Model School in 'Waiting for 'Superman'' May Not Be So Model After All

"Waiting for 'Superman,'" Davis Guggenheim's much-buzzed-about new education documentary, zeroes in on a "cradle-to-college" education model developed by Harlem activist Geoffrey Canada. Canada's Harlem Children's Zone interweaves a network of charter schools with parenting programs, child health care, and college counseling services in the hopes of breaking a generational cycle of poverty. His model has received enormous amounts of publicity from the media and praise from the federal government, with the Obama Administration distributing grants for neighborhoods to imitate Canada's integrated approach.

But in a New York Times article today, Sharon Otterman highlights concerns about the Harlem Chidlren's Zone efficacy, at least in terms of testing:

Most of the seventh graders, now starting their third year in [a Harlem Children's Zone charter 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.

Another concern about Canada's approach is its enormous cost. His charter schools spend about $16,000 per child per year, and that's not counting the thousands of dollars of out-of-classroom spending. In contrast, Otterman writes, "regular public schools in New York City spend about $14,452 each year per general education student, less than half of which is generally for classroom instruction." New studies have been questioning whether Canada's model has proven itself effective enough that the federal government should be investing in it: 

One study, by the Harvard researchers Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer Jr., found that while Promise Academy students who entered the sixth grade in 2005 had raised their test scores so much by the eighth grade that they had "reversed the black-white achievement gap in mathematics" and reduced it in English, there was "at best modest evidence" that the social programs were driving that success. In 2009, nearly all the students passed the math test.

"The challenge," the researchers wrote, "is to find lower-cost ways to achieve similar results in regular public schools."

Mr. Whitehurst's 2010 Brookings analysis went further, noting that test performance at the two charter schools was only middling among charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, even though higher-performing schools, like those in the lauded KIPP network, had no comparable network of cradle-to-college services.

Read the full story at the New York Times.

Presented by

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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