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.