Thanks to a comment posted by TeacherJay on one my recent posts, I went in search of more information about Paul Tough’s book, Whatever It Takes, and I am glad I did. The first thing I discovered was that the Amazon link includes an interview with both author Paul Tough and with the main person behind the story in the book, education innovator Geoffrey Canada.

The book description was intriguing enough:

What would it take?

That was the question that Geoffrey Canada found himself asking. What would it take to change the lives of poor children–not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in big numbers, and in a way that could be replicated nationwide? The question led him to create the Harlem Children’s Zone, a ninety-seven-block laboratory in central Harlem where he is testing new and sometimes controversial ideas about poverty in America. His conclusion: if you want poor kids to be able to compete with their middle-class peers, you need to change everything in their lives–their schools, their neighborhoods, even the child-rearing practices of their parents.

A google search led me to an NPR story from This American Life titled “Going Big” (Episode #364). The first 30 minutes or so of the show deal explicitly with the book, the program, and the issues surrounding it and are well worth a listen. They describe that segment this way:

Act One. Harlem Renaissance.

Paul Tough reports on the Harlem Children’s Zone, and its CEO and president, Geoffrey Canada. Among the project’s many facets is Baby College, an 8-week program where young parents and parents-to-be learn how to help their children get the education they need to be successful. Tough’s just-published book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem’s Children Zone is called Whatever It Takes.

On the face of it, the argument sounds so profoundly sociological. Children in such circumstances lack access to sufficient social and cultural resources that children in middle-class and higher circumstances take for granted. As such, a comprehensive program is necessary to level the playing fields. One of the red flags that might be raised, however, is whether or not this represents a form of class-based cultural imperialism. It does look like the early signs of success for the program are positive, but what are the costs for the parents and families of these children? It would make for some interesting discussion, and I look forward to reading the book.

The possible debate reminds me of the tension I found recently while reading the newly realeased (3rd) edition of Jay MacLeod’s classic Ain’t No Makin’ It, which provides an update on the Brothers and Hallway Hangers, now at middle-age, and concludes that one of the keys to adult success was leaving community and family behind. The problem was that social resources were the only real resource the Hallway Hangers had while growing up and turning your back on each other was the exact opposite of what they stood for.

Sara Mosle’s review in Slate, “How Children Stop Failing“, gives a sense of this tension:

Indeed, in many ways, Tough’s book is an inadvertent defense of “helicopter parenting.” It turns out that all that angst-ridden, middle-class negotiation with kids about rules (instead of simply laying down the law with a spank), the music lessons and summer camps, the absence of free time—even middle-class kids’ sense of entitlement—are what help them hone the kind of cognitive skills that our increasingly intellect-based economy (unlike the manufacturing economy of the 1950s) rewards. The idea that what goes on in the home is what matters is not, of course, new. It dates back as far as the 1960s, to the Moynihan and Coleman Reports, which stirred controversy by suggesting that such attitudes and practices were more important than school quality.

What is new is Canada’s idea that by blanketing a limited geographic area with dawn-to-dusk, cradle-to-high-school social services, in addition to better schools, an all-encompassing program like the Children’s Zone can serve as a kind of substitute for such parental attitudes and practices where they don’t exist. He’s also arguing that intervening when the most disadvantaged children are already in middle school or high school is too late—as, in a way, his own middle-school endeavor confirms. Rather than await the broader societal changes that many progressives call for, Canada wants, in essence, to create a European-style social democracy within Harlem.

Canada also appeared on The Colbert Report on Comedy Central on December 8, 2008, available here.

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more about “Geoffrey Canada | Monday December 8th…“, posted with vodpod

Geoffrey Canada is also the author of Fist Stick Knife Gun. For a 2005 bio of Geoffrey Canada from Current Biographies: Geoffrey Canada, social activist

Paul Tough did earlier related stories in the New York Times, including “The Harlem Project”  (June 20, 2004), and “Whatever It Takes to Make a Student” (November 26, 2006). He also provides additional background information on his website dedicated to the book, including this question and answer section. He also has a blog available here.

My thanks to TeacherJay (click to visit his education blog). His blog is definitely worth checking out, and he has a blogpost up about Whatever It Takes too.

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