Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What's the Goal of the Harlem Children's Zone?

I finally got around to watching the 60 Minutes segment on the Harlem Children's Zone.  I share the concerns of Aaron Pallas and Sherman Dorn regarding the way the results were presented: it's certainly not clear that the HCZ or Promise Academy has completely and permanently closed the achievement gap, and I wonder whether there were any caveats or cautionary statements that were edited out.  Personally, I'd share Geoffrey Canada's view that the results were worth celebrating for about an hour and then we should get back to work.

But my larger concern is actually the way that Canada himself framed the goals of the program.  When Anderson Cooper asked him when he'll know his program is working, Canada responded that the tip-off would be when thousands of his students started walking through the doors with college degrees.  While that would certainly be a good sign -- ok, a very good sign -- would that actually be the ultimate barometer of success?

And multiple times throughout the interview he said similar things about wanting students to perform in school and on standardized tests.  I'm guessing that if the segment were focused more on the overall goals of the Harlem Children's Zone instead of the successes of the Promise Academy, there might have been talk of broader goals.  But even with the focus almost exclusively on the school, the labeling of in-school performance as seemingly the sole goal makes me nervous.

It's certainly plausible that kids could start performing better in school but still fail to become productive citizens, hold down a steady job, refrain from criminal behavior, become a good parent, and so on.  While there's plenty of correlational evidence that suggests more educated citizens are more likely to do any number of productive things (and less likely to do any number of detrimental things), it's unclear to what extent altering kid's performance in school will subsequently alter their behaviors and aspirations outside of school.

I'm sure that there's a large positive effect from helping a kid to graduate from college who would've otherwise dropped out of high school, but I'm nervous about scoring well on a test and graduating from college being the ultimate goals.  Canada talked about the costs of housing prisoners and juvenile delinquents, and Cooper mentioned the project eventually earning positive returns, so I think that there are other goals -- at least in the back of some people's minds.  But we should be careful about assuming that fixing education will fix all other problems.  I think there's a strong case to be made that changing the educational trajectory of kids will have a greater impact than any other social intervention, but it won't always be enough.

No comments: