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Harlem Children's Zone Responds to the Brookings Study

You'll recall that I wrote a few days ago about a new—and controversial—report from the Brookings Institution on the Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academy middle school. In that paper, Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, the former research chief at the U.S. Department of Education, attempted to make the case that the zone's much-praised Promise Academy I middle school was not much more effective than other charter schools in the Big Apple. And, if other charter schools could be just as successful without providing students with a full menu of expensive social services, the analysis reasoned, why target more public money to replicating the Promise Academy model?

Well, Geoffrey Canada begs to differ. In a response e-mailed to news outlets yesterday, Canada, the driving force behind the Harlem Children's Zone, says Whitehurst's analysis is a "wrong-headed take" on the zone's mission, which is to provide supports for all 8,000 children growing up within the zone, regardless of whether they end up at one of its charter schools or at a traditional public school.

"We believe that even the best schools in impoverished neighborhoods would be significantly improved if there were wraparound support services for their students, families, and communities," he writes.

The Brookings study, of course, looked at just one of two charter middle schools in the zone—500 students in all. And that's part of the problem, Canada says. Because, if Whitehurst and Croft had instead analyzed achievement data for the other Promise Academy charter school, Promise Academy II, they would have found it to be in the top quarter when compared with other charter schools serving similar populations in Manhattan and the Bronx. (In the Brookings paper, the first school, Promise Academy I, fell in the "middling" range.)

He also argues that a longer-term look at students' progress in the school over several years would have yielded more promising findings.

Finally, Canada says the Brookings researchers inadvertently used free- and reduced-price lunch figures that inaccurately portray the extent of poverty in the student population. Because the school provides free lunch to all students, regardless of income, some parents in the early years didn't turn in the necessary forms for federal meal reimbursements—an oversight administrators remedied later on when they realized the data would be important to future evaluation efforts.

Canada concludes by saying, "We are thrilled to be part of the charter school movement ... However, charter schools are not the only answer. We must improve our traditional public school system since that is where the overwhelming majority of our students are. A crucial part of that effort must be making sure that poor children and families have the support services that so many of us in America have as a matter of choice."

Whoops! Canada's final quote above should have read: "A crucial part of that effort must be making sure that poor children and families have the support services that so many of us in America have as a matter of course." My apologies for the error.

UPDATE II: Whitehurst and his co-author, Michele Croft, now have a rejoinder to Canada's response. In it, they note that their intent was not to bash or "trivialize" the Harlem Children's Zone project. Rather, they write, "we would like to see it continue, thrive, and be the subject of evaluation that will address its impact in a more thorough and long-term way than can be accomplished with the data currently available."

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