Thursday, January 1, 2009

More thoughts on Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough

Some more random thoughts on Whatever it Takes.  I was thinking of writing a multiple post sort of "book report" on this book with different themes but that is really not necessary.  Some highlights of the book though are the following.

Tough does a great job providing some background on James Heckman, a Nobel prize winning Chicago economist.  Heckman's work (some complicated stuff which I won't really try to pretend to know more about) says that a "skills gap" happens with children from impoverished backgrounds at a very young age.  Children who receive quality early child care either from home or pre-school show gains from that experience fare later in life.  

This work leads to Geoffrey Canada's idea of the conveyor belt.  Canada is interested in far more than schools.  He wants to do away with generational poverty in Harlem.  So he created Baby College, which is a weekly class for expecting parents in the neighborhood.  He also tries to start school for his students at the age of three, thus starting the "conveyor belt" to college at a very young age.  I absolutely am thrilled with this approach for several reasons.  Canada is definitely a no excuses kind of man and leader yet he acknowledges through his work that to have a better change at making a huge difference in children's lives you have to start at an incredibly early age.  I also like that he does not just put it all of this work on the backs of teachers but instead enlists the support of social workers, child development experts, etc.  This is a very powerful notion that I see in my own system in many different ways but not in a unified "conveyor belt" kind of system, probably because of different jurisdictions in a close geographic area.

The story of the middle school, the first school Canada and company created, is quite a story and in the end,  heartbreaking to say the least.  Part of what I liked about the book is the unvarnished nature to the story telling, especially about the middle school.  Long story short, the first principal was fired because she was not tough enough on discipline and focused enough on test scores.  A new principal was brought in and made some vast improvements with student discipline but test scores did not soar immediately and there was still quite a bit of struggle with the first group of students, at the end of the book, they were 8th graders.  Looking at the years of struggles they had with many of the 8th graders and lagging test scores, Canada and company decided to not continue their education by creating a 9th grade class, despite earlier promises to the contrary.  This was hard to stomach, and Tough is unrelenting in his description of the anger and sadness the students and parents felt.  Tough also does a great job describing how Canada's unrelenting focus on test scores was in part stoked by a board of investment bankers who were interested in bottom line type results.  In Canada's defense, he was forthcoming about what he did in closing out the education of the 8th graders that year, and it appeared to be one of those tough decisions all around.  It does take me back to my concern about many of these high standard charter schools: what do you do with tough kids?  Just wait for them to quit or close down the school because you don't want to deal with them anymore?  

When the Harlem Children's Zone is bandied about (deservedly so) as a potential policy model by Obama we should look at the good (Heckman, conveyor belt, etc) and the not so good (letting the tough kids go through "attrition").  A great book though, and I am an even bigger fan of early childhood education than I was before.  I want a three year old program at my school now!


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