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Harlem Children's Zone Study Gets 'What Works' OK

Harlem's Promise Academy Charter Middle School really might be a successful as everyone says it is. At least that's what you might gather from reading the latest "quick review" from the famously tough research reviewers over at the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse.

Rather than the usual in-depth review of all the research on a particular topic, the clearinghouse uses "quick reviews" as a means of taking a second look at single studies that get a lot of media attention. The reviews are meant to let the public know, in a timely way, whether the spotlight is deserved—or, more accurately, did the study's methods meet the clearinghouse's stringent research-design criteria?

The Promise Academy Charter Middle School study, which was conducted by Harvard University researchers Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Will S. Dobbie, certainly made a media splash when it was posted in the fall on the Web site for the National Bureau of Economic Research, and even before then. That's because the school is part of the Harlem Children's Zone, a high-profile initiative that combines charter schools with wraparound community services, such as free medical, dental, and mental-health services, early-childhood programs, parenting workshops, and asthma and anti-obesity programs.

The school itself also operates on an extended school day, including Saturday, and offers students incentives for high achievement and intensive test preparation. Pioneered by Geoffrey Canada, the zone has become a template for President Obama's Promise Neighborhoods program, on which he hopes to spend $10 million in 2010.

For their study, Fryer and Dobbie focused on 470 New York City students who applied for enrollment as entering 6th graders in 2005 and 2006. It compared those who snagged a seat in the enrollment lottery to those who were turned down, tracking their scores on state English and math exams over the next three years. The Promise Academy middle schoolers outperformed their peers in both subjects by the time they finished 8th grade, but the gains were most impressive in math, where students moved from the 50th to the 71st percentile. This EdWeek story has more details on the study and you can go here to read the study itself.

In its new one-page review, the WWC concludes that the research is "consistent with WWC evidence standards," which is as good as it gets in these sorts of clearinghouse reviews. It also offers none of the usual caveats on why we should take the findings with a grain of salt.

What we still don't know, of course, is whether students' improved performance was due to the quality of the schools or the combination of schooling and community supports that the children and their families were also receiving. That's fodder for yet another study.

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