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

This is the second post in a series critiquing Geoffrey Canada’s approach to education reform. Read Part I.

In my last post examining Paul Tough’s account of Geoffrey Canada’s initiation of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), I noted that Canada brought much needed focus to “wraparound services” and early childhood years in addressing the achievement gap. However, I critiqued Canada’s approach by pointing out that despite his own acknowledgement of the importance of a long-term perspective, he focused on short-term, bottom-line indicators, putting great pressure on his administrators, teachers, and students to the detriment of an inclusive learning environment that supports and nurtures social and emotional needs.

In this post, I’d like to continue my critique of this bottom-line approach, but before I do so, I want to make it clear that I am not attempting to devalue Geoffrey Canada’s work. He is a pioneer, and he has established clear pathways to raising Harlem’s children out of poverty. I am attempting to build on this work by promoting a deeper focus on creating inclusive, positive learning environments that address the whole child as the next step in promoting education reform.

Something else I appreciate about Canada is his utter refusal to give up on poor black communities, and rather than try to isolate children from the culture they were raised within, he seeks to transform the community as a whole through what he calls the process of “contamination.”

Many programs that try to help poor children, including charter schools, charities, and social service agencies, take as their premise that the best way to help children in a bad environment is to separate them as much as possible from that environment, to insulate them from the problems and values of the ghetto or even to extract promising kids from their homes and drop them into elite boarding schools. Canada, by contrast, wants to leave Harlem’s poor children exactly where they are, so that they change the neighborhood and the neighborhood changes them.

In order to give students the skills that they were sorely lacking, Canada’s school team focused on test results, just as so many public schools are prodded to do today in the current “data-driven” environment. This focus is due in large part to research on poverty by James Heckman:

Skills matter. The more ability you have, the better you are likely to do in life. . . . significant skill gaps exist–by race, class, and maternal education–and they open up very early.

Recognition of these gaps in skills has therefore resulted in what we call “test prep,” in which kids are drilled on skills like finding the meaning of a word using context clues, figuring out the main idea of a text, or making an inference.

But focusing primarily on reading skills in this way does a disservice to students who are struggling with those basic skills in two ways. First of all, it ignores the social and emotional needs that all students have. Students that have been raised in conditions of poverty often have great emotional and psychological needs that are direly evident to those who work with them. They need a lot of attention, empathy, and love. As Tough puts it in his narrative:

It was the X factor, the magic ingredient that could outweigh all the careful calculations behind Promise Academy’s strategy for success: on top of the hours and hours of cognitive training, what made the difference in many students’ lives was a personal connection that was impossible to measure and difficult to replicate. If the kids didn’t get that, all the tutoring in the world might not help them.

The second way that test prep does a great disservice to kids is that the reason they are struggling with basic skills in literacy is not because they need to be taught reading skills, but because they lack the background knowledge essential to comprehending and grappling with complex texts. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Daniel T. Willingham, and Robert Pondiscio have argued this point more in full elsewhere, but to sum up a major point they have all made: reading is not really a skill, it is more a reflection of prior knowledge. Willingham puts it well here:

We tend to teach comprehension as a series of “reading strategies” that can be practiced and mastered. Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way. The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.

So what is it that kids need, then? As I have argued on GothamSchools, they need rich, coherent curriculum that targets their social and emotional needs, in addition to building up their background knowledge with structured, sequential content.

Yet this is almost the exact opposite tack that Canada’s principal of his elementary school took:

McKesey’s belief was that on tests like the one the 2nd grade students were practicing to take, knowledge was only one part of the equation, and a fairly small part, at that. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in teaching content . . . it was just that he thought that when a child sat down to take a standardized test, knowing a lot of information wasn’t necessarily all that helpful. What mattered more was having mastered certain test-taking strategies and tricks, the kind that allowed students to undertand what the exam was really asking.

Wrong. Knowing a lot of information is extremely helpful. Knowing a lot of strategies will maybe get the school some short term boosts on tests, but it’s not going to take those children anywhere. This kind of approach does an extreme disservice to children, especially ones who are already severely behind. They need more knowledge, more deep understanding of the academic fields they are expected to master, not shallow strategies on how to succeed on shallow multiple choice tests.

Furthermore, when children are suffering with great emotional or psychological needs, creating an environment of high stress and emotional vacuity is detrimental to their long-term growth. Eventually, what happens is that some kids — the ones termed “bad apples” in Tough’s account — will be swept under the rug. They need an environment of structured caring, with content that is meaningful and that will enrich their lives and broaden their perspectives.

It takes so much more than war to save our communities and our children most in need. It takes a lot of love and empathy. It takes a structured, consistent focus on restructuring our economy, redesigning our urban spaces, and measuring the things that truly matter. We must stop focusing on the bottom-line of multiple choice tests, and focus instead on the bottom-line of the hearts and minds and well-being of children.

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