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Opinion
Education Funding Opinion

Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture: Harlem Children’s Zone Research, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Broader Education Debate

By Sara Mead — July 30, 2010 4 min read

Kudos to Russ Whitehurst and Michelle Croft for taking seriously some of Geoffrey Canada’s valid complaints about their study on Harlem Children’s Zone’s effectiveness compared to other NYC charters, and for issuing a new analysis that includes data on HCZ’s second Promise Academy Charter School, as well as updated demographic data. The new analysis, by the way, yields findings quite similar to the first one.

Not quite so sure about their assertion that this finding is an argument against the Obama administration’s proposed Promise Neighborhoods program, which would provide funding to communities to replicate HCZ-like initiatives. It’s not that I don’t think there are valid questions about the relative effectiveness of the HCZ approach and other measures. Indeed, as previously discussed, there’s little, and in most cases no, evidence to assess the effects of most of HCZ’s non-charter school investments on children’s lives and academic outcomes. That is a big ol’ problem, particularly given fiscal constraints and the need to allocate funds efficiently in order to produce the biggest bang for the buck in terms of child outcomes (and I don’t mean only academic outcomes).

But that’s exactly why I think the federal government should be investing in Promise Neighborhoods. The Obama administration is requesting $210 million for Promise Neighborhoods in fiscal year 2011 (and given the House and Senate subcommittee marks, the ultimate funding level seems likely to be more in the ballpark of $20-60 million). The current year appropriation is $10 million. That’s not even a rounding error in the federal budget. We waste more than that every year on federal education programs that we KNOW don’t work. If $210 million in federal spending gets us a few more HCZ-like programs, coupled with rigorous evaluation of the impacts of strategies that seek to improve child outcomes and achievement by providing a range of community supports, and those evaluations can help answer outstanding questions about the impacts of HCZ-like approaches, then I think that’s money well spent.

And that’s because the real issue here is not HCZ, or Promise Neighborhoods. It’s that in education policy today, we have a debate between people who believe that reforming SCHOOLS to make them more effective in educating students is critical to improving children’s outcomes and addressing intergenerational inequalities, and people who argue that efforts to change schools are pointless until we address the range of social ills facing poor children. Moreover, there is a group of people in education debates who really believe nothing about schools need to change, who think social services are a substitute for school reform, and use the social needs of low-income kids as a cudgel to ward off efforts to actually improve teaching and learning in their schools. Look no further than Rep. Judy Chu’s (D-Calif.) school improvement proposals to see evidence of this.*

I think these people are wrong. I think there is a lot of evidence to support my position. I think that the people who argue school reform is pointless until we address other social ills are also wrong--and there’s evidence, including Whitehurst and Croft’s research, that backs me up there. But in a debate this fraught and this important for the future of our kids, with significant implications for the distribution of public resources, we need much stronger evidence. If funding social services really can miraculously improve student outcomes without commensurate improvements in schools, we should know that. If it can’t, we should have stronger evidence demonstrating that, too. If funding Promise Neighborhoods can help generate that evidence, then $210 million is a small price to pay.

By the way, if folks are interested in Promise Neighborhoods, Ed Money Watch has nice analysis on the applicants.

*Note: There’s a distinction between arguing that school reforms will have limited impacts until we also address social needs, and using the existence of social needs as an argument against efforts to improve the effectiveness and quality of our schools. All too often, this distinction gets ellided in education policy debates--too many people say they believe the former when the real agenda their actions advance is the latter--but it’s a real difference. This distinction is one reason I believe that the hype this week over national civil rights’ groups criticisms of the Obama education agenda is overblown. If you read the documents released, its clear that these groups are advocating for increased investment in social community supports and greater equity and adequacy in education resources (an issue education reformers should pay more attention to!). But they’re not using these very justified demands as an argument against other reforms intended to make schools themselves more effective. The real divide in education is not between people who want school reform and people who want school reform + social services. It’s between people who want social services but oppose efforts to make schools more effective.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.