This post reviews Paul Tough, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).
Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine and widely published journalist, here pens a fascinating book chronicling the reform efforts of Geoffrey Canada, an African American visionary who has been working for many years to transform Harlem. The book is an engaging blend of first person reportage of Canada’s efforts among the urban poor with research reviews of some of the most significant scholarship on urban poverty, child-rearing, and education. In this review I’ll briefly summarize Canada’s approach in Harlem and then focus on what this book has to say about the importance of home life for a child’s educational success.
Geoffrey Canada’s primary goal is to get away from social programs that don’t work at all or that only pluck a few lucky or gifted poor children from their contexts, saving them while the vast majority continue to fail. Instead, he has been trying to work out a reform strategy that will get 100% of poor children out of poverty. Tough’s book explains to the reader the slow evolution of Canada’s strategy, both its grounding in empirical research and its embodiment in institutions. Canada’s strategy has been to carve out a geographic space, the Harlem Children’s Zone, where EVERY child is touched by his programs. He wants success to spread like a virus throughout the entire neighborhood.
Over time, Canada has learned that the best way to lift children out of poverty is to start interventions early and continue them in unbroken sequence into the teen years. The Harlem Children’s Zone begins, therefore, with “Baby College,” a program for pregnant mothers through parents of three year olds. Rather than relying on a self-selecting group of volunteers, Canada’s staff aggressively recruits pregnant mothers and mothers of small children all over Harlem, offering significant financial and other incentives to rope them in. Once in, poor mothers (and some fathers) are taught many of the parenting skills that middle-class parents know as a matter of course. They learn soft discipline strategies like “time outs,” the value of reading to young children every day, the importance of cuddling, encouragement, and verbal interaction.
Once parents graduate from Baby College they are recruited for “Three-year-old Journey,” a more intensive parenting class where mothers and fathers learn the same material at a more sophisticated level, including the research behind the strategies being advocated. Parents in the Children’s Zone are encouraged to apply to Canada’s Promise Academy, a kindergarten through elementary grade charter school. If their child wins a lottery spot at the school, he or she becomes eligible for Harlem Gems, an intensive preschool program with heavy stress on language development. Once through the elementary grades, students then can go on to Promise Academy Middle School. In theory, then, Canada has created a “conveyor belt” that children get on when they are still in the womb and stay on until they graduate from middle school. It has taken years for the entire system to be worked out, and the first group of children who have been on the conveyor belt from the beginning are only just now beginning middle school, but the book ends on a hopeful note that math and reading scores for this group, which have been stellar in the early grades, will continue to shine through middle school, and Canada will realize his dream of crafting a system that can give poor children as good a preparation for college as middle class children receive.
Tough embellishes the story I have just outlined with lots of great human interest stories of energetic children, struggling poor families, and the travails of Canada and his staff as they try to solve the problem of poverty in America. It’s a powerful, even inspiring book to read on that level. But Tough’s true gift in my view is his ability to take sophisticated scholarship and describe it in a way that is not only clear and interesting but even riveting. Really. Chapter two, titled “Unequal Childhoods” is simply amazing, as it tears through the Moynihan Report, the Coleman Report, the debate over Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, the work of William Julius Wilson, Christopher Jencks, Richard Rothstein, Martha Farah, and Annette Lareau, all in an effort to answer the questions, “Why are poor people poor? Why do they stay poor? And what would it take for them to get out of poverty?”
The answer, it turns out, has a lot to do with parenting. The much discussed achievement gaps between black and white children and between poor and wealthy children is mostly about parenting. Children born into middle class homes enjoy tremendous educational advantages that confer on them skills that enable their success as adults. Middle class parents, for example talk to their children a lot more than lower class parents do: one study found that by age 3 children on welfare have heard 10 million words addressed to them while children of professionals have heard 30 million. And far more of those words are encouraging, nurturing utterances among the more well-to-do.
Tough reports research that has found a direct and powerful correlation between parenting techniques and children’s scores on standardized tests. Children whose parents gave them a lot of social and emotional nurturing developed better memories over time (nurturance stimulates the medial temporal lobe, which is connected to memory). Children whose parents read to them and immerse them in language-rich environments become early readers, and early readers become better readers thanks to the “Matthew Effect:” Whoever has will be given more” and its corollary–“whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away.” [Mt. 13:13 and 25:29. Jesus says this in Mark and Luke too, but sociologists call it the Matthew Effect].
All of this is both encouraging and discouraging to would-be reformers. It shows that the skills necessary for success in contemporary America are, pace Charles Murray, acquired and not innate–they can be taught. But it also shows that if young children are not receiving these inputs they will fall further and further behind to the point that by 6th grade or so it will be too late to bring them up to par even with the most heroic of efforts.
What Canada and other reformers who want to help poor children have to do, then, is to basically provide poor kids with
access to the same kind of nurturing, stimulating, language-rich early home life as every other American child. But since we know that they’re not all going to get that, we need to provide substitues to those who don’t get what they need at home…. The best and simplest way to prepare children for a successful life is for their parents to give them everything they need at home, in their earliest years. But if that doesn’t happen, if they’re not born lucky, all is not lost: with the right inputs at the right time, you can compensate for any kind of childhood. (p. 194)
The connection to homeschooling should now be clear. The latest NCES data shows a pronounced shift in homeschooling toward the higher economic brackets. It also shows a decline in African American homeschooling. Both trends make sense in light of the literature on successful parenting reported by Tough. Assuming that one’s goal is to have a child acquire the skills necessary for economic success in contemporary society, wealthier families can do this very well themselves–better in fact than schools can. But if parents do not posses these skills themselves it is in the best interest of their children’s financial futures to entrust them to institutions that can compensate. The blessing of the middle class child is that both her home and school can usually do a good job. The curse of the poor child is that often both home and school cannot. Hence Geoffrey Canada’s institutional conveyor belt.