Harlem miracle

The Harlem Miracle, a David Brooks column in the New York Times, praises a charter  school that’s dramatically boosted low-income black and Hispanic students’ test scores.  That shows schools can make big changes for children in poverty, Brooks writes. Of course, Promise Academy is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides a range of programs to help families, including prenatal care and parenting classes. But children who live in the zone but lost the lottery to attend the charter school didn’t show the same progress. “In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students, Brooks writes.

Promise exemplifies “an emerging model for low-income students,” Brooks writes.

Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.

It takes time to get left-behind students caught up.

Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.

The middle school struggled in its first few years, writes Paul Tough in Whatever It Takes, the story of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Teacher turnover was high. Too many students were behavior problems. But as students moved from the elementary to the middle school, those problems were solved.

For more on no-excuses, culture-building schools read Sweating the Small Stuff by David Whitman and, of course, Our School by me.

Update: On Gotham Schools, skoolboy calls Brooks gullible.

About Joanne


  1. In the 40s and 50s, both public and private schools explicitly taught the behaviors associated with the Protestant work ethic, even though Catholic schools didn’t call it by that name. Generations of kids, even those from newly-arrived, non-English-speaking, poorly-educated families from eastern and southern Europe were taught the attitudes and behaviors necessary for success at school and in the workplace. Self-control was an absolute virtue, enforced with strict discipline and dress policies that were supported alike by teachers, administrators and families. Self-esteem and cultural sensitivity weren’t even mentioned; assimilation into American middle-class values was the explicit goal. Old-world customs and language were handled privately.

    A number of black columnists have also said that there was far better behavior in their communities, even during the diminished opportunities of the segregation years, when most kids came from stable, two-parent families.

  2. So, outside of winning the lotto, sports stardom, or academic scholarship, the only path to middle class status for the underclass is bourgeois values. Everything old is new again.

  3. There is much to argue that, far from accepted wisdom, the most important factor in the successful education of a child is good schools – focused, disciplined, organized environment with good teachers who are guaranteed a positive educational environment.

    Whether it’s charters or not, whatever works is the way to go in terms of public education, and no one should stand in the way of that.

  4. greifer says:

    Sorry, but Brooks’ breathless piece has some serious issues with it. I’d start here, with some real analysis of the data:


    says as an excerpt:

    But here’s the kicker. In the HCZ Annual Report for the 2007-08 school year submitted to the State Education Department, data are presented on not just the state ELA and math assessments, but also the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Those eighth-graders who kicked ass on the state math test? They didn’t do so well on the low-stakes Iowa Tests. Curiously, only 2 of the 77 eighth-graders were absent on the ITBS reading test day in June, 2008, but 20 of these 77 were absent for the ITBS math test. For the 57 students who did take the ITBS math test, HCZ reported an average Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) score of 41, which failed to meet the school’s objective of an average NCE of 50 for a cohort of students who have completed at least two consecutive years at HCZ Promise Academy. In fact, this same cohort had a slightly higher average NCE of 42 in June, 2007.

    Normal Curve Equivalents (NCE’s) range from 1 to 99, and are scaled to have a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 21.06. An NCE of 41 corresponds to roughly the 33rd percentile of the reference distribution, which for the ITBS would likely be a national sample of on-grade test-takers. Scoring at the 33rd percentile is no great success story.

    read more above for details.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Corey Bunje Bower wasn’t very impressed with Brooks’ article either. Some of his commenters thought he as being a little too hard.