It Takes More Than War PART I: A Critique of Geoffrey Canada’s Approach to Ed Reform

I recently finished Paul Tough‘s excellent book on Geoffrey Canada and HCZ, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. This book is an essential read for those interested or involved in public education, not just for the great reporting and insight into the formative years of the Harlem Children’s Zone, but also for Tough’s thorough synthesis of perspectives and research on the topic of poverty. His second chapter details the history of views on poverty in the US, from Moynihan, Charles Murray, William Julius Wilson, James Heckman, to Richard Rothstein and the Thermstroms. It’s cogently presented and enlightening background on poverty essential to those in the field of policy and education.

In addition to this research, however, the very story of Geoffrey Canada’s initiation of the HCZ encapsulates the education reform movement entire and provides crucial insight into reform’s competing perspectives, embodied in particular by the dynamic figure of Canada, the consummate ed reformer. Canada is an imposing and dynamic figure, and I came away from the book with a profound respect for him both as a person and as a leader. He’s been through the fire and he’s walking the walk.

Canada’s recognition that children must be reached immediately after birth and provided with “wraparound services” — with or without the support of the parent — is fundamental. I was inspired in particular by his innovation of the “Baby College” and GEM, programs which work to educate and involve parents in their child’s upbringing. This kind of community building is something that aligns well with our perspective of schools as ecosystems.

“In the end, the real goal of Baby College was not to impart information. It was to change parents’ whole vision of themselves as parents, to encourage them to accept the idea that their child’s education and intellectual development began at birth, if not before, and that they, as parents, had a crucial role to play in that development.”

Canada has deep empathy and understanding of the situation of the community he works within. He knows the critical necessity for looking at the long-term in changing the culture of poverty. He states “these folks are so beaten down that they’re not able to just sit down and understand this in a couple of hours or weeks.”

He knows this reality first-hand. “When Canada looks at his own family history, and his wife, Yvonne’s, it becomes clear to him that the transformation, when it happens, can take generations. . . . ‘It’s not something you can give somebody in a week or a month,’ he said. ‘It takes years and years of beating kids up with this set of values for it to become part of their understanding.”

This acknowledgment of the need for a long-term perspective, and that results might not show up immediately, is another view that aligns well with our perspective of schools as ecosystems.

But despite this tentative alignment, however, ultimately Canada is focused on the bottom-line, driven by short-term results on state tests. “We’ve got to act more like Wal-Mart,” he tells his administration. . . . For the next two months . . . .until the citywide tests in April, the whole school was going to be concentrating on one thing: raising the test scores.”

Notice how there’s no talk of curriculum, nor the social-emotional needs of children?

Welcome to the wonderful world of test prep. The strain this simpleminded focus upon immediately quantifiable results puts upon the school and on the teachers and children is evident in Tough’s balanced narrative. Tough tells the shift in perspective that one school leader gained as she interacted directly with the students themselves, rather than dealt solely with data:

“But as the tests drew closer, Shoemaker began to get the feeling that for at least some of the students in the afterschool program, the most relevant contributing factor to their score was going to be something deeper and harder to identify than simply their ability to “use context clues” . . . This was the first assignment that Shoemaker had had at the Harlem Children’s Zone where she was working so closely with the children themselves, and what struck her most that autumn and winter was how many of the students had problems that seemed more emotional or psychological than they were academic or intellectual. . . Shoemaker’s tutors were hired for their abilities in English and math instrucction, but as the relationships between the tutors and the students developed . . . the tutors often found themslves drawing on a very different set of skills. . . .The emotional and psychological issues the children were struggling with had a clear effect on their test scores, Shoemaker believed.”

In stark contrast to Canada’s focus on the bottom-line stands the first principal of his middle school, Terri Gray. Unlike Canada’s “behavioralist” model, Gray upholds “a more holistic model. For her, educating a student was a delicate process, as much about making emotional connections as it was about drilling a kid with information.”

Like Shoemaker, “the more she learned about the home life of her students, the more their outbursts and breakdowns made sense to her. . . .Her students needed help, and lots of it, and she didn’t always know how to give it to them.”

Gray is later fired after test results don’t measure up adequately enough. Canada states that her weakness was that “in the end, she felt the teachers were overwhelmed, that, you know, it’s a long school year, it’s a long school day, people are feeling burned out. And, well, yeah, so you’ve got to go in and rally the troops. That’s why you’re a leader. We’re in a war.”

This “war” terminology is something Canada continues to utilize when discussing his approach to education reform. Recently, when Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Eva Moskowitz teamed up to form StudentsFirstNY to push their aggressive brand of reform, Canada stated that “folks are genuinely looking for opportunities to make peace and not war….  And I think that’s terrific. But someone has to make war.”

If we’re talking about advocating for students’ rights to adequate health care, healthy living environments, nutrition, and positive learning environments, than by all means, let’s talk about going to war. But the battle to nurture and educate children is the battle that the gardener faces, the orchestrated daily struggle with pests, weeds, and disease. In education, the enemy is ignorance and poor design of systems and learning environments. Shifting cultures, as Canada should know so well, is difficult work that takes time and deep compassion and understanding.


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