Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2009 Issue »

    Editor's Review: Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America

    Jennifer L. Steele
    Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America
    by Paul Tough
    New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. 296 pp. $26.00.

    On July 18, 2007, Barack Obama delivered a speech in Washington, DC, pledging that, as president of the United States, he would roll out a comprehensive antipoverty initiative to twenty cities across the country. The project, he explained, would cost the federal government “a few billion dollars a year” (Obama, 2007, para. 36), but half of the total funding would come from the private sector, and the long-term savings in terms of productivity and crime reduction would dwarf the up-front cost. The model for the initiative would be a social service and education program serving ninety-seven blocks of upper Manhattan, a program known as the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). “The philosophy of the program,” Obama noted, “is simple—if poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community” (para. 31).

    The Harlem Children’s Zone is the creation and abiding mission of Geoffrey Canada, a social reformer who grew up poor in the South Bronx, earned degrees from Bowdoin and Harvard, and decided to spend his life serving children in communities like those in which he was raised. The HCZ opened in the 1970s as Rheedlen, a social service and truancy prevention program in Harlem, and Canada became its director in 1990. However, by the late 1990s, he had become increasingly frustrated by the organization’s circumscribed impact, so he rethought the model. The result is a multifaceted family support system that—judging from accolades by not only President Obama but also Oprah Winfrey, Tavis Smiley, and Jonathan Kozol, as well as a host of media outlets and award foundations—may be the most lauded antipoverty initiative in America.

    As Obama’s campaign speech noted, the objective of the HCZ is community transformation. Rather than helping individuals leave poverty—and the neighborhood—behind, the HCZ is designed to help the community escape poverty by providing a tight safety net of social and educational services to nurture children from birth through college graduation. The idea is to provide a strong network of support services to help parents make choices that are informed by research evidence, to help families facing the financial pressures of poverty remain intact, and to ensure that children are consistently groomed for academic success (Harlem Children’s Zone, 2008; Tough, 2008; pp. 18–19). Canada’s goal is to create a new renaissance in Harlem to ensure that children born there have the same opportunities and outcomes as those born to middle- and upper-middle-class households throughout the nation (Tough, 2008, pp. 57–58).

    In many ways, the timing seems ideal for Obama’s pledged expansion of the HCZ model to other cities. The new administration, the bicameral Democratic majority in Congress, and the widespread disillusionment with trickle-down economics and the “culture of ownership” present a golden opportunity for innovative new programs designed to assist low-income families and revitalize cities. Meanwhile, the financial crisis continues to remind the nation of its economic vulnerability, highlighting the need to develop human capital in our communities and schools. However, such moments are ephemeral; the window of opportunity will inevitably close. History teaches us that when it does, programs that support society’s most vulnerable may face a level of scrutiny disproportionate to the share of taxpayer dollars they command (Fullinwider, 1996; Steuerle & Mermin, 1997). To shore up new programs against changes in the political tide, it is critical to get the details right at the beginning.

    A Journalist’s In-Depth Account of the Harlem Children’s Zone

    With regard to the HCZ, the most extensive record of those details comes from Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, a recent, highly acclaimed book by Paul Tough. Tough, an education journalist and an editor of the New York Times Magazine, spent five years conducting research through interviews, observations, and consultations of the academic literature. The text offers a vivid portrait of the HCZ’s programs, staff, clients, and—most poignantly—its trials and growing pains. In an era when funding depends heavily on measurable success, the fact that Geoffrey Canada not only allowed but encouraged Tough to document the Zone’s high and low moments (Tough, 2008, p. 271) attests to Canada’s seriousness about creating a model that others can learn from. The resulting book is an unexpected gift to those who may wish to understand and replicate the HCZ’s notable successes while taking heed of lessons learned the hard way.

    Tough explains that at its core, the HCZ is a collection of social programs designed to support Harlem’s children at each stage of their development through their eventual completion of a bachelor’s degree.1 To support infants and toddlers, the Baby College offers a nine-week program for current and expecting parents of children ages zero to three. As Tough’s account illustrates, the program encourages parents to reinforce their children’s language and cognitive skills through such activities as talking and reading with them frequently, encouraging their questions, and using time-outs rather than spanking. For parents of children admitted by lottery to the HCZ’s charter school program, there is also the Three-Year-Old Journey, a set of classes for parents that build on Baby College with additional lessons from cognitive psychology about children’s developmental processes and needs (Tough, 2008).2 The next step for families who win the HCZ lottery is Harlem Gems, an all-day (8:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.) prekindergarten program focusing on linguistic development in three languages: English, Spanish, and French. After Harlem Gems, children from lottery-winning families attend one of two elementary charter schools, Promise Academy I or II, followed by Promise Academy Middle School (Harlem Children’s Zone, 2008). All the charters offer extended-day programs with intensive afterschool and weekend tutoring for students needing extra support. Tough focuses his narrative on these core programs, but the HCZ also supplements these programs with a wide range of other youth and family services, including afterschool programs; conflict resolution training; college counseling; medical, nutritional, and fitness services; asthma and obesity reduction initiatives; foster care prevention; substance abuse treatment; job training; and tax preparation (Harlem Children’s Zone, 2003, 2008).

    Tough points out that when viewed individually, none of these programs is particularly revolutionary. There are other cities that offer training classes for new parents, all-day preschool, charter schools, or afterschool programs (see, for instance, Karoly, Kilburn, & Cannon, 2005; Lake, 2008; Naftzger et al., 2007). What is different about the HCZ, however, is what Canada calls “the conveyor belt” (Tough, 2008, p. 188)—the interlocking sequence of core programs designed to ensure that children are supported consistently through every phase of development. The idea of the conveyor belt is that children who start life in the HCZ project will never fall behind academically. In this way Canada hopes to render obsolete what he calls the “superhero” (Tough, 2008, p. 196) approach to education, characterized by relentless efforts to remediate older, struggling youth after they have lost years of academic ground.

    Whatever It Takes is that rarest of phenomena—an education book that can be described as a page-turner. Its overarching tension lies in the uncertainty about whether Canada’s ambitious undertaking will yield results that stand up to scrutiny and prove sustainable over time. The narrative focuses mainly on three core programs—the operations of Baby College, and the start-up years (2004–2006) of the middle school and the first elementary school. As Tough recounts, both charter schools faced high expectations from day one. However, immediate pressure fell hardest on the middle school, in part because the elementary students were not old enough for state testing until the school’s third year, and because when the middle school students arrived, they were further behind academically than the staff had predicted. In fact, over half of the initial cohort of sixth graders came into Promise Academy reading at the third-grade level or below (p. 133), and discipline was also a challenge (e.g., pp. 167, 176). Tough explains that even with nearly around-the-clock instructional efforts, rapidly bringing the students up to grade level was more difficult than the staff had planned.

    In Tough’s account, the educators, parents, and students involved in the HCZ project come across vividly and sympathetically, and their stories propel each chapter forward. Yet Tough’s central protagonist remains Geoffrey Canada, who exemplifies the superhero approach to education even as he recognizes—and works to move past—its limitations. What seems to distinguish Canada from other leaders is his extraordinary ethic of responsibility. When Promise Academy students do not perform as he expects, Canada construes the failure as his own. In an era of school accountability, this rhetoric of responsibility is common, but Tough makes clear that for Canada it is not rhetoric as much as delivery on his promise to the community. There are simply no excuses for Canada or his staff members, who understand that their jobs depend on their students’ test scores. In Tough’s clear-eyed recounting, “whatever it takes” means that failure to bring all students to grade level will not be tolerated, even if many who share the goal begin to see it as all but impossible.

    The power of Tough’s account is sustained, in part, because the work of the HCZ is ongoing. According to the project’s Web site, in 2008, 97 to 100 percent of the students who attended Promise Academies I and II performed at or above grade level in mathematics, and 97.4 percent of middle school students did so as well. Despite these promising results, Canada’s battle for community transformation is far from over. Thus, as with any story of contemporary events, Tough’s book concludes en medias res; we do not really know how the story will end. If success persists and spreads, the HCZ model may revitalize America’s cities. However, there is also a chance that causal evidence will prove inconclusive or variable, or that the approach will be difficult to export to other cities, or—most devastatingly—that the model will prove unsustainable without its dynamic founder at the helm.

    What It May Take to Replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone

    In thinking about the HCZ as a model for other cities, there is reason for both hope and caution. Hope is easily justified because the HCZ appears to be working. Also, as Tough carefully describes, positive preliminary data from the HCZ’s programs build on rigorous, randomized trials that have examined other early-childhood interventions, such as the Perry Preschool Program of the 1960s and the Abecedarian Project of the 1970s (see Tough, 2008, p. 192; Heckman and Masterov, 2007), as well as promising results from other no-excuse charter school models, like the Knowledge Is Power Program that operates schools in a number of U.S. cities (Tough, 2006; Woodworth, David, Guha, Wang, & Lopez-Torkos, 2008). In other words, research suggests that dramatic results are possible. Intensive intervention programs are most cost effective in early childhood; but with enough resources, these programs can work even in the middle school years. Canada acknowledges that his long-term conveyor belt model is not as well-tested as these discrete programs. Yet if he is correct, his model may be the only way to antiquate the superhero approach and ensure that children born into difficult circumstances do not fall behind academically in the first place.

    On the other hand, Tough’s account makes clear that the problem of urban poverty remains complicated and context-specific. To his credit, Tough does not shy away from the complexity of the task at hand. Some of the book’s stories implicitly ask whether the structural barriers facing Harlem’s poor families—most of them families of color—are too great for even the most carefully planned support systems to surmount. For instance, when Victor, a young man striving to plan a future for his girlfriend and their unborn child, is arrested in the early morning on his way to Baby College for failing to turn down his radio in a subway station, it seems like one harsh blow of fortune too many.

    That particular vignette is one of several reminders in the book that the HCZ project, for all its outstanding efforts and intentions, cannot fully control the outcomes of the families and children it serves. The HCZ staff members realize this, and, committed as they are to Canada’s vision, Tough shows how they sometimes struggle with a no-excuse policy. Still, they devote themselves to the project. Reading about the work of the HCZ educators leaves no doubt that the success of any replication will depend on the skill and dedication of the staff. The project relies on intensive commitment of people at every level of the organization. For instance, in 2003, the HCZ provided services to 88 percent of the Zone’s zero- to two-year-olds (Harlem Children’s Zone, 2003). As Tough describes in his account of Baby College recruiting efforts, this kind of reach is possible due to the aggressive efforts of recruiters from the community to enroll new and soon-to-be parents throughout the Zone. Reaching out to community members in other cities will require effective hiring and skilled, data-driven management to ensure that enrollment efforts are similarly massive.

    Perhaps the greatest challenge in successfully replicating the HCZ model is replicating its leadership. As depicted by Tough, Canada’s infectious faith in the ability of hard work to accomplish near-miracles, his unyielding insistence on seeing those near-miracles, and his ability to stand up and take full responsibility when near-miracles do not emerge constitute a set of managerial skills that seems exceedingly rare. In an era when excuses and denial have come to seem like default responses to high-level policy failures, Canada’s willingness to shoulder full responsibility for organizational letdowns comes across as astounding. While Canada is a brilliant program designer, educator, and fundraiser, what may be hardest to duplicate is that type of leadership—leadership inspired not by fear for oneself or one’s staff but by the love of a community and the unwillingness to relent until its fortunes improve.

    Admittedly, those hoping to extract lessons about policy and practice from Tough’s account might have liked to read more about the Promise Academies’ teacher recruitment and instructional practices. Tough emphasizes the schools’ focus on extended-day instruction and intensive test preparation, but more information about both the teaching and afterschool tutoring programs would shed additional light on what makes the HCZ schools work. For instance, in one particularly stirring scene, a boy bursts into tears when his afterschool tutor says that she cares about how he performs on the statewide test, “because this is your future, and I care very deeply about you” (p. 186). Pedagogy, in other words, is only part of the story. Tough remarks that, “on top of the hours and hours of cognitive training, what made the difference in many students’ lives was a personal connection that was impossible to measure and difficult to replicate” (p. 186). Indeed, this “X factor” (p. 186) is critical to the entire enterprise and helps explain why the HCZ programs may be so challenging to emulate.

    In addition, Tough’s description of the fallout from disappointing test scores illustrates the challenge of job security for educators in the HCZ. Continued employment for administrators, and to some extent for teachers, depends on strong student performance—not in the formulaic sense of Adequate Yearly Progress but in terms of what it will realistically take to prepare every child to graduate from college. Tough shows that, in the short term, student achievement is expected to improve markedly; if that does not happen, people lose their jobs. This model is so different from the norms of contemporary public schooling that it is difficult to imagine what it would take for educators in other contexts to agree to such high stakes.

    We know, for instance, that teachers vary markedly in their ability to raise students’ standardized test scores and that their ability to do so is moderately stable over time (Gordon, Kane, & Staiger, 2006). The problem, of course, is that teachers’ skills and effort are not the only determinants of student achievement. Students’ own motivation and behavior and the support they get at home are also responsible for their success. In addition, the tests themselves are imperfect. Not only do they measure a fraction of the skills that predict students’ long-term outcomes (Heckman & Masterov, 2007), but they also contain measurement error. So for teachers or administrators to accept job conditions like those in Promise Academy, they must agree to be evaluated almost entirely on outcomes that do not reflect all of their accomplishments and are only partially within their control. This means accepting a fair amount of risk.

    In certain occupations, risk is common. To use an obvious example, corporate executives know that if their profits or stock prices plummet, their jobs are in danger, and they understand that forces beyond their control can affect both profits and stock prices. However, when the risk pays off, the rewards tend to be high.3 It is possible that educators, too, would be willing to accept greater risks in exchange for attractive compensation levels and working conditions, particularly in systems modeled on the HCZ, where students are supported by a broad array of health and family services.4 It may also be that those educators willing to accept this risk are exactly the people who we want teaching our children. But even in the age of standards-based accountability and No Child Left Behind, Canada’s high-stakes approach represents a considerable departure from the status quo.

    In effect, Canada’s charter model shifts a portion of the responsibility for children’s outcomes off the children themselves and onto educated adults who have chosen to be there. Though Tough does not couch the discussion in these terms, Canada is using the incentives of capitalism to promote greater equality of outcomes. In a market economy, a person’s success theoretically depends on his skills (acquired partially through schooling), motivation, and capital (monetary, social, and so on), even though certain ingredients, such as monetary and social capital, are not evenly distributed at birth. It might be said that Canada is attuned to the unequal distribution of capital and believes that people’s access to marketable skills—and even their perceptions of the relative value of those skills—is affected by the circumstances of their birth in ways beyond their control. Thus, the HCZ works to change the incentives, although this is not the language of the program. Instead of waiting for the market to penalize students for a lack of skills, Canada shifts some of the penalties to educators—including himself—who are better equipped to adopt the risk. Of course, it is impossible to shift all of the risk: in the long run, students’ educational attainment will likely affect their own earning power more than that of their teachers and administrators. The question is whether there are enough educators willing to shoulder the risk so that programs like the HCZ can reasonably loosen the iron-tight grasp of poverty on America’s cities.

    The Resource Problem

    Another lingering question facing the HCZ and future replications is that of sustainable funding. The resource question is especially critical at a time when some of the HCZ’s primary funders, including Lehman Brothers Holdings and various clients of Bernie Madoff, have been decimated by the financial crisis (Spector, 2009). This latest obstacle, which is forcing Canada to postpone planned service expansions and lay off staff members, occurred too recently to be documented in Whatever It Takes. But it is a reminder of the importance of the public role in public-private partnerships, because private-sector funding depends not only on demonstrating effectiveness but also on the vitality of the broader market. Current data suggest that the HCZ is a sound social investment, so the challenge is guarding against the market risks attached to private funds. For instance, in the HCZ’s 2003 planning report, the project aimed to spend $11,300 annually per student in the Promise Academy’s first year, gradually reducing that cost to $7,900 (in unadjusted dollars) by 2009.5

    It is not clear from Tough’s book whether these estimated costs are consistent with what is now being spent, but both figures fall well below the state’s 2007 average K–12 expenditure of $14,119 per child (Roberts, 2007).

    Next Steps

    When Barack Obama proposed the expansion of the HCZ to other cities, he acknowledged that variation was to be expected and that what matters is distinguishing between successful and unsuccessful models. “Every step these cities take will be evaluated,” he promised, “and if certain plans or programs aren’t working, we will stop them and try something else” (Obama, 2007, para. 36). A year and a half later, his inaugural address also spoke of  dedication to tough, data-driven decisions—the same kind of decisions that have allowed Geoffrey Canada to surmount and learn from the obstacles thrown in his path:

    The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works. . . . Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day. (Obama, 2009, para. 15)

    What is finally needed is additional research that shines “the light of day” on programs like the HCZ, helping us understand both the quantifiable inputs and the hard-to-replicate human factors that underlie their promising results. By taking time to examine the existence proofs in our midst, we stand the best chance of helping other cities build on what Geoffrey Canada has so carefully created in Harlem. To this end, Whatever It Takes—an exciting work of research and storytelling—stands as a gleaming window through which that light is able to pass.
    Jennifer L. Steele

    Click here to purchase this review.

    1. Canada considers students’ bachelor’s degree completion to be the ultimate measure of the HCZ’s success. On The Tavis Smiley Show he said, “I’ve had a lot of people . . . say, ‘Well, Geoff, you know some of the kids have emotional issues.’ I say, ‘Let them have emotional issues and a college degree. That’s fine with me.’ . . . Then I’ve done my job” (Tavis Smiley Archives, 2008).

    2. Tough explains that because New York law requires charter schools to admit children by lottery, Canada structured the lottery so that winning families can take advantage of the Three-Year-Old Journey and the Harlem Gems preschool several years before their children would start kindergarten. (The HCZ’s other child and family services, including Baby College and afterschool care, are broadly available to HCZ residents and do not depend on lottery admission.)

    3. Of course, Enron-like collapses and the more recent bank failures remind us that executives sometimes hide information likely to depress their stock prices. This danger is relevant in education as well. Research on both teaching to the test (Koretz, 2003; Koretz & Barron, 1998) and outright cheating (Jacob & Levitt, 2003) suggests that even in education, higher stakes create incentives to game the system.

    4. Canada described possible benefits of a high-stakes pay-for-performance approach during a panel discussion organized by the Center for American Progress (2008).

    5. These costs exclude HCZ overhead and other programs, which are distinct line items.

    Center for American Progress. (2008, October 23). Learning from the Harlem Children’s Zone. Retrieved December 22, 2008, from http://www.americanprogress.org/ events/2008/10/harlem.html

    Fullinwider, R. K. (1996, March). Personal responsibility, the deserving poor, and the welfare mess. Paper presented at George Washington University, Washington, DC. Retrieved January 23, 2008, from http://www.publicpolicy.umd.edu/faculty/fullinwider/Welfare_Mess.htm

    Gordon, R., Kane, T. J., & Staiger, D. O. (2006). Identifying effective teachers using performance on the job. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

    Harlem Children’s Zone. (2003). Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc. (HCZ) growth plan FY 2001−FY 2009, updated fall 2003. New York: Author.

    Harlem Children’s Zone. (2008). A unique approach to inner-city poverty. Retrieved December 22, 2008, from https://www.hcz.org/programs/the-hcz-project

    Heckman, J. J., & Masterov, D. V. (2007). The productivity argument for investing in young children. Review of Agricultural Economics, 29(3), 446−493.

    Jacob, B. A., & Levitt, S. D. (2003). Rotten apples: An investigation of the prevalence and predictors of teacher cheating. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(3), 843−877.

    Karoly, L. A., Kilburn, M. R., & Cannon, J. S. (2005). Early childhood interventions: Proven results, future promise (MG-341). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

    Koretz, D. (2003). Using multiple measures to address perverse incentives and score inflation. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 22(2), 18−26.

    Koretz, D., & Barron, S. (1998). The validity of gains in scores on the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS) (MR-1014-EDU). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

    Lake, R. J. (Ed.). (2008). Hopes, fears, and reality: A balanced look at American charter schools in 2008. Bothell, WA: Center for Reinventing Public Education.

    Naftzger, N., Bonney, C., Donahue, T., Hutchinson, C., Margolin, J., & Vinson, M. (2007). 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) analytic support for evaluation and program monitoring: An overview of the 21st CCLC performance data: 2005−06. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates.

    Obama, B. (2007, July 18). Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Changing the odds for urban America. Retrieved December 22, 2008, from http://www.barackobama.com/2007/07/18/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_19.php

    Obama, B. (2009, January 20). President Barack Obama’s inaugural address. Retrieved January 23, 2009, from http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address

    Roberts, S. (2007, May 30). New York is top state in dollars per student. The New York Times. Retrieved January 23, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/30/ education/30census.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

    Spector, M. (2009, January 24). Bear market for charities. The Wall Street Journal, p. A1. Steuerle, C. E., & Mermin, G. (1997). Devolution as seen from the budget (No. A-2). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

    Tavis Smiley Archives: Geoff Canada, Paul Tough. (2008, September 26). Retrieved January 22, 2009, from http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200809/20080926_geoffcanadapault.html

    Tough, P. (2006, November 26). What it takes to make a student. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved January 22, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/magazine/26tough.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

    Tough, P. (2008). Whatever it takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

    Woodworth, K. R., David, J. L., Guha, R., Wang, H., & Lopez-Torkos, A. (2008). San Francisco Bay Area KIPP Schools: A study of early implementation and achievement. Final report. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
  2. Fall 2009 Issue


    Suspending Damage
    A Letter to Communities
    Eve Tuck
    “They’re in My Culture, They Speak the Same Way”
    African American Language in Multiethnic High Schools
    Django Paris
    The Effects of Stereotype Threat on Standardized Mathematics Test Performance and Cognitive Processing
    Keena Arbuthnot
    High School Research and Critical Literacy
    Social Studies With and Despite Wikipedia
    Houman Harouni
    Discourse, Narrative, and National Identity
    The Case of France
    Kyle A. Greenwalt

    Book Notes

    My Most Excellent Year
    Steven Kluger

    Malcolm Gladwell

    Muslim American Youth
    Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine

    Charles R. Smith Jr.

    Teach Freedom
    Charles Payne and Carol Sills Strickland

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.