In 2009, David Brooks declared Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) "the Harlem miracle" in The New York Times. Michelle Obama endorsed Canada's work and Canada stood at the center of David Guggenheim's "Waiting for 'Superman.'"
Along with Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, Canada has been touring the U.S. promoting education reform, including media outlets as diverse as The Colbert Report. Recently, Canada brought his reform tour to my area, Greenville, SC, at the Food for Thought event, but South Carolinians and all Americans should be aware that Canada and the HCZ present school reform with far more questions than solutions.
Canada's life story and his central commitment to address the whole lives of children living in poverty are both compelling and admirable, but the disproportionate praise and advocacy of charter schools and self-proclaimed celebrity education experts should not be allowed to mask the full picture of the HCZ and the reforms Canada promotes.
Once Brooks dubbed the HCZ a "miracle," Aaron Pallas and Diane Ravitch--along with many other educators and researchers--offered the realities surrounding the HCZ, facts ignored since they disprove the label of "miracle."
First, the HCZ New York state test results suggesting staggering gains are incomplete evidence since those same students produced lower test results on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills; Pallas also uncovered discrepancies in absences during the different tests. Thus, in order to deem HCZ results as "miracles," the media and researchers had to cherry-pick data, giving an incomplete and misleading picture of student outcomes.
Next, the HCZ does teach us something about the rise of corporate charter schools that address monolithic populations of students (all high-poverty, all African American, for examples), but that lesson is not that HCZ has given us "a remedy for the achievement gap," as Brooks proclaimed.
Charter schools, such as HCZ and the equally praised Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters, serve a distinctly different population than public schools since charter schools under-serve special needs students and English Language Learners—two populations of students that are as challenging, if not more so, than high-poverty students, but also that constitute the largest costs for public education.
Studies from Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, and Wang (2011) as well as Miron, Urschel, Mathis, and Tornquist (2010) have exposed the great disparity in populations served by charter schools such as HCZ and others, but also that increasingly charter schools are isolating children by race and socioeconomic status. Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, and Wang conclude:
"This analysis of recent data finds that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation. In some regions, white students are overrepresented in charter schools; while in other charter schools, minority students have little exposure to white students. Data about the extent to which charter schools serve low-income and English Language Learners is incomplete, but suggest that a substantial share of charter schools may not enroll such students."
Endorsements of Canada's HCZ also raise another serious contradiction in the education reform debate—funding. Many advocating charter schools also reject the need for increased education spending, but Canada's experiment is driven by his own wealth as well as the funding of many wealthy donors. In other words, if HCZ results are worth praise, we must also acknowledge that access to funding plays a role, access that isn't available to traditional public schools.
For me, however, the most powerful concerns about Canada's role as a reformer of education is that his celebrity status has allowed the media to ignore and even mask two failures of HCZ and other corporate charter schools—the attrition of students from charter schools and the "no excuses" ideology implemented in highly segregated charter school environments.
Charter schools such as HCZ often monitor the commitment of the students attending, including expelling students who themselves (and even their parents) cannot abide by the contracts detailing their responsibilities, such as extended school days. Public schools, however, cannot choose who attends.
"No excuses" ideology perpetuates scripted and regimented classes and lives for children already trapped in high-poverty lives, and our willingness to tolerate and even praise "no excuses" ideology reveals a cultural failure still existing in a free society—classist and racist patterns that we should reject instead of perpetuate. Alfie Kohn has recently exposed how the "pedagogy of poverty" ultimately fails high-poverty African American children:
"Not only is the teaching scripted, with students required to answer fact-based questions on command, but a system of almost militaristic behavior control is common, with public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience that calls to mind the token economy programs developed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals….One [study] found that black children are much more likely than white children to be taught with workbooks or worksheets on a daily basis. The other [study] revealed a racial disparity in how computers are used for instruction, with African Americans mostly getting drill and practice exercises (which, the study also found, are associated with poorer results)."
While I admire Canada's passion and applaud his experimental challenge, he is no Superman, and there simply are no education miracles