Blog: The Educated Reporter

“Hope or Hype in Harlem?”

Knowing nothing but the zillion things I have read, and setting aside that the charter schools themselves are somewhat of a mystery to me, I think the Harlem Children’s Zone is all sorts of awesome.But I have always thought it intriguing how Geoffrey Canada managed to receive so much support (money, praise, etc.) from the type of people who usually insist on seeing results before they proclaim something a success. This has been probably the most written-about single endeavor for children in decades, yet we had not seen a truly thorough look into the two key questions that should be asked about HCZ: Does it work, and can it be copied?

Too early to draw firm conclusions, but now we at least have a start. Helen Zelon at has reported and written a thorough and very interesting piece about Canada and the Zone, focusing on those two questions. To the first, there is no conclusive answer—Canada himself says they have such a long time horizon for judging success, decades, because the arc of the effort runs from infancy to college. Then why, as Zelon points out, does the HCZ not track students who left the program’s charter schools for public high schools outside the Zone, because the charter part of the pipeline was ending? “We don’t evaluate them in the sense we evaluate our own kids,” an official said. What a mistake. Isn’t the point of the pipeline that they are your “own kids” till they go to college, and wouldn’t you track them even beyond, if you are as results-oriented as you say?

The article leaves me with other questions. Zelon writes, “According to Canada’s tipping point theory, once Harlem reaches a 65 percent level of success—academic, economic, social and health—future success and academic achievement will be the natural outcome.” But 65 percent of what? Academic, okay: 65 percent of students scoring proficient on tests. Economic: 65 percent of people with jobs? Living above the poverty level? Health and social: 65 percent of people having healthy teeth? Managing their asthma? Living with a mother and father? It is bizarre for Canada to talk frequently about a metric that is completely undefined.

I remember Zelon asking me, a year ago, who was criticizing Canada and the HCZ. Really, nobody. I know the organization can make it difficult, if not impossible, for reporters to visit their schools if it is not obvious they are coming to write a puff piece. Like I said, I love lots of what they are doing. But a project that the president wants to replicate around the country should be open to analysis—and not just their own.

I am glad Zelon took the first big step. However: PAYWALL! Bits of the project are posted for free; far more, including interesting graphs on the Zone schools’ population and achievement, you gotta pay for. The piece is superlative and important and the kind of thing that makes me question my reflexive stance on piracy. I mean, I wouldn’t cry if someone put this online where everyone could see it. In lieu of that, just pay the $4.95.