Wednesday, January 28, 2009

In the City

Recent events have caused me to think a lot about urban education.

Recents facts such as the fact that my sister, Ms. Swamp the Younger, is basically teaching in your stereotypical urban education hell. Combined with the book I am reading: Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, by Paul Tough.

My sister's job, in Brooklyn, consists of a first-grade class of students she loves. They are woefully unprepared, academically, and perhaps a fifth (or fourth?) of them exhibit seriously disturbed behaviors. Another good percentage of them display very challenging behaviors, and then of course you have the "normal" behaviors that go along with teaching. A lot of them live in the homeless shelter near the school, and there is therefore a good bit of turnover in her classroom.

So this would be enough, as a first-year teacher, to really challenge you and make you wonder how to get through the year. But, it is not over.

Her school is administered by an ineffectual and incompetent principal. To say the least. There is no support for teachers. There is no help with the challenging behaviors: no one to say, "Let me help you come up with a behavior plan for that child, and at the same time, let's get him some counseling."

Worse than the lack of such support is the antithesis of support. A meaningless obsession with "clutter" in classrooms, and the content of the bulletin boards. Constant insistence that teachers "show the kids who's boss" and handle all behaviors themselves, inside the classroom, regardless. Petty, mean-spirited retaliation against teachers who do anything without consulting the administration, or anything that the administration does not like.

As you can imagine, it is terrible for my sister to live through this, especially because she loves the students she teaches, wants the best for them, and is working very, very hard to meet their needs against truly impossible odds. It is also pretty hard to live through your sister living through it, I must say.

Whatever It Takes is the story of Geoffrey Canada's work in Harlem to design an educational program, from birth to grade 12, that leaves urban youth (of color) on equal footing with their suburban (white) peers. (Usually when we say "urban" we mean "black," and when we say "suburban" we mean "white." Right?)

It is such an important book, and a page-turner. I can't put it down. It is a combination of the history of Canada's Harlem Children's Zone and a survey of the research on what works (and doesn't work) for children who grow up without many advantages, and with many disadvantages. It details the enormous gap, along racial lines, between the haves and the have-nots in the US (what Jonathan Kozol calls "apartheid schooling"). It brings up all of the important questions in urban education: Do we focus our efforts on test prep? How do we avoid alienating strong black students from their neighborhoods and communities? How do we raise up all of the poor students, not just a few chosen ones? Where does discipline come in? How do we involve families? At what age is it too late to make a difference?

The research out there is clear. The earlier you try to level the playing field, the better. And early is early.

"Significant skill gaps exist -- by race, class, and maternal education -- and they open up very early. At age one there is not a great difference between the cognitive abilities of the child of a college graduate and the child of a high school dropout, but by age two there is a sizable gap, and at three it's even wider" (191).

Not only cognitive skills are important; the development of non-cognitive skills (such as perseverence, patience, and the ability to delay gratification) is essential as well. And, "if you intervene in a child's life early, later interventions will have more to build upon, which means that they will pay off more as well. But if you don't start early, the reverse happens: each year it gets harder and harder to have an effect on a child's development" (193).

I want to highlight the connection between this last fact and my sister's job (and my job). She teaches first grade; I teach second now. These are young children. But they are already facing odds which often seem unbeatable. In an environment like that of my school, where teachers are supported and curriculum is high-quality, they sometimes seem unbeatable. In an environment like that of my sister's school? It is not an optimistic thing to say, but I think they are unbeatable.

We'll save for another day the topic of whose fault it is that her school's environment is like this. But watch out, because once I get going, we all might be implicated.

So as not to end on that note, and to encourage you to read this book, I will share one more quotation, based on research done by James Heckman:

"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" (194).

Read the book. You won't regret it.


  1. This is a powerful piece you have written. Your empathy for kids and for your sister shine through. The book sounds good and heart rending too.

  2. Thanks for the pointer! A certain organization working with a multicultural group of young people finds this to be of great interest.

    - JP Farm Enabler