David Snyder

Whole Child Blogwatch: Harlem Shuffle

The education blogosphere lit up this week with debate over results of a new study on the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ). The HCZ contains a school—The Promise Academy—but also provides extensive social services and community programs. (ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine recently reviewed a book on the HCZ, Whatever It Takes).

The Harvard study, Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap?, looked at the impact the Promise Academy had on test scores, both against students within the HCZ who did not attend the Promise Academy, and against students taking the state test overall. Promise Academy students did significantly better than their peers who did not attend and also made large strides in closing the persistent racial achievement gap.

The flashpoint for all the discussion was a New York Times column by David Brooks. Brooks interpreted the study to be a victory for the "schools-alone" approach of school reform. Many observers vociferously objected to this take; in a post titled "David Brooks in Opposite Land," Learning First Alliance's Claus Von Zastrow wrote:

Did Brooks really just argue that the Harlem Children's Zone's success supports the schools alone approach championed by "reformers"? That's like arguing that the Surgeon General's reports discredit the link between smoking and cancer.

As just about everyone knows, the Harlem Children's Zone combines education, social services and community programs to improve the odds for children and youth in Harlem--It's an odd poster child for Brooks's argument.

Over at The Quick and the Ed, Chad Aldeman chimed in with some in-depth analysis of the numbers:

The siblings of Promise Academy students do achieve slightly higher than their peers and miss fewer days of school, but these effects are nowhere near the ones observed in the Promise Academy students. There must be something about the combination of services and schooling to account for such differences. 

David Brooks has a political agenda and only 750 words to write about it, so he takes these findings and runs with them. He sees the school as the one extra element and takes that to mean that the school is what made the difference. He might be right, but in the process he ignores the possibility that the combination of intense services and intense schooling made the difference. 

It makes sense that kids who are given such holistic support—in and out of school—show higher achievement. What conclusions do you draw from this new data, and how should it inform educators and policymakers going forward?

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