The Harlem Children’s Zone is Harlem only

The Harlem Children’s Zone, which offers everything from prenatal classes, preschool, charter academies and help with college applications, has been “a wild success,” writes Amanda Erickson in The Atlantic.  Why hasn’t it been replicated?

 In 2009, every third grader at the HCZ’s Promise Academy tested at or above their grade level in math, outperforming their peers in the city and throughout the state. Over 84 percent of Promise Academy II students scored at or above grade level in city-mandated English tests, topping the average test scores among all other black students in New York City. And in 2008, 93 percent of Promise Academy High ninth graders passed the statewide Algebra Regents exam.

President Obama pledged to spend billions to create ”promise neighborhoods,” asked Congress for $210 million and ended up spending $40 million. Instead, he’s spent billions on direct aid to the poor and working poor.

Cities aren’t moving ahead without federal funds, writes Erickson. The Harlem Children’s Zone had Geoffrey Canada’s leadership, a board of very wealthy philanthropists and strong support from Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. That’s hard to replicate.

A blogger explains why Durham has struggled to create a children’s zone, and notes the Brookings Institution bdoubts that HCZ is cost effective.

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.

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.