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Breaking Free of the Urban Education Plantation

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I have written a piece on this topic, but it is too long for the blog. I received this shorter essay recently and decided to present it instead. I don't think that Canada has found the "ideal intervention" for Harlem kids (he'd be on his way to Oslo to get that Nobel if he'd done that), but I think his model is the way to go.

Richard A. Gibboney, Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania and former Comissioner of Education for Vermont
Bruce Smith, editor, ret., of Phi Delta Kappan

Geoffrey Canada, creator and CEO of the children's oasis he calls the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), is a "social" reform genius. Unlike the poverty-blind Obama and Bush II administrations, Canada does not try to "reform" schools in delusional isolation from the brain-destructive effects of poverty.

Canada is a genius of the heart. His heart made real what his eyes refused to overlook. He "knew" that "poverty poisons the brain," he "knew" that the only way to take the toxins out of poverty was to blunt its direct effects and simultaneously provide a school experience that stimulates thinking, encourages tenacity in learning, and offers the emotional thrill of earned achievement. (See "Poverty is Poison" chapter in Education Hell: Rhetoric vs Reality, www.ers.org and the Financial Times, "Poverty Mars Formation of Infant Brains," www.ft.com, February 16, 2008.)

Every day, Canada lives a truth too long ignored by federal policy makers, by most editors and reporters at the New York Times, and by most schools of education: Public schools are the offspring of the society they serve. Thus public schools reflect both the "goods" and the "bads" of the society that birthed them.

No public school teacher administered the poison of poverty to a single poor kid. Others did that, through ignorance, neglect, and avarice. And no teacher can administer the antidote unassisted. Canada heals many of the ill effects of poverty through a comprehensive, interlocking array of family support and school programs that focus on the child's brain development and on a method of discipline that nurtures responsibility for one's behavior -- responsibility that extends to parents and students alike.

Canada, a true innovator and democrat, believes what his ordinary experience suggests to him: Poor kids in Harlem could achieve at levels that were formerly the province of socially privileged white kids. He has demonstrated the power of his gutsy vision in the HCZ, which now covers almost 100 blocks in Harlem and serves 7,000 children with a $70 million budget. This is no simple research study. It is a comprehensive theory and a vision.

Observing 3- and 4-year-olds in Harlem, Canada saw no reason why "they should not be successful." He believes, New York Times editor Paul Tough reports in Whatever It Takes, that he can "find the ideal intervention for each stage of a child's life, and then connect these interventions into an unbroken chain of support" from birth to graduation from the K-12 Promise Academy. The powerful social corrections these programs make give poor kids "every advantage that middle-class children [have] -- except the money" (p. 40).

Supporters of No Child Left Behind cannot make that statement. And neither can President Obama and his wind-up Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. They pretend that essential middle-class values can be taught to kids living on the arid urban education plantation through the simple-minded medium of more testing, enforcement of unscientific standards, and threats of harsh punishment.

Canada is showing us how to replace the tin coin of testing and false standards with the gold coin of the democratic ethic, all the while cultivating the intelligence of teacher, student, and parent. And he does it in the very real world of high-poverty Harlem.

Canada's invocation of the middle-class standard of achievement for poverty-scarred minority kids is democratically courageous and educationally brilliant. It's about time that education leaders -- particularly the me-too leadership in both national unions -- tie the social and moral power of the democratic ethic to education policy and practice. We even have a book for guidance: Democracy and Education, John Dewey's 378-page operator's manual for public education. Back in 1916, Dewey saw teachers as intellectuals, not as proctors of tests and readers of scripts. When you teach someone to think, Dewey contended, you have put some part of the established world in jeopardy. And Geoffrey Canada is doing exactly that.

If only Canada could have a beer with President Obama and ask him to endorse the democratic power of the HCZ. He endorsed it as a candidate, and it's one campaign pledge that's too important to sell down the river.

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