Paul Tough

Here’s a crazy thought: that the only people who get to write, pontificate and theorize about the challenges of public schools are those who have worked in classrooms, say, for at least five years.

My license would be revoked on the spot.  You can stop reading now if you want me disqualified. I’ve worked on the edges of the public school classroom for 19 years.  Five years as a reporter covering public education, the last 14 years in communication offices of various school districts and the state education department in Colorado.  But I’ve never stood in front of students day after day and worked through curriculum.

On to the point at hand: it seems to me that the fundamental notions of Geoffrey Canada’s “Whatever It Takes” are where we need to head. By “we” I mean every school district and community with chronically under-performing students. I think Tough’s book should be read and studied by everyone who works in education (public, private, charter and home).

If you’ve got the time, go back about 12 years and read Laurence Steinberg’s “Beyond the Classroom” too. Both books deal with the factors outside the classroom.

“Whatever It Takes” is about time, resources and commitment.  The book reminded me of “Beyond the Classroom” because that earlier work demonstrated the influences children’s face, as the title implies, outside of what happens when a teacher is teaching.  Students are in school for six hours a day for 175 days (more or less) of classroom instruction each year.  “Beyond the Classroom” looked at the other factors that weigh on students (rich or poor) outside of the brief amount of time they are actually being taught. It also demonstrated the power and influence of those non-classroom forces.

Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone tackle those non-classrooms issues head-on.  The HCZ takes on how parents spend their time with their children from Day One to the day they start kindergarten. They appeal to the aspirations of every parent and they find a way to deliver.

“Whatever It Takes” is a terrific primer in unadulterated problem analysis.  Problems don’t linger in Canada’s world, they are attacked.

Canada has investors with plump bank accounts and they watch his work like the careful investors they are.  The resources give Canada the opportunity to attempt “whatever it takes” but Tough’s careful reporting shows that dollars aren’t all that matters—it takes school leadership, effective teaching, and the right attitude from adults to reach students with so many obstacles stacked against them.

There are ample setbacks along the way and Canada approaches each challenge with one goal in mind—making a difference for the students.

Will the HCZ approach require more resources? Yes. School days are longer, summer breaks are shorter. Much shorter.  HCZ is about using time and effort as the main ingredients to change lives. (Again, see “Beyond The Classroom.”)

But “Whatever It Takes” is about leadership, too, and putting the right teachers with the right attitudes in front of the children. It’s about connecting with the students, understanding the challenges and the personal dilemmas that might be creating a barrier to learning.

Tough’s writing is clear, solid and unambiguous. You may have seen the “60 Minutes” segment on Geoffrey Canada, but “Whatever It Takes” probes much deeper into how the organization was built and the significant challenges Canada faced. And met.

Tough’s recap of the organizational challenges is matched in reporting by the portraits of people we meet along the way—Canada first, of course, and then the parents, students and teachers who have built this remarkable model in the heart of Harlem.

Promise Academy / Harlem Children's Zone

It’s really no wonder President Obama wants to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone nationwide.  It works.

Final thought: If you’re feeling a bit hopeless about what it might take to close achievement gaps in public schools, read this.  It can be done.

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