TBR: Whatever It Takes

On the plane last week, I finally had the chance to read Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.  Tough is a reporter for the NY Times Magazine, and this is his expanded coverage of the Harlem Children's Zone, which he's reported on over the years.  Obama has said he wants to create 20 Promise Neighborhoods, modeled after the HCZ, so I thought it was important to read the book.

HCZ is an attempt to change the odds for kids in a poor neighborhood by providing an extensive range of services, everything from parenting classes to preschool to charter schools to summer programs.  What makes it different from most other attempts is:

  • it tries to cover kids from birth through college, on the assumption that no program lasting just a few years is going to keep kids on the right track in the face of overwhelming obstacles.  This is in many ways an implicit rebuke to the extravagant claims sometimes made for  Head Start or  home visiting  programs.
  • it tries to reach enough kids — ideally it would be at a scale to reach every kid in the target neighborhood — to change the culture of the neighborhood for the better.  Canada explicitly argues that the well regarded KIPP charter schools encourage students to separate themselves from the community as a whole

Tough doesn't hide that he's a believer in the HCZ approach.  In general, the book is overwhelmingly positive about Canada and the HCZ, although a long section is devoted to the struggles at the charter middle school they operate, and the choice to give up on the first class of students after two years of disappointing results. 

I think HCZ is a fascinating experiment, but Whatever It Takes isn't quite a fascinating book.  It's a solid book, well-reported, with a decent popular summary of the academic literature behind the theory.  But, fundamentally, the story of HCZ is really only in its first chapter, with no one knowing how it will turn out.  Geoffrey Canada's personal story is quite intriguing, but Canada himself has already written that book.

If you like to listen to the radio, I might suggest the coverage of this book on This American Life or Talk of the Nation instead.

3 Responses to “TBR: Whatever It Takes”

  1. K Says:

    I heard his story on NPR and was looking forward to reading the book. I’m sorry to hear it isn’t fascinating. I am interested enough in his thoughts, though, that I might read it anyway.

  2. amy Says:

    Elizabeth, I have to say I’m dubious. I’ve been involved in similar projects, and I don’t see that there’s a lot of success in artificially changing the culture. You pour in a tremendous amount of money, time, and energy, and you might help a few kids step out of there. If money, time, and energy are no object, I say go for it, but they’re in scarce supply these days.
    Unless this sort of thing is home-grown, from inside the community, with significant support and will from *inside the community*, it’s really just a variation on Indian schools, and it doesn’t take, I think.
    I think it’d probably be just as effective, and much less expensive, to identify promising kids who want no part of the culture they live in, and work like hell to get them out of that environment.

  3. Vincent DeSantis Says:

    Reading the book inspired me to try to bring this concept to my community, a smaller city with a more surmountable but still troubling trans-generational sub-culture. Though the book is not fascinating, it gives a very clear picture of the difficulty in attempting to change the atmosphere of a whole community. That said, the idea of giving up on improving the community itself and thereby strengthening the entire society just because it is hard is not acceptable. We know what it would take and we do have the resources. We just need the political will to do it.

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