Providing social services — parenting classes, health care, nutrition help, afterschool programs and more — hasn’t improved achievement for students at Harlem Children’s Zone‘s Promise Academy, concludes a Brookings study. The zone’s six-year-old charter school, which includes an elementary, middle and high school, outperforms the New York city average, when adjusted for demographics. But its performance is only average — a bit higher in math, lower in reading — compared to Bronx and Manhattan charter schools that offer no social or community services. (Scores were adjusted for student poverty levels and the percentage of black, Hispanic and limited English proficient students.)
Zone founder Geoffrey Canada has raised $100 million in private donations to improve the neighborhood and create better schools. However, Promise Academy students living in the zone, who were eligible for the full range of services, did no better than classmates living outside the zone, who received only the chance to attend the charter school, according to a Harvard study. In other words, the school alone made a difference.
Evidence undercuts the Broader, Bolder thesis that comprehensive community services are essential to improving disadvantaged students’ achievement, argue Brookings authors Russ Whitehurst and Michelle Croft.
There is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S.
. . . there is a large and growing body of evidence that schools themselves can have significant impacts on student achievement. The most powerful educational effects over which we have any societal control occur within the walls of schools. They are the effects produced by good teachers, effective curriculum, and the changes in leadership, management, culture, and time to learn that are incorporated into schools that beat the odds, including successful charter schools.
Improving neighborhoods is a desirable goal, but it’s not education reform, Whitehurst and Croft write. And it’s very expensive.
Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, President Obama is seeking $210 million to create Promise Neighborhoods in 20 cities. That’s not enough to replicate the web of services provided in Harlem, the authors write. If the goal is better schools, the money should be spent on creating better schools.
After only six years, it’s too soon to write off the Harlem Children’s Zone idea, writes Jay Mathews.