Friday, August 27, 2010

What a book!

I just read the most fantastic book: Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine.

Paul Tough spent five years shadowing Geoffrey Canada, creator and visionary of the Harlem Children's Zone. The book details Mr. Canada's extraordinary efforts to stop the cycle of poverty.

Geoffrey Canada truly tries to do "whatever it takes" to break the cycle of poverty for all the children, all the families in Harlem. He draws from exhaustive research into theories and practices about poverty, education, and professional success. He consults a variety of sources - academics, child psychologists, social services, neurologists, and corporate executives. He is determined to find out:

...what specific resources did middle-class children have that allowed them to succeed at such higher rates than poor children? What skills did poor children need to help them compete? And, most important, what kind of intervention in their lives or in their parents' lives could help them acquire those skills? (p. 39)

Here's one example of what Mr. Canada found as he looked into the differences between middle-class and poor families:

Regarding research by Betty Hart and Todd R. Riley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, studying the intellectual development of young children:

"By comparing the children's vocabulary scores with their own observations of each child's home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child's vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child....

...some 481 "utterances" an hour in professional homes and some 178 in welfare homes...

What's more the kind of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of "discouragements" a child heard - prohibitions and words of disapproval - compared to the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average professional child would hear about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare child, the ratio was the reverse - 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

Geoffrey Canada decided - let's teach poor families to talk to their children. Let's teach them HOW to talk. Let's teach them about positive discipline. Let's give young parents good information, support, and guidance. Geoffrey Canada recognized that the best programs never stop - they take a child from birth to college, ensuring success. He recognized the limits of so many social welfare efforts that end up being only a brief stop in a child's journey - when the program ends, the child regresses back into the negative situation he/she was once striving to leave. Mr. Canada envisioned an all-encompassing support system, and, at the time of the book's publication, he had already created:

- a "Baby College," for new and expecting parents to learn the basics of healthy parenting and discipline,
- a "Three Year Old Journey" program, for parents of young children, that builds on this;
- The Promise Academy, a rigorous preschool, elementary, and middle school for students; and
- after-school and weekend programs (creative arts, sports, enrichment, and intensive academic support) for students.

The book was published in 2008; it is highly possible that Geoffrey Canada now has the high school to college portion of his vision in place. I need to look into this! Each of these Harlem Children's Zone efforts is provided free to participants. Geoffrey Canada is a remarkable spokesperson for his vision - his nonprofit has support from a variety of philanthropists and public donations. The cost of the programs is considerable; however, the cost of not doing them seems exponential.

I am profoundly sad at how many barriers stand in the way of many of our children. Paul Tough provides many painful and honest anecdotes of the challenges poor families endure. As an example, early in the book, there is a lottery system for spots in the new school being created by the Harlem Children's Zone, and you can't help but feel uncomfortable at the realization that many needy families will not get one of the coveted slots. It is painfully clear - we need a systemic approach, for one and all. It can't be just for certain ages, or just hit or miss, luck of the draw - you get to succeed, but I don't. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone is remarkable in its all-inclusive approach to helping children live successful lives.

This is a truly inspirational book.


    Did you see this article about Arne Duncan in the Post Magazine. Seemed a very timely connection.

  2. I did see the article. My only complaint was that it was much too brief! I know very little about Arne Duncan's background and would love to know more. I was heartened to see how much perspective he has about disparities in education. I liked his final quote in the article, "The stakes growing up were so extraordinarily high that the quality of education was literally a matter of life and death. That's a huge part of my motivation and sense of urgency. You just can't accept that status quo; you can't be passive or complacent when you come to understand the consequences."