Accountability Opinion

What ‘The Harlem Miracle’ Really Teaches

By Diane Ravitch — May 12, 2009 5 min read
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Dear Deborah,

The columnists at The New York Times are deeply engaged in school reform these days. First Nicholas Kristof discovered that the key to high achievement is measuring student test score gains, then paying more to the teachers whose students gained the most. Then Thomas Friedman discovered that Teach for America was the key to national educational greatness, despite its small numbers.

Now David Brooks has discovered “The Harlem Miracle,” which is a charter school called Harlem Promise Academy, run by the Harlem Children’s Zone. Brooks says that this school has closed the achievement gap. If anyone missed the point, he writes bluntly, “Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap.” Brooks asks which city will now take up the challenge to do what this school has done.

This is quite an interesting column, and I highly recommend it. There are lessons for American education, but not necessarily the ones that Brooks points to.

Geoffrey Canada created the Harlem Children’s Zone with the intention of saturating a very poor neighborhood with social services, including a charter school, which now has 600 children, from kindergarten to 8th grade. Paul Tough of The New York Times Magazine wrote a fascinating book, “Whatever It Takes,” about the travails of the Zone, and especially its charter school. Canada’s board, which includes some very wealthy financiers, wanted results, and they wanted them fast. They looked enviously at KIPP and wanted to match its scores. No matter how hard Canada tried, the first class that he admitted just couldn’t do it. So after the scores were posted, he called in all the students in that grade, told them he was closing down the grade, and told them they had to find another school.

Apparently things got better, because the school now is getting the good test scores it wanted, which is why David Brooks (quoting a study by Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie) has hailed it as the “Harlem Miracle.” Brooks says the school succeeds because it is a “no excuses” school that teaches middle-class values and stresses good behavior and discipline. The school teaches students “to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands.” Also, he attributes its success to the fact that the students go to school for 50 percent more time in the course of a year than the neighborhood public schools.

But let’s take a closer look. Canada was interviewed by the CBS program “60 Minutes” about the school, which said that it has small classes and superb facilities, including state-of-the-art science laboratories, a beautiful cafeteria, and a first-class gymnasium. The HCZ raises some $36 million a year, so the school has the best of everything and plenty of money to hire extra teachers and to pay teachers to work longer days and weeks and summers.

And according to the Web site for the New York City schools, the students at the Harlem Promise Academy are somewhat different from those in the neighboring public schools. For one thing, only seven of the 600 students are Limited English Proficient, about 1 percent; that is way less than the district or city average. And, of course, the school can remove those who don’t go with its program or who are disruptive, a special privilege granted to charter schools, which write their own rules.

The Harlem Promise Academy has used its deep pockets to reduce class size dramatically. Classes in K-6 are no more than 18 students, much smaller than in the neighboring public schools. Classes in the middle school range between 12 and 20, again much smaller than in the regular public schools.

And the results of the Academy are not quite as dramatic as Brooks has been led to believe. Aaron Pallas of Teachers College found that the gap persists on the school’s scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Yet there can be no doubt that the school gets better scores than the neighboring public schools.

Brooks uses the Harlem Promise Academy as a way of illustrating the divide between the Klein-Sharpton Education Equality Project and the group called the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. EEP says that schools alone can close the achievement gap between children of different races, and between children of affluence and children of poverty; the answer, they say, is constant testing, merit pay, and charter schools. BBA says that schools alone are insufficient to overcome the burdens imposed by poverty and that poor kids need preschool, health services, and other supports. Brooks claims that the success of the Harlem Promise Academy suggests that the EEP “reformers” are right. This is odd because the whole premise of the Harlem Children’s Zone is to surround children and families with exactly the resources that BBA advocates.

There are lessons to be learned from the success of the Harlem Promise Academy, but they are not the ones that Brooks cites. What are those lessons?

First, spend lots more money. Spend enough so that children in the regular public schools can be in classes no larger than those in the Harlem Promise Academy. Spend enough so that every public school has facilities that are state of the art, and every school has excellent laboratories and a first-class gymnasium.

Second, it is worth exploring why so many public schools in the big cities have been unable to establish a clear, fair, and functional discipline and behavior policy. Is it because of long-forgotten court orders? Have public schools become so wrapped up in procedural rights and processes that they can’t provide an orderly environment for learning? Deborah, you recall as I do the claims made in the 1960s and 1970s that it was “white imperialism” to impose middle-class values on poor and minority children. Now there is a growing movement to do exactly that. My own view is that schools are by definition middle-class. If they are good schools, they teach the knowledge, skills, and behavior that one needs to function well in work, in higher education, and in life. So, there is a common-sense element to the “no excuses” mantra.

But I don’t think that our schools need to be boot camps to teach courtesy, civility, respect for others, self-discipline, and other virtues necessary for democratic life. If all schools did that and had the same resources as Harlem Promise Academy, there would be many miracles.


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