Whatever It Takes tells the story of Geoffrey Canada and his quest to transform the way the children of poor, poorly educated parents are raised in Harlem. Canada’s vision is for a “conveyor belt” that would start with educating expectant parents on such topic as exercising during pregnancy, reading to their children, and using appropriate discipline techniques, welcome children in nursery schools, and offer an alternative to the often dangerous and under-achieving public schools in the area. The book focuses on the Baby College, the educational program for expectant parents and parents of infants, and especially the Promise Academy, a K-12 charter school.
It’s clear that the school founder passionately believes that all children can be successful, and his idea is straightforward: middle-class parents automatically and without thinking use techniques that are proven to be successful (such as talking to their children – a lot) and if we could teach the same techniques to poor parents, who often grew up in barely-functioning families, they too would be able to raise successful children. He himself was raised by a poor (but educated, smart, and dedicated) mother and he feels that his success can be shared by the majority of Harlem children. And he may be right, based on his success so far with a portion of the children in the school, the ones who started in kindergarten.
What I liked about the book, beside the description of a completely dedicated educator, is its honesty: the Promise Academy experiment was not very successful with the initial batch of sixth graders, and the failure is described openly together with the somewhat messy staff changes that accompanied it. The other interesting point is a reminder of how abysmal educational evaluation techniques are. One of the critical metric to evaluate school progress in New York, like in California, is the administration of standardized tests (mostly for math and English) that students have to take once a year. New York, in its infinite wisdom, administers the tests in January. Why would anyone decide that the middle of the school year is a good time to measure achievement is not clear.
And, like in California, it takes months to find out the results of the tests, so that by the time they become available it’s too late to take meaningful corrective action. Perhaps the most urgent educational reform would be to develop a meaningful set of tests that (1) don’t take an entire week to administer and (2) whose results can be known the next day. I just read a comment from a Chinese high school student spending a year in France who noted that in China she had to take a monthly comprehensive exam on all subjects, graded on a fine scale so she could instantly know how well she was doing compared to others. It was interesting to me that anyone would find the French system not competitive enough — but perhaps what matters most is the quick feedback…
An inspiring look at bona fide experiements in education and social justice.