Flight to Canada, Cont.

Yesterday commenting all-star gnikivar offered some more analysis on Jeffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, which you can read here. I followed up by asking gnikivar if there might be benefits, some measurable and some not, in Canada's approach. He offered the following:


Absolutely. I think their very well may be positive benefits, some measurable some not. In addition to Head Start, you've seen similar results from Catholic schools. Test scores are pretty similar, but students are less likely to drop out and less likely to become pregnant as teenagers after correcting for all other variables. That said, I actually think if you do a better job of taking all factors into account (including the unmeasurable, but imputable ones) you'll see HCZ do help students improve scores as well. 

First and foremost, let's take it as a given that making sure that kids are proficient in reading and math is essential, and being able to measure that proficiency is a necessity. So this isn't about "Are test scores important, or not?" Particularly when you're talking about improving social mobility, provided they are employed with integrity (yes, that's a huge qualifier, I know,) improving test scores is important. I don't think there's much debate there.

I want to talk more about a culture of poverty, and the effort to dismantle its specific components. One of the rather unfortunate results of our current state of dialogue is that words like "culture" have been ceded to disingenuous opportunists and people who use it as a synonym for "I don't feel like thinking."

From my perspective, it is very difficult for me to believe that in any environment with relatively low social mobility, with some element of static poverty, that norms which may aid survival in that environment, but also hamper transcendence of that same environment, do not take root. What's important is that we recognize that this is not some intrinsic truth  aboutblack people, but that it is true of all people, that what may hold sway in East Harlem, it may also hold sway in Eastern Kentucky.

A few months back, in reference to teen pregnancy, I wrote about what I thought was a crucial difference between the kids I went to high school with, and kids from more affluent backgrounds. Forgive me for quoting myself:

...when I think about the girls who got pregnant back in high school, and the dudes that got them pregnant, in the main, I don't think about them needing tools for impulse control, so much as I think about them not understanding the beautiful bigness of the world, and how teen pregnancy shrinks that world. To say that they had low expectations for themselves doesn't get at it, more like, they didn't really know what was possible. 

A few years back I did a talk at a college in the mountains, and I remember thinking, "Wow, I didn't know you could go to college in the mountains." It's a small thing, and I don't really know how class and wealth play into this. I do know, that when compared to people of my social class, I was much more exposed to the broader world. I think I might have had a better sense of what there was to lose, because I had a better sense of what could be gained.

The ignorance of what is possible is, to me, one of the most devastating--if hard to measure--components of a culture of poverty. It gives the illusion that one has very little to gain from the world, and thus very little to lose. I think a substantial portion of my peers did not have a very good sense of precisely how much of the world teen-pregnancy, or an arrest for drug-dealing, would foreclose.

What I see in HCZ, and specifically that generation of kids coming up from cradle to college, is the possibility of "having something to lose." Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I would think a group of kids--tied together from birth--with monied interest vested in their success, with like-minded parents enrolled, would create a resilient kind of social capitol, both within the community, and without. My expectation would be that a group of that sort, with the intrinsic sense of representing something, with ties to people beyond the neighborhood would also have a better understand of what is possible out of the world, of "having something to lose." 

This is all very personal to me. I scored 1090 on the SAT, after taking it three times. If you took an average white kid with the same income as my parents, and the same number of tries, I'd bet they scored higher. Most of my peers today scored two, three and four hundred points higher. I don't say that to foolishly brag, but to point out that, besides having parents, I had enough exposure to the world to know that standing on a corner, or having a kid at 16, would foreclose much of that world to me. Whatever successes I've accrued came not singularly from improving my school performance, but from making sure I stayed in the game.

Closing the testing gap is important, but it isn't the only social benefit of comprehensive intervention. Keeping kids from dropping out, keeping kids out of jail, keeping them from having kids, themselves, has its own rewards. 


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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