains by students at Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) charter schools. Among the findings: students in one of the schools eliminated the black-white achievement gap in math.

The results got the attention of New York Times columnist David Brooks, among others, who wrote a column when the study was released, including this bit from Fryer, one of the researchers:

"The results changed my life as a researcher because I am no longer interested in marginal changes,” Fryer wrote in a subsequent e-mail. What Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children’s Zone’s founder and president, has done is “the equivalent of curing cancer for these kids. It’s amazing. It should be celebrated. But it almost doesn’t matter if we stop there. We don’t have a way to replicate his cure, and we need one since so many of our kids are dying — literally and figuratively.”

The last couple of sentences hint at one of the fundamental crtitiques of the Harlem Children's Zone. The project has benefitted from a major infusion of private money, much of it from Wall Street, and there are serious questions about whether its fundraising can be replicated elsewhere. There are serious questions, in other words, about how scaleable the effort is.

The Fryer research, moreover, finds little evidence that the wraparound services - health and otherwise - had much impact on student performance, raising questions about whether a cheaper, school-focused model might be more cost-effective. If that were the case, the fundamental approach of the Children's Zone - providing comprehensivce services for a whole community in a bid to boost student performance - would be invalidated.

Moreover, competing research - particularly a prominent study out of the Brookings Institution - is less sanguine about the overall performance of students in the Children's Zone.

The Brookings report, which focused on the older of the Harlem Children's Zone's two charter schools, found that the school achieved middling results in math and English compared to other charter schools in Manhattan and Bronx, even when the results were controlled for demographics like race, income, and English proficiency.

The study notes that charter schools in New York, on the whole, perform better than traditional public schools. So the Harlem Children's Zone faced stiff competition here. Indeed, the report is quick to note that the HCZ school produced impressive results when compared to traditional public schools serving kids of a similar demographic profile. But several charter schools run by KIPP, a highly regarded charter school operator, did even better - raising questions, again, about whether the Harlem Children's Zone investment in wraparound services is worthwhile.

It is important to note that Canada disputes the validity of the Brookings Institution report. The report trivializes HCZ's closure of the black-white achievement gap in math, a sort of Holy Grail for education reformers, Canada says. And it focuses, too narrowly, on kids attending one school.

Even while misunderstanding the basic premise of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Whitehurst
and Croft analysis has several weaknesses. First, it looks at only one of our charter schools, Promise
Academy I. If Whitehurst and Croft had decided to look instead at our other charter school, Promise
Academy II, which started with children in kindergarten and first grade, they would have found that
Promise Academy II was not in the middle of Bronx and Manhattan charter schools, but in the top
quarter. The decision to exclude Promise II students, in our opinion, is a fatal flaw in their report.
Second, they do not look at progress of the students over time, which we believe is a better measure of
the added value of a school. In contrast, the Harvard University study of our work by researchers Will
Dobbie and Dr. Roland Fryer looked at progress over time. The analysis of Dobbie and Fryer showed that
Promise Academy middle‐school students entered our school with lower scores on average than all
black children in New York City. Despite starting out below the average for black students in New York
City, the middle school students closed the achievement gap with white students over their first three
years. If you take this approach you reach a totally different conclusion: you see highly significant
progress with our middle schools students.

It is a reasonable critique. But there are still important questions, here, about whether the wraparound approach is proven - and worthy of widespread replication on the federal dime. Indeed, as the Brookings researchers point out, research on other programs that attempt to provide comprehensive supports - like Head Start - show little in the way of long-term academic gain.

It is true that academic benchmarks are not the only ones that count. HCZ's success in reducing asthma-related emergency room visits, for instance, is quite remarkable. But as Canada himself argues, educational achievement is the most important route out of poverty.

The Obama Administration is pushing ahead with its HCZ-inspired Promise Neighborhoods initiative. So we should know, soon enough, if this something than can work at scale. 


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