Success in Education Reform: Focus on Human Factors Before Financial Factors

Earlier this week, I encouraged the use of a more sophisticated approach to education policy: a set of principles to pitch beyond vouchers and "school choice." Today, David Brooks tells the story of New York City charter schools operated by the the Harlem Children's Zone:

"[A study from Harvard economists Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie] found that the Harlem Children’s Zone schools produced “enormous” gains. The typical student entered the charter middle school, Promise Academy, in sixth grade and scored in the 39th percentile among New York City students in math. By the eighth grade, the typical student in the school was in the 74th percentile. The typical student entered the school scoring in the 39th percentile in English Language Arts (verbal ability). By eighth grade, the typical student was in the 53rd percentile.

"Forgive some academic jargon, but the most common education reform ideas — reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start — produce gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations. If you study policy, those are the sorts of improvements you live with every day. Promise Academy produced gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That’s off the charts. In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students."

Fryer was so impressed that he said, "The results changed his my life as a researcher because I am no longer interested in marginal changes," and argued it was the "equivalent of curing cancer for these kids. Why was there so much success? These schools focused on the human elements of a school: (1) strengthening and empowering students, and (2) strengthening accountability for teachers.

"Basically, the no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and attitudes. They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands. These schools are academically rigorous and college-focused. Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.

"They also smash the normal bureaucratic strictures that bind leaders in regular schools. Promise Academy went through a tumultuous period as Canada searched for the right teachers. Nearly half of the teachers did not return for the 2005-2006 school year. A third didn’t return for the 2006-2007 year. Assessments are rigorous. Standardized tests are woven into the fabric of school life."

And remember, President Obama was all about charter schools in his address to Congress:

"We'll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools."

The Harlem Children's Zone is a model for other areas to follow because it puts into practice some of the principles that I've talked about before: (1) More money does not equal better results. (2) The goal should be to move every child forward instead of "leaving no child behind." (3) Schools are more able focus on kids' strengths, not weaknesses, when local control is restored. (4) It should be easy to recruit the best teachers, and it should be easy to fire bad teachers.

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Harlem Children's Zone

... is not a model for a charter school program or Education in general, it is a model for the reinvention of Urban America.


The Center for American Progress invited the leaders of the HCZ initiative to deliver a full conference in  October:


Here is what their profile says:

Harlem Children's Zone is America's most ambitious and closely watched effort to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

HCZ aims to create a "conveyor belt" for Harlem's poor children, a series of rich and effective supports-from a "Baby College" for parents, to an all-day pre-kindergarten and extended-day charter schools, to health clinics and community centers, all the way to help in succeeding in college.

Together, these efforts aim to give poor children the stimulation and the opportunities that most kids growing up in middle-class neighborhoods receive from birth. This year, HCZ will serve 8,000 children living in the 97 block Zone. The initiative has been featured on 60 Minutes, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and in the New York Times Magazine..."


I am all for new ideas, I love innovation, I am all for integrating succesful new models and methods into our public Educational system.

But this is more of an example of how a concerted, united effort between Government and an enlightened private sector can produce positive results in the short term. 

How much would it cost to put a program like this into every non-performing district in  the country? 

I have no idea, and neither does David Brooks.