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Does the Harlem Children's Zone Need the "Zone"?

A new report out of the non-partisan Brookings Institution takes a shot across the nose of one of education reform's newest sacred cows: the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ).

The HCZ is a unique development of 97 neighborhood blocks where a number of social services are offered, from public charter schools to nutrition programs to job-training centers. The media has all but declared the effort, spearheaded by Geoffrey Canada, an unequivocal success, and President Obama pledged $210 million to create replicas of it all around the country. (The House slashed funding for those so-called "promise neighborhoods" last week.)

The Brookings study concludes that the test scores of the HCZ's Promise Academy, while better than predicted, fall behind other charter schools in the area—ones that do not have all the social service offerings around them.

There is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S. Indeed there is considerable evidence in addition to the results from the present study that questions the return on such investments for academic achievement.


Longtime education reporter Jay Mathews responds to the study over at his Washington Post Class Struggle blog, saying that as compared to, say, the first KIPP Academy in New York, the Promise Academy is relatively young and still is finding its way:

I think the Brookings critique, while quite valid as a warning against an early launch of the Obama proposal, is premature in judging the Harlem Children’s Zone and the six-year-old Promise Academy. Canada’s social services have not had enough time to show their worth. Canada’s school is being compared to charters with more experienced leaders whom he himself has asked for advice. The zone needs a few more years to show what it can do.


Alexander Russo, a former Senate advisor on education policy who runs the blog This Week in Education, takes serious issue with Mathews' defense:

Mathews thinks it’s "premature" to raise questions about the impact of HCZ’s charter schools, which is a strange objection to make considering the the HCZ model has already been anointed a success by the media and handed millions in private and public funding. If now’s not the time to ask hard questions, then when would be good? ... I would hope that this effort, or something like it, could show the power of high-quality education and/or wraparound social services ...


In terms of the overall effect of the HCZ, I think Mathews may be right: It may take some time for this comprehensive of a system to show its full impact. But, it's hard to argue with Russo. Many politicians, education reporters, and documentarians—the title of the movie Waiting for Superman actually comes from one of Geoffrey Canada's childhood recollection—have already concluded that the HCZ is flawless.

This study just offers the opportunity to make sure we're headed in the right direction.

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