The New York Times
By: Paul Tough
August 19, 2010
HOW much evidence does the government need before trying something new in the troubled realm of public education? Should there be airtight proof that a pioneering program works before we commit federal money to it -- or is it sometimes worth investing in promising but unproven innovations?
Last month, the Senate subcommittee that allocates federal education money weighed in on one such promising innovation, slicing, by more than 90 percent, the $210 million that President Obama requested for next year for his Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
Mr. Obama first proposed Promise Neighborhoods in the summer of 2007, pledging that, as president, he would help create in 20 cities across the country a new kind of support system for disadvantaged children, paid for with a mix of private and public money. In a single distressed neighborhood in each city, Mr. Obama explained, high-quality schools would be integrated into a network of early-childhood programs, parenting classes, health clinics and other social services, all focused on improving educational outcomes for poor children.
The Obama administration requested and received from Congress $10 million for the program for fiscal year 2010, and the Department of Education used that money to create a national competition for up to 20 Promise Neighborhoods planning grants. Although the grants were capped at a modest $500,000, the response to the program was overwhelming -- 339 nonprofit groups and institutions of higher education from across the country formed coalitions, raised matching funds and filed applications.
Promise Neighborhoods was inspired by the example of the Harlem Children's Zone, which over the last decade has compiled a solid, though still incomplete, record of success in the 97 blocks of central Harlem where it operates. Students at the group's two charter elementary schools, mostly low-income and almost all black or Hispanic, have achieved strong results on statewide tests, often exceeding average proficiency scores for white students. Last year, 437 parents completed Baby College, the Zone's nine-week parenting class, and 99 percent of the children graduating from the prekindergarten entered kindergarten on grade level. This fall, more than 200 students from the Zone's afterschool programs will enroll as freshmen in college.
The central argument against fully financing the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, given voice in recent weeks by various policy groups, journalists and bloggers, is that despite such promising data, the Zone has not yet proved itself.
This case was made most forcefully in a report from the Brookings Institution that came out a week before the Senate committee's vote. The report acknowledged that the charter schools at the heart of the Zone have, indeed, substantially raised test scores for the children enrolled in them.
But the report also argued that the scores are not as high as those at some other charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx that don't include the kind of coordinated system of early-childhood programs, family support and neighborhood improvements offered by the Harlem Children's Zone.
It is no coincidence that charter schools in and near the Harlem Children's Zone have earned such impressive results. Over the last few years, thanks in part to intensive recruiting by the New York City schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Harlem and the Bronx have become a mecca for a highly successful class of charter schools, all run, to some degree, on the model of the nationwide, nonprofit Knowledge is Power Program: extended hours, energetic young teachers, an emphasis on discipline and character-building, as well as heavy doses of reading and math.
These schools embody the attractive theory that we might be able to erase the achievement gaps between black and white children and between poor and middle-class children with nothing more than new and improved schools. But despite their robust test scores, there continue to be debates over whether these charter schools work for the most disadvantaged children in neighborhoods like Harlem, and no one has yet demonstrated whether the KIPP model could succeed at the scale of an entire school system.
Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, premised his organization on the idea that schools like KIPP's, though needed, are not enough on their own. To solve the problem of academic underperformance by low-income children, he argues, we must surround great schools with an effective system of additional services for poor families.
These two strategies -- call them the KIPP strategy and the Zone strategy -- are not fully in opposition; they borrow ideas and tactics from each other. But they do represent distinct theories, both new, both promising and, at this point, both unproven.
So, at this moment of uncertainty and experimentation, should the federal government wait, as critics of Promise Neighborhoods suggest, until ironclad evidence for one big solution exists?
Or should it create a competitive research-and-development marketplace to make bets on innovations, the way the government did during the space race and in the early days of the Internet, and allow the most successful strategies to rise to the top? In his 2007 speech, Mr. Obama made it clear that he envisioned Promise Neighborhoods as precisely this kind of laboratory. "Every step these cities take will be evaluated," he proposed, "and if certain plans or programs aren't working, we will stop them and try something else."
A certain skepticism with regard to innovation is always wise, especially in public education, where highly touted new programs often turn out to be disappointments. The problem is that for low-income and minority Americans, the status quo is a deepening calamity. The New York state test results released last month showed that the gap in reading scores between black and white elementary- and middle-school students grew from 22 percentage points in 2009 to 30 points in 2010, while the math gap grew from 17 points to 30 points.
In May, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in the nation's high-poverty schools, the average graduation rate for 12th-grade students fell from 86 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2008, while the rate in low-poverty schools remained stable at about 91 percent.
The declining prospects of the country's poor and black students can't be blamed on belt-tightening by Congress. In fact, the budgets for the two main federal programs designed to improve the performance of low-income children, Title I and Head Start, have risen steadily for the last 40 years, through Republican administrations and Democratic ones. According to a new report by Educational Testing Service, the combined Title I and Head Start budgets grew in inflation-adjusted dollars from $1.7 billion in 1970 to $13.8 billion in 2000. This year's budget was $21.7 billion.
Head Start, which provides preschool programs to poor families, is a prime example of the Senate committee's true attitude toward evidence-based decision-making. In January, the Health and Human Services Department released a study of Head Start's overall impact. The conclusions were disturbing. By the end of first grade, the study found, Head Start graduates were doing no better than students who didn't attend Head Start. "No significant impacts were found for math skills, pre-writing, children's promotion, or teacher report of children's school accomplishments or abilities in any year," the report concluded.
And how did the Senate panel react to this dismal evidence? They set aside $8.2 billion for Head Start in 2011, almost a billion dollars more than in 2010. Of course, the fact that Congress spends billions of dollars each year on unproven programs does not itself argue that the government should start spending hundreds of millions of new dollars on new unproven programs. But it does undercut the argument that federal education dollars should be reserved only for conclusively proven initiatives.
Children who live in the 300-plus low-income neighborhoods that are pursuing Promise Neighborhoods support are, on the whole, stuck. Every year, their schools and Head Start centers receive more federal money, and every year, things in their neighborhoods get worse. Rather than stick with the same strategies and hope things somehow magically change, Congress should find more room in the budget to support the Obama administration's declared approach: to try new strategies and abandon failed ones; to expand and test programs with strong evidence of success, even if that evidence is inconclusive; and to learn from mistakes and make adjustments as we go.
Paul Tough, a former staff editor at The New York Times Magazine, is the author of "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America."