Flight to Canada

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Times has an interesting piece about Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone:

But most of the seventh graders, now starting their third year in the school, are still struggling. Just 15 percent passed the 2010 state English test, a number that Mr. Canada said was "unacceptably low" but not out of line with the school's experience in lifting student performance over time. Several teachers have been fired as a result of the low scores, and others were reassigned, he said. 

Giving administrators the ability to fire teachers for poor performance is one of the central suggestions of "Waiting for 'Superman.' " Over all, 38 percent of Promise Academy I's students in third through sixth grade passed the 2010 English test under the state's new guidelines, placing it in the lower half of charter schools citywide, and below the city's overall passing rate of 42 percent. In Harlem as a whole, just 29 percent of children passed.

Promise Academy II, an elementary school that occupies part of a public school building, did better, with 62 percent passing in English, among the top 10 percent of charters. But because it lost more ground than comparable schools, it got a C from the city on its annual A-to-F report card, and an F in the student progress category. Both schools continued to outperform the city in math, with 60 percent passing in one school and 81 percent in the other.

In the main, I'm a vaguely informed supporter of the Harlem Children's Zone and what I guess is generally called "school reform." Canada's approach is interesting because, from what I can tell, it takes a liberal approach (vast resources) and marries them to conservative ends (private dollars.) Moreover, I'm most curious to see what a generation of these kids will look like--the ones who started in baby college. Having come up in the 80s, when it felt like no bigger entity really cared, I have to believe the kids will be better for it.

Of course, I'm always worried that these big reform efforts will fall down under the weight of their idealism. I'm reminded of a scene from Nicholas Lemann's book The Promised Land, where the feds got the bright idea to empower the best people in the Chicago ghettos with community jobs, under the theory that such people would be pillars of their area. Of course these Negroes did what Negroes tend to do--they bailed for better neighborhoods as soon as they got enough loot. Typical, but predictable if you consider that Negroes are, you know, people.

Anyway, Canada seems much more on the ground. My only other real thought about school reform is how distant it all feels. Indeed, it may well drive me from the public school system. I understand the need to push basic competency in reading and math. But if you have a household where people read of their own volition, where kids like books and are fortunate enough to have access to them, if you have two parents--and in the summer grandparents--who stay on the kid about math--test scores be damned--then you tend to have other, more abstract concerns. You tend to be worried about instilling a deeper love of learning, and, in my case, trying to prevent your kid from having the rather problematic experiences with school that you had. It is critically important that my son have positive feelings when he thinks about school. The social aspect is a clear loss. We may have to look elsewhere for that.

I think that's about the most bougie paragraph I've ever written in my life. Alas, the transformation is nearly complete. Today private school. Tomorrow the world. And by world, I mean Jack and Jill.

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