In defense of the Harlem Children's Zone

Provding social services doesn’t improve school achievement, according to a Brookings Study that looked at a charter school in the Harlem Children’s Zone.  The zone’s six-year-ol charter school, which is growing into a K-12, does better than traditional public schools but is “middling” compared to Bronx and Manhattan charters serving similar students, concluded Russ Whitehurst and Michelle Croft.

The study ignored the zone’s second charter, Promise Academy II, which started with children in kindergarten and first grade, responds Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone.  The second school ranks in the top quarter of Bronx and Manhatten charter schools.

Another study by researchers Will Dobbie and Dr. Roland Fryer looked showed “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.” 

Outside-the-zone students who go to a zone charter school receive the same services as zone students, so it’s not surprising their achievement is the same, Canada writes.

Brookings also used  data that underestimated the poverty levels of Promise Academy students, Canada writes. That’s the academy’s error.  The  school serves a free lunch to all students, regardless of income, so many parents didn’t turn in the federal eligibility form. Eligibility for a free lunch is used to determine family income. After several years, school officials pushed parents to fill in the forms, raising the eligibility rate to 80 percent.  

The zone exemplifes the Broader Bolder Approach, which argues that schools alone  can’t make a difference for children in poor neighborhoods. Whitehurst and Croft disagree: It’s a lot cheaper — and just as effective — to fix schools than to fix schools and the communities that surround them, they argue.

It would be surprising if the zone had no effect on children’s school performance. The question will be whether the benefits justify the costs.

Broader, bolder, but not better

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.

Poor schools or poor kids?

In Poor Schools or Poor Kids? on Education Next,  Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform speaks for the Education Equality Project (accountability, pay reform, choice) while Pedro Noguera gives the Broader, Bolder perspective (preschool, health care, nutrition, parent training) on improving K–12 schooling.

Noguera:  There are schools across the country—some are charter, some are private, and many are traditional public—that have shown us that it is possible for poor children to achieve at high levels when we respond to their needs and create conditions that are conducive to learning. . . . Many, though not all, schools that succeed with poor children devise strategies to mitigate the effects of poverty with site-based social services and extended learning opportunities. . . .

Williams: While we are very sympathetic to the obstacles that impoverished children face to their physical, emotional, and educational development, and support policies to address these deficiencies, we believe that when conditions outside of the classroom are less than stellar, it is even more important that we get the schooling piece right.

I side with Williams on this argument. Schools facing huge challenges need to keep their eyes (and resources) on the ball, which is academic achievement.

Noguera calls for creating education inspectors to evaluate schools based on qualitative measures as well as test scores; inspectors would provide detailed recommendations for improvement.

Curriculum is mentioned only once in the discussion, notes Core Knowledge Blog, which headlines its post, Blather, Rinse, Repeat.

Beyond math and reading tests

The Broader, Bolder folks want to test a broad range of subjects, not just math and reading, through  an expanded National Assessment of Educational Progress, which would evaluate a representative sample of students.

In addition, the report urges letting states design their accountability systems “provided these systems include qualitative evaluation of school quality and do not rely primarily on standardized test scores to judge the success of schools.”

·        The federal government should collect state-level data – mostly from an expanded National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) – on how students of different backgrounds perform in a broad range of academic subjects, as well as in the arts, physical health and fitness, citizenship habits, and other necessary knowledge and skills;
·        State accountability systems should supplement higher quality standardized tests with qualitative evaluation of districts and schools to ensure the presence of a supportive school climate, high-quality classroom instruction and other resources and practices needed for student success.

“Eminently sensible,” writes a Mike Petrilli on Education Gadfly.

That’s a big surprise, for in the past this coalition has appeared eager to refight old battles about whether schools can be expected to help poor kids reach high standards. Now, however, it’s arguing for a broader look at school success — what might be termed “test scores-plus.” They would keep test-based accountability, tweaked in various ways (with progress-over-time measures, better assessments, a more robust NAEP, etc.) and supplement it with school inspectors. These inspectors would guard against lousy practices, such as “an undue emphasis on test preparation,” and catch schools engaged in good ones, like “a collegial professional culture in which teachers and administrators use all available data in a collaborative fashion to continuously improve the work of the school.”

Charter school advocates might support that, he writes, since most believe “it will show their schools to have more supportive learning environments than what is found in a typical public school.”

Robert Pondiscio is skeptical that school inspectors will see schools as they really are.

Spend time in a struggling school in the weeks before a “quality review” and you’ll see an extraordinary amount of teaching and learning time going to cleaning classrooms, updating portfolios, making sure bulletin boards have up-to-date student work, etc.  Having lived through a few such inspections, its tempting to suggest judging a school from a formal walk-around is like judging a household from a Thanksgiving dinner.  Remember the grief your mom used to give you to clean up and mind your manners before company came?  Now imagine mom’s livelihood depends on it.  That’s a school in the weeks before quality review.

Instead of test prep, teachers will focus on inspection prep.