Don’t give up on Promise Neighborhoods

Don’t give up on Promise Neighborhoods, argues Paul Tough in a New York Times op-ed. The initiative aims to create a network of support services — child care, parenting classes, health clinics, etc. — and high-quality schools in 20 high-poverty neighborhoods.  The model is the Harlem Children’s Zone. Tough wrote the book on the zone, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America.

Last month, a Senate subcommittee cut more than 90 percent of the $210 million that President Obama had requested for Promise Neighborhoods.

A Brookings report questioning the Harlem Children Zone’s effectiveness in raising student achievement proved devastating.

There’s no proof Promise Neighborhoods will work, Tough concedes, but there’s some hope. If Congress is willing to spend billions on Title I and Head Start, proven failures, why not a few hundred million on a new idea? (One could argue Model Cities tried this idea from 1966-74.)

According to a new report (pdf) by Educational Testing Service, the combined Title I and Head Start budgets grew in inflation-adjusted dollars from $1.7 billion in 1970 to $13.8 billion in 2000. This year’s budget was $21.7 billion.

Head Start, which provides preschool programs to poor families, is a prime example of the Senate committee’s true attitude toward evidence-based decision-making. In January, the Health and Human Services Department released a study of Head Start’s overall impact (pdf). The conclusions were disturbing. By the end of first grade, the study found, Head Start graduates were doing no better than students who didn’t attend Head Start. “No significant impacts were found for math skills, pre-writing, children’s promotion, or teacher report of children’s school accomplishments or abilities in any year,” the report concluded.

Nonetheless, the Senate allocated $8.2 billion for Head Start in 2011, almost a billion dollars more than in 2010.

Rather than stick with the same strategies and hope things somehow magically change, Congress should find more room in the budget to support the Obama administration’s declared approach: to try new strategies and abandon failed ones; to expand and test programs with strong evidence of success, even if that evidence is inconclusive; and to learn from mistakes and make adjustments as we go.

Trimming the growth in Head Start would fund Promise Neighborhood pilots. Perhaps organizers will study Model Cities’ problems and do it differently this time. Or we could just give the Harlem experiment more time to prove itself.

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