Harlem Miracle?

Last Friday, David Brooks had an op-ed in the New York Times with the headline The Harlem Miracle, discussing an evaluation of the schools run by the Harlem Children's Zone. While lots of people have been excited by the concept of the HCZ — it's the basis for the "Promise Neighborhoods" idea that Obama talked about in the campaign and included in his budget — there hasn't been any hard data about effectiveness until now.  Here's the underlying study* which really is quite exciting.

The main findings of the study are:

  • For the middle school students, there were really enormous gains in math scores, although they took several years to kick in.  The gains in language arts scores were much more modest.  These findings are based on comparisons between those randomly selected for admission and those who applied but were randomly denied, so they're about as strong as you get.
  • The elementary school impacts were stronger on language arts, somewhat smaller on math, but still impressive.  Because few students who applied for the elementary schools were denied admission, these findings are based on a different statistical approach (instrumental variables), which is somewhat less reliable.
  • The authors did not find any significant effects on test scores for graduates of either Baby College or Harlem GEMS (the preschool program run by the HCZ).  They also note that the middle school impacts were as strong for kids who lived outside of the Zone as for those who were in it, suggesting that the full community package was not essential to the model.

So, what does this mean?  To start with, it refutes the claims of some that there's nothing you can do to help these kids do better in school and society. (The strong version of this claim is that IQ is genetic and can't be affected by anything you do, the weaker version is the claim that by the time the kids are in middle school it's too late.)

Brooks uses this finding to argue for "an emerging model for low-income students" where "schools create a disciplined,
orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values."  The thing to notice here is that Brooks is lumping HCZ and KIPP together.  Both models certainly share some features, including extended school days and years, and very high expectations.

However, if you read Whatever it Takes, one of the main themes is that Geoffrey Canada  (who runs HCZ) was constantly fighting his board, who thought they should just bring KIPP in to run these schools.  Canada felt that KIPP was too focused on rescuing a few students — and encouragin these students to define themselves in opposition to the neighborhood culture — whereas he wanted to change the neighborhood culture.  He also fought against explicitly teaching behaviors like making eye contact, arguing that no middle class school does that.  So, I don't know whether Canada gave in on these points, or if Brooks is distorting HCZ to fit his agenda.

But presumably, other people do have a good idea of what exactly is going on the HCZ schools.  Is this model then broadly replicable?  That depends on a bunch of questions:

  • Are there enough good teachers out there who are willling to work in low-income neighborhoods, with the kind of hours required, and under intense pressure to achieve good test scores?  (HCZ had extremely high turnover of teachers.)  And are we, as a society, willing to pay enough to recruit teachers to do this?
  • Are the kids willing to work as hard they have to to succeed in this model?  To give up afternoons and summers and weekends, and to work harder in school than they ever have before?
  • How much of this success is dependent on Canada himself?  His personal charisma is clearly part of what made both teachers and students willing to work so hard.  And his personal story makes him a very convincing messenger for the idea that if you work hard you can succeed, even coming from poverty in Harlem.  No one is going to give up their weekends and summers unless they're convinced that it will make a difference.

* It drives me crazy that the Times never includes links to underlying sources.  But it cracked me up that Judith Warner's blog last week included a linked definition for "muffin top."

Others on this column:

3 Responses to “Harlem Miracle?”

  1. Amy P Says:

    “He also fought against explicitly teaching behaviors like making eye contact, arguing that no middle class school does that.”
    That’s really wrong-headed. Lots of middle class children would benefit from learning to make eye contact. The fact that their schools may not be explicitly teaching them eye contact is not a reason to shortchange disadvantaged children as well. I’m working on getting my daughter to make eye contact and I’m trying to start doing it myself to be a good example. In mainstream American culture, if you don’t do it, it conveys hostility or lack of interest in what your interlocutor is saying. This is a really big deal and it’s negligent not to teach eye contact to children who don’t naturally do it.

  2. RSB Says:

    The latent racism in the title “The Harlem Miracle” is appalling. Is this a miracle because these were African-American children? Is there anyone who does not believe that motivated parents, a supportive community and good schools combine to produce good results?
    I am wondering if Mr. Brooks looked at the actual data in this not yet published or peer-reviewed paper ( http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/hcz%204.15.2009.pdf). The students selected for the Harlem Children’s Zone were required by NYC to be chosen by a lottery from among those who applied. All who applied were clearly from homes with motivated parents. The test results indicate that the Harlem Children’s Zone program significantly improved Math scores compared to the educational programs offered to other children. English language scores were only marginally changed. Mr Brooks did not distinguish between the results of the comparison between the Harlem Children’s Zone children and those not selected and the results comparing the Harlem Children’s Zone results with the city at large. The reason is simple. Because the HCZ schools were not over subscribed in the years under study, there was no cohort of children from families with similar motivation but whose children did not win the lottery. Instead, Fryor and Dobbie used children from the same environment who could have applied. They actually state, “We cannot, however, disentangle whether communities coupled with high-quality schools drive our results, or whether the high-quality schools alone are enough to do the trick.”

  3. amy Says:

    Middle class schools may not teach eye contact (actually they do with AS/autistic kids), but that’s because middle-class parents almost universally teach the kids, explicitly, to make eye contact, shake hands, return greetings, etc. By puberty there are major social penalties for not doing so, esp. if you’re male. You will not be welcome in the girlfriend’s house. You risk fights with the other boys. The obviously college-bound will be segregated and offered extracurricular goodies and you won’t be in that group unless you’re unusually bright and able. I’m sure that the parents reading this blog have felt they must teach the kids to shake hands, say “Hello” back, speak when spoken to, look people in the eye esp. when apologizing, etc.
    And actually every now and then you will get a schoolteacher who takes it on himself, usually in middle school, to make the kid in the hall look at him, respond, etc. Even my very middle-class hippie daycare guy trains two-year-olds to start doing this kind of thing.
    If you don’t have a Geoffrey Canada, you still need someone with that kind of moxie and charisma and organizational talent.
    Elizabeth, why did so many teachers leave? How much of it was because of HCZ political craziness?

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