David Brooks wrote quite the op-ed on Friday. And I don't mean that in a good way. Having just begun reading Whatever it Takes the day before, I was excited to see him writing about the Harlem Children's Zone. I read the first couple paragraphs and started sending the link to friends I knew were interested in the topic. Then I read the rest of the piece and recoiled in horror. I like David Brooks, I find him to be the most consistently interesting of all the op-ed writers at the Times. But this is not just sloppy journalism, it's flat out irresponsible -- and I will have a hard time taking him seriously in the future if he fails to offer an apology to his readers.
Brooks writes about a recent analysis of test scores of students at the Promise Academy by Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer that found huge gains in achievement -- leading Fryer to write to Brooks that the "study has changed my life as a scientist."
Brooks concludes that the Promise Academy has succeeded in closing the Black-White achievement gap in math and that no-excuses schools can do this by themselves. He once again frames the debate as one between "reformers" who believe that schools can do great things and doubters who believe that they cannot overcome societal influences. He goes on to argue that "The Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right."
Brooks' analysis is so flawed that it's tough to know where to begin. Here are a few of the problems with his conclusions:
1.) The Harlem Children's Zone is an all-encompassing social services organization that provides everything from classes for expectant mothers to deliveries of healthy food for as many people as they can sign up in a 97 block area of Harlem. The idea of the project to is to combat every disadvantage that these residents face in order to help the next generation succeed. The Promise Academy is the charter school that HCZ operates. To claim that positive results that the school achieves are proof that school reform is sufficient independent of societal reform is, unacceptably sloppy if not disingenuous. Brooks apparently missed the sentence in italics on page 5 of the paper: "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."
2.) Besides the fact that we're not sure exactly what induced the positive results, the claim that they were enough to close the black-white achievement gap is also somewhat dubious. As Aaron Pallas pointed out on Friday, the average student at the Promise Academy still scores significantly below the average White student in NYC.
3.) Even if we assume that the school itself can close the achievement gap, what, exactly, does this prove? Does anybody actually believe that simply evening the test scores of Black and White students is enough? The problem with focusing on the test-score gap as a proxy for inequality is that solving the test-score gap alone does little to solve the larger problem at hand. Sure, it would be a large step in the right direction -- but ultimately test scores aren't what matter. In the long run, what we really care about is whether students in poorer communities graduate from high school, earn college degrees, work in prestigious fields, escape poverty, avoid jail and welfare, and generally live healthy and productive lives. We cannot assume that higher test scores in elementary or middle school are enough to obtain all of these.
4.) Even if we assume that school itself can lead students to accomplish all of these things, we still have another problem: replication. For some reason that I can't quite figure out, we're all in search of the miracle cure in education. When somebody makes it home safely after drinking too much we don't rush to claim that drunk drivers who crash are making excuses or blaming their problems on alcohol. We still understand that driving drunk leads to bad things -- and that the exception doesn't disprove the rule. But every time we see a school with high test scores, a report pops up praising this as the answer to our educational problems. Even if this school walks on water, does it really mean that we've solved all of the problems of society? Each school has an inordinate number of things that make it unique -- the Promise Academy more so than most. Some of these things can be replicated, but some of them cannot. Not every school can have a well-connected and astoundingly wealthy Wall Street tycoon chairing its board of trustees. Not everybody can have Geoffrey Canada as their organization's President. Different schools succeed for different reasons, and it's not at all clear that we can replicate the reasons for success in this case. And it's certainly not clear that a so-called lack of excuses is even the main reason.
5.) While a group of haughty ideologues has successfully branded themselves as "reformers," this does absolutely nothing to prove that they are right. Brooks praises "no excuses" schools for the amazing results they've achieved. But the phrase "no excuses" has been bastardized so that it now means different things to different people. When Teach for America began training their corps members to run "no excuses" classrooms they wanted the future teachers to believe that every student can succeed, but the "no excuses" applied more to the students than to the teachers. TFA wanted teachers not to accept excuses from students -- they wanted them to be "loving hardasses" as Sherman Dorn puts it.
Those who write about "no excuses" schools usually mean that teachers and administrators do not make excuses -- that they do "whatever it takes" in order to ensure that every child succeeds, regardless of the challenges they face at home. And many who praise these schools interpret "no excuses" to mean something akin to "just do it" -- that is, that is that those in schools shut up and put up. Many point to these no excuses schools as proof not only that schools can do great things (side note: who believes they can't?) but that they can do them without wasting more resources.
In the case of the Promise Academy, however, this is certainly not the case. Beyond all of the community resources provided by HCZ, the school has pulled out all of the stops financially as well. When the middle school first opens the superintendent addresses the kids and explains that they will be given everything they need to succeed -- from up to date computers to better food. She says that "our motto is that anything that a private school can pay for, we are going to provide for free" (p. 127). In other words, even if the school does work miracles it doesn't prove that we can solve the problem by just buckling down and working harder -- it means that a school with an incredible amount of resources, a charismatic leader, a board of trustees led by a determined billionaire investor, and located in neighborhood awash in social services provided by the same organization had great success.
We seem to be a long way away from knowing for sure the outcomes of the Harlem Children's Zone or the Promise Academy -- many of the initiatives are only a few years old, and they're meant to effect change over the course of decades. But virtually all results indicate that something positive is taking place. So, by all means, let's celebrate those who have worked hard to achieve these results; by all means, let's take a closer look at what they're doing right; by all means, let's replicate their successes in whatever way we can. But let's avoid mischaracterizing why they've succeeded. To intimate that all schools are capable of fixing all ills of society if only those who work there would stop making excuses and focus is not only false but hinders efforts at honest reform in attempt to prove an ideological pet theory. A dedicated staff is certainly necessary for a school to succeed, but it is nowhere near sufficient. Brooks constructs a straw man to defeat, writing that the people on the wrong side of the argument believe that schools cannot do great things and that this proves they can. But none of the people with whom he's arguing believe that schools cannot do great things -- they believe that schools, given their current level of resources, cannot solve all of society's ills alone. And even if the Promise Charter school has, in fact, worked a miracle, it has done absolutely nothing to disprove this. In other words, don't buy what Brooks is selling.