The Brookings Institution released a report that questions the Obama Administrations’ scaling up of the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school/community development program. I understand where they are coming from. Education reform has long been considered a stand-alone policy arena. The big problem with that approach, and why people find the HCZ so interesting as a model, is because treating education reform as school reform hasn’t worked. That is what is so frustrating about this report’s conclusion:
President Obama was a community organizer before he was a politician, so it is natural that his instincts are to invest in community programs. But President Obama has repeatedly called for doing what works. Doing what works depends on evidence not instincts. There is no evidence that the HCZ influences student achievement through neighborhood investments. There is considerable evidence that schools can have dramatic effects on the academic skills of disadvantaged children without their providing broader social services. Improving neighborhoods and communities is a desirable goal in its own right, but let’s not confuse it with education reform.
The problem with this view is the short-sightedness. Other charter schools may be able to get the same academic results in the immediate as the HCZ with less expense, but HCZ is changing the community – making it healthier and more operational – and by doing so will ensure that more students are able to complete secondary education and graduate from college. If these students get to and graduate from college, then their and their children’s lives and society as a whole will be much improved. Just getting higher test scores has never been the answer to the greater educational problems in the United States. It is ridiculous that people think you can divorce education reform from improving neighborhoods and communities. Approaching education reform as if school reform can stand without broader social support has not created lasting improvements in the education system.
I am actually not “for” the scaling up of the Harlem Children’s Zone. I very much think that Geoffrey Canada’s understanding of the community and people of Harlem made the program as successful as it is. Doing the same thing in a bunch of communities isn’t necessarily the answer. These communities need a Geoffrey Canada, someone on the inside who knows the issues and the people and is dedicated to lasting improvement, in order to be successful. It isn’t that it wouldn’t be helpful to have these services and schools in every community, but it would be more beneficial to have services tailored to each communities specific needs.
Sylvia Fredericks is managing editor of La Flog and studying education policy at La Follette.