Harlem Children’s Zone holds lessons for Labour

Oli de Botton has questioned the applicability of Harlem Children's Zone to the UK. But the preliminary results are incredible and UK schools need a broader role.

On LabourList yesterday, Left Foot Forward contributor Oli De Botton highlights the Harlem Children’s Zone. HCZ is a project in New York that has been running since 1997 and covers a 100 block area in New York City. The brainchild of Geoff Canada, the project aims to provide an environment for education from birth to adult education. Today, the project serves over 8,000 children and 6,000 adults and is built on some very simple interventionist principles.

Oli says the “jury may still be out” on HCZ and asks whether we should be pursuing similar approaches in the UK. While the jury might still be out, the preliminary studies show incredible results. Professor Roland Fryer, the 32-year old economist at the head of Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs), recently published the first assessment of HCZ’s impact on outcomes. It showed that the project had managed to close the black-white achievement gap in mathematics and reduce it by nearly half in English. He concludes that it is both the quality of the school and the investment into the community that creates the gains.

While I broadly agree with Oli’s assessment I disagree that the proposal should be divisive for Labour supporters simply because it takes private money and makes use of the US’ Charter School scheme (similar to our academies). The central argument is not one about private money or public money, it’s about levels of intervention and the role of schools. For one thing, the Charter School (Promise Academy) forms only one part of HCZ; much of the project addresses wider issues of social policy that have been identified as impacting one educational outcomes.

The principle is to solve them all through targeted interventions. The incredible gains have been brought about not just by attracting significant amounts of financial investment (though, this has undoubtedly helped), but also by convincing parents that school is the best option for their children and by providing adults with something as well, incuding programmes such as parenting classes at HCZ’s Baby College. In some of the most deprived areas of this country, there is still a battle to be fought to convince some people about the benefits of education (double digit persistent truancy rates speak volumes) and schools in the UK are yet to embrace the idea that they have something significant to offer adults and the rest of the community, in addition to educating children.

Geoff Canada’s success doesn’t rest solely on private money, it rests on his ability to see education and schools not only as a place children go during the day to learn, but as a vibrant centre of a community, with responsibilities towards all its members. This is a Labour and progressive vision and one that we should all endorse.

Like this article? Left Foot Forward relies on support from readers to sustain our progressive journalism. Can you become a supporter for £5 a month?

3 Responses to “Harlem Children’s Zone holds lessons for Labour”

  1. Martin McCluskey

    My first piece in a while on @leftfootfwd looking at the Harlem Children's Zone http://bit.ly/7IDrcj

  2. Oli de Botton

    Hi Martin,

    Great piece. I think it explains the HCZ far better than I did yesterday. I can see that the evidence broadly supports the impact the zone has at pre-school and elementary (primary) level and mirrors but expands what we know about early interverntion. And your point that we are now in a position say definitvely that schools can make a difference (when we used to think background was too overwhelming) has profound implications for policy.

    I guess I have concerns about the sustainability and replicability at high school (secondary) level (highlighted in Paul Toughs bookhttp://www.amazon.com/Whatever-Takes-Geoffrey-Canadas-America/dp/0618569898). Some evidence shows that secondary schools are harder to reform and less pliable to change over the long term than primaries and pre-school provision (someting I know from pratical experience and from guys like Fullan http://www.michaelfullan.ca/Articles_01/06_01.pdf). Is there a danger that we can make it work in Harlem where we have unlimited resources (as Canada admits in the book) but not anywhere esle because we have left behind the argument about redistribution of resources from government? Also Canada is inspirational but are there 20 Canadas with the drive and, as he admits, connections to turn around 20 city areas.

    Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary says he needs 5000 outstanding heads to start in September to take over America’s toughest secondary schools (http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2009/07/07022009.html). We need to make sure Canada is not just a one off that lets politicians off the hook.



  3. Alun

    I read Paul Tough’s book after hearing about the HCZ on This American Life. The point is about changing behaviour though isn’t it? If a “critical mass” of people in an area are educated, go to college etc. then it becomes the “norm” and not something outlandish. And that’s Canada’s objective, for everyone in Harlem to know someone who’s gone to college, for there to be jobs in Harlem for college graduates to come back to. He wants to change the way people think about education in deprived areas.

    I live in Finland and there’s something here that is also important. Here in Finland there are no private schools and no selective schools. All schools have a high level of investment from the state, and all children get the same level of teaching. The academic achievement difference between the best school in Finland and the worst is 3%. Ok Finland is a pretty homogeneous society, but in the US and the UK there is heavy investment in schooling in “middle class” areas (or “white” if you like), and low investment in “poor” areas (or “black” if you like). This is not about redistribution whatever Oli says, it’s about fairness, schools in the US and the UK should be funded and resourced equitably. Indeed if anything the argument is strong that schools in poor areas, which tend to underperform, should get greater funding to address the social problems of those areas. But in this regard Labour have followed traditional Tory ideas, stupid “league tables”, and pretending that schools in middle class regions do well because they are better run. Following the far-right wing ideology of pretending that there is a “market” in state schools.

Leave a Reply