Book of the Month Discussion: Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.

I’ve been chomping at the bit to get to our discussion of Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes, this month’s reading/discussion group pick. The book follows the efforts of Geoffrey Canada and his audacious Harlem Children’s Zone program, a formidable array of proactive social programs that Canada hopes will lift every child in Harlem into college and out of poverty. The scale of that undertaking is mind-bending, but Canada is undaunted, maybe even obdurate, in the pursuit of that end.

Canada launches Baby College in an attempt to instill some of the childrearing methods that middle class parents use, citing a growing body of research that child-rearing strategies play a major role in the black-white achievement gap. And most notably, he opens a charter school, The Promise Academy, to great fanfare and lots of press attention. Promise Academy boasts an unusually engaged faculty and stresses parental involvement, and its inaugural elementary school class is full of kids who have been cultivated by the HCZ’s early childhood programs. They have longer class days and longer school years and thanks to some sponsors with deep pockets, lots of resources at their disposal.

The inaugural sixth grade class is a different matter. Those kids didn’t go through the suite of HCZ initatives, and by the time they arrive at the academy, they are already way behind other sixth graders in reading and math. Canada bumps heads with his principal on their approach to reaching these kids, whose academic performance will factor heavily into the academy’s long-term viability.

Canada’s efforts and ideas are often crazy inspired (and inspiring), even if the practical application of them often left me personally a little frustrated. Tough’s a sharp, clear writer, who does a great job of outlining Canada’s remarkable life story — from poverty in the South Bronx to a post-grad degree at Harvard — while showing how Canada’s considerable force of personality was both necessary for the HCZ’s launch and an occasional encumbrance to its progress.  The (perhaps unavoidable) emphasis on standardized test scores was also very grating, though I’m inclined to think had something to do with the business types who were underwriting the school needing some sort of metric to gauge how the school was doing, even if that metric left a lot to be desired.

I know y’all have a lot to say on this one. The floor’s open.

(Also, if you haven’t already, you should really holler at the “Going Big” episode of This American Life, in which Tough reports on HCZ’s Baby College — and its emphasis on concerted cultivation and not spanking children as a necessary step in shaping them into better students.)

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11 thoughts on “Book of the Month Discussion: Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.

  1. -k- July 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm Reply

    It’s been a while since I’ve read this, but I remember two things, one of which I remember discussing with you at the time- first, as an educator I found the idea of going all out for kids from before they’re even born electrifying. I actually felt *giddy* as I started to read the book.

    As I got into it, though, there were some things that made me itch- one, of course, being the emphasis “get the scores up in a completely unrealistic amount of time or we’re cutting you off” approach, but more than that, the condescension with which community participants were treated in many cases (the “we don’t really trust you to not go overboard, so we’re preaching zero tolerance on physical discipline” part comes to mind).

    Still, though, the thought of programs with this kind of breadth being put into place on a wider scale.. holy shit. (Because *that*, I think, is maybe the most disappointing thing about the book/set of programs- the kids whose number didn’t come up in the lottery, and the scores more who don’t even have the chance to be a part of something like this.)

    • belleisa July 16, 2009 at 10:11 am Reply

      I am not an educator. Disclaimer done.

      The first way I was prepared to ask this question is: What’s wrong with a little condescension? But I thought the better of it and decided on: Doesn’t all intervention require a little bit of condescension? This is not working, I know a way that does, that’s better because it is more effective.

      Baby College was my favorite chapter. There was some of this in Baby College, with the discipline aspect. I have too often heard minority parents compare curiousity to back talk, or threaten their child with physical punishment in public while damning anyone to challenge them. I’ve also seem some children who probably should have been spanked, which indicated my own bias in this notion of using “time outs.” instead of physical punishment.

      But in a home where talking back even if it is out of curiousity is always the same as being disrecpectful, and is connected to the threat of physical punishment, intervention based on an assumption of equality is neccessary.

      An assumption of equality in order to really help someone, is that not sometimes neccessary?

      • -k- July 16, 2009 at 7:42 pm Reply

        I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean by “an assumption of equality”. Could you clarify?

        That aside, I can’t say we agree on much here aside from liking Baby College- because quibbles aside, I think it’s great that the information is there.

        Concluding that all minority parents are necessarily so extreme when disciplining their children that discussion of physical discipline in moderation is not even a possibility based on what you have heard/seen some parents do/say, though, is problematic. You’re making a lot of assumptions with that “in a home where” statement (I liked it, though, because I heard it in that movie trailer guy’s voice).

        You empower people by giving them the information they need to consider their options and the tools they need to take action. Prescribing a solution and barring any talk of other options- especially when that solution is the subject of quite a bit of debate everywhere else- is condescension that goes above and beyond the level of ‘hey, I think you have a problem’.

        • Aisha July 30, 2009 at 12:16 am Reply

          Realistically how could you pitch a program that would condone physical discipline? No funder would accept that. No curriculum designer would accept that. No child development person would accept that. You couldn’t write a curriculum that stated “spanking your child is okay in moderation.” It would never fly. They wouldn’t be taken seriously.

          • G.D. July 30, 2009 at 1:00 am Reply

            Right. But you couldn’t take a position either way. How many schools make it a point to change the way discipline happens outside the school itself?

  2. Jeremy July 15, 2009 at 8:51 pm Reply

    A few things – First of all, the baby college is simply groundbreaking. The recruitment strategy literally calls for volunteers to recruit pregnant women in Harlem laundromats. It’s like wherever you turn, you almost can’t escape the program’s reach–be it in the school itself, the after school tutoring (of which a college friend of mine did for a couple years), or the community programs. Canada is just throwing resources at these kids. Of course, it carries a substantial price tag; about $58 million annually, to be exact.

    I think the idea that the Zone is trying to impart middle class behaviors on these kids is slightly misleading (I’m mainly referencing the David Brooks NYT op-ed from a few months back). This isn’t an intervention aimed at behavior so much as its a radical intervention geared towards policy. The radical nature is twofold: First, it’s comprehensive, catching kids at every stage of the life cycle. It’s also comprehensive in the types of programs it offers, and who they’ll serve (literally anyone–Canada even pays for a kid in Brooklyn to take a cab to the HCZ every day).

    Second, the model calls for 60% more schooling than the average new york city child receives. These kids are in school for more more hours each day than their peers, and are also in school for more days each year than their peers. Longer schools days, and longer school years. On the one hand, the kids might get more teaching, but on the other (equally plausible) possibility is that the longer days keep them out of trouble. I personally worked at an evening program a few years back that was held from 6-8PM each night, since that’s apparently when middle school aged kids get into the most trouble. So, this isn’t a paternalistic challenge to their behavior, but rather a structure that helps guide their behavior in a productive direction.

    Preliminary data that has JUST been analyzed this past academic year is astounding; current 8th graders are scoring better than the black citywide average, better than the all city average, and better than the citywide WHITE average in math. The english scores are a little less dramatic, but improving nonetheless. Admittedly, the math teacher is, in Canada’s words, “a beast.” So that may be throwing the data off. Still, the results are incredibly dramatic.

    The real question is, a little beyond the scope of the book but related nonetheless, HOW is this happening? So, for full disclosure, I should say that I’m part of the team of Harvard economists, sociologists, and graduate students that are working out a preliminary plan to do some comprehensive research on the program and figure out exactly what’s going on. Obama and secretary of Ed Arne Duncan are really excited about the program, and have met with Harvard economist Roland Fryer and Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson to work out a research project to figure out exactly what’s causing the high scores. The graduate students just met today, and we’re working on syncing and coordinating our goals for the project. Obama has discussed replicated the program across the country as part of his Twenty Promised Neighborhoods program. We will hopefully get some major funding shored up by the Fall, and are planning on a 5-year long survey instrument to be administered in cohorts, interviewing each HCZ student for about an hour every other year. On top of that, myself and the other graduate students in sociology will be working on a qualitative interview/observation component to supplement the survey data–like observing families, the classrooms, the neighborhood programs and stuff like that.

    Long response, I know. But I thought folks might want to know what’s going on here currently, what the data are showing on the program’s incredible effectiveness, and the likelihood of seeing aspects of the model carefully scrutinized and replicated across the country.

    • belleisa July 16, 2009 at 9:48 am Reply


      Thank you for the long response and congrats on being a part of the team.

      Can you explain why the structural and policy changes you referred to, the longer school days and the longer school year does not answer the HOW? Am I wrong for thinking, or am I thinking too small, that the need for the team you’re on is to combat whatever apprehension may come from the cost of the program, or shortsighted politicians with a bone to pick?

      Also, because sociology is not a subject I am familiar with beyond the applications of literature can you explain in layperson terms what you mean by this: “This isn’t an intervention aimed at behavior so much as it’s a radical intervention geared towards policy.”

      • Jeremy July 16, 2009 at 10:54 am Reply

        On school days: There are two plausible explanations for how longer school days impact achievement: kids can actually have more time to learn more, or catch up to grade level, or overcome language deficiencies (one of the major problems these kids face–not being able to get down with the style of speech they are tested on), OR, maybe, the longer school days simply serve as a distraction from OTHER distractions that would impede achievement (drugs, crime, general foolin around). So, we don’t know exactly what about the longer school year produces the great results.

        Moreover, we also don’t know which programs can account for the educational success. Is the school-level stuff, like the school days, style of incentive-based teaching, paying some of the kids from time to time, taking kids to France (not sure if this is in the book, but Canada said if the kids improved their test scores he’d take them to France–they did, and he did), OR is it something about the community engagement that HCZ is seeking to build that accounts for the success. Like, are the community programs in Harlem having some sort of effect on the kids family and home lives that’s allowing them to invest more into their learning. Do the kids feel more engaged by great teachers, are their parents feeling more involved and reading to them at home, are they enticed by the monetary incentives of doing well, are they being taught different behaviors, are they simply getting more services (after school tutoring, college application help), or is it some combination of two or more of these scenarios? It’s unclear, at least to me, given the evidence and research available.

        Finally, to the last point: The HCZ, like any school, is an intervention in these kids lives. The institution, the school, intervenes and works to help these kids. I don’t necessarily think the important aspect of the intervention is the behavioral piece; I don’t think they’re solving the racial gap in education by changing these kids’ behaviors. What they’re changing, and what’s “radical” (i.e. groundbreaking, totally against the norm), is the fact that they are throwing countless resources at these kids at every stage of the life cycle. That’s a policy decision, to work on both school-level policy (teacher incentives, student incentives, long school days) and community-level policy (the community programs they have). So they’ve changed policy in the school itself, and have also adopted an larger policy of trying to be comprehensive–getting the kids in the school AND in their community.

        Hope this adds to the conversation.

        • young_ July 23, 2009 at 12:57 pm Reply

          Great stuff Jeremy– congrats on being involved in such interesting (and important) research. I’m curious about why you think the behavioral stuff isn’t particularly important though. As you know, there’s a long line of literature in sociology about the alleged importance of communication and interaction styles in producing certain outcomes and reproducing class inequality. The same literature (particularly Annette Lareau’s stuff) that seems to support the paternalistic measures that are giving quadmonicker and others pause about the program. Will the qualitative research done by your team have any way of teasing out the possible effects of the paternalistic/behavior-oriented elements of the program (if there are any)?

          • Jeremy July 23, 2009 at 4:25 pm Reply

            Well, Lareau’s analysis is, like this program (at least in my reading thus far–things are still a few years off from getting into action, so I haven’t spent much time in Harlem) as much about putting kids into the right positions as it is about behavior. So for the rest of the crowd, Lareau discusses the class-ed ways in which kids are brought up: middle class kids (across race) are brought up with “concerted cultivation;” they are involved in a ton of activities, parents are hands-on (though, awkwardly removed from their kids emotional development), and their kids learn to develop social networks and work in a team–all good soft skills for future employment. In addition, they carry with the a privilege–they learn to look adults in the eyes, challenge authority, etc. Poor kids, by contrast, are brought with a more hands-off approach, and taught to not challenge authority and not look folks, like their doctors, in the eyes. So yeah, there’s a behavioral component, that’s partly due to parenting practice. But part of that parenting practice is having their kids in a position of privilege: team sports that cost money and time. You and I are both all too familiar with the literature on “ghetto-specific” behaviors and oppositional identities, non-dominant cultural capital and on and on. I think some of that is addressed here, but this part seems more like the sexy, political aspect of the program. Whats really going on seems to be the more radical policy of intense resource inundation. In other words, I think the main thing going on here is all the programs, and the paternalistic side is a minor part of agenda. At least, this is how its been pitched to us.

            Some one on the team will undoubtedly study this; like I said, we are still in the planning stages, and are still ironing out funding.

  3. quadmoniker July 17, 2009 at 7:39 pm Reply

    I’m actually really torn about the book, and about Harlem Children’s Zone. At first I was completely taken in, and all other reservations aside I think baby college is a fantastic idea. Since then, I’ve had some problems.

    I think it’s really critical to give poorer parents the kinds of tools middle-class parents take for granted, but part of it feels really paternalistic, like we’re telling the parents that they were parenting wrong. Everything else we might value — like time off from school and unstructured play time for kids — is going to be replaced by the kinds of things helicopter middle-class parents do because that will lead to a better life, according to the rules middle-class parents set.

    At the same time, there’s a lot at stake for the kids. What I like about Harlem Children’s Zone, as opposed to other programs, is that it’s not separating kids from their communities. Being part of the community is the idea.

    On a writer-ly note, I think Tough’s a good, clear, concise writer and the book was a pleasure to read, but it left me wanting a little more. It was a little too dry, a long magazine piece with plenty of background and neatly-defined conflict. I’m not sure what I wanted, but I can tell you that Tough did it well in his TAL piece about his father.

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