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Posted at 7:53 AM ET, 07/21/2010

Alexander Russo on Jay Mathews and Harlem Children's Zone

By Valerie Strauss

What better way to spice up a hot July day than to stir up a fight over education? So here is Alexander Russo taking on my colleague Jay Mathews, the dean of education reporters, and his latest post on his Class Struggle blog in which he criticizes criticism of the Harlem Children's Zone. Russo is a former Democratic Senate aide, who frequently criticizes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and many others in his "This Week In Education" blog. And after you read this, you can go back to Jay's blog and read his response.

By Alexander Russo
Far as I can tell, the Washington Post’s "Uncle" Jay Mathews gets pretty much everything wrong in this recent blog entry in which Mathews can be found vigorously defending the saintly Geoffrey Canada and the poor helpless Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) against criticisms raised in a slim Brookings report/memo/roundup.

There are four obvious problems with Mathews’ hazy defense of the HCZ. Read along and slap me down if you think I’ve disrespected the master. (I’ll leave it to others to praise or damn the Brookings thing, though some of its arguments seem pretty shaky, too.):

1) Mathews thinks it’s "premature" to raise questions about the impact of HCZ’s charter schools, which is a strange objection to make considering the the HCZ model has already been anointed a success by the media and handed millions in private and public funding. If now’s not the time to ask hard questions, then when would be good? [Plus which, I and others have been raising questions about HCZ hype for quite a while now. See previous blog entries and mainstream links below and read my blog or sign up for my email to make sure not to get embarrassed at the next education picnic you go to.]

2) Mathews thinks that Canada invented the idea of comprehensive social support services, which would come as a surprise to the developers of Head Start, Even Start, and Cities In Schools, among other programs. You’d think that a guy as famously old as Jay says he is would remember such things. Or maybe that’s the problem. (Yes, I went there. He thinks my name is Andrew.)

3) Mathews thinks that it’s his job to defend each and every aspect of the Harlem Children’s Zone (as he does for other favorite programs like Advanced Placement and KIPP, or Knowledge Is Power Program). Doesn’t he know that advocating for HCZ is former NYT magazine editor Paul Tough’s job? (I know, I know. I’m a very bad person and it will all come back to haunt me when my upcoming book on Green Dot’s turnaround effort at Locke High School is savaged by all of my betters whose work I have criticized for the last five years.)

4) Last but not least, Mathews thinks that the kids who go to HCZ schools are the same ones who get HCZ services. Like many others, he seems to have bought into the notion that Canada has actually created a "conveyor belt" of programs capable of servicing individuals from cradle to college. But that’s just not the case, and never really has been. Until very recently (when the program replaced the middle school lottery with a preschool one), participating in HCZ services has been no guarantee of admission. Even then, only a tiny portion of HCZ participants will ever get to go to a HCZ school.The service programs run by HCZ reach 17,000 participants, while the the schools currently reach just 1,200 students.

To be sure, what HCZ and Canada are doing qualify as impressive feats of fund-raising and service-providing. There’s no doubt that many of those who have been served have benefited from participating. And I would hope that this effort, or something like it, could show the power of high-quality education and/or wraparound social services (my focus is on the education angle but there are plenty of folks who prefer to focus on the social services). But seeing so many good journalists go gaga over the Canada story and the idea of a poverty-ending machine has gone from amusing to disconcerting.

I fear that the long-term impact of over-hyping HCZ will be to discredit education reporting and reduce over-all public support for innovative education efforts rather than to help improve the lives of those in Harlem. And it bugs me that we’re all so desperate for feel-good education stories that we willingly overlook problems and limitations until it’s too late, then throw up our hands for a while, and then it’s another ten years and we do it again.

Previous Blog Posts on the Harlem Children's Zone: HCZ Questions Slowly Reaching Mainstream, What Next For HCZ?, Former USDE Official Dishes On Popular Reforms, What Happened To The Middle School?, How HCZ Hypnotized Anderson Cooper, The HCZ Juggernaut, Updated Hype Warning Levels, When School Reformers Meet The Real World, Paul Tough On The HotSeat. Mainstream Links: Assessing HCZ (NPR), Hope or Hype In Harlem? (City Limits).

Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | July 21, 2010; 7:53 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  alexander russo, brookings and harlem children's zone, brookings and hcz, criticism of harlem children's zone, geoffrey canada, harlem children's zone, hcz and hype, jay mathews, poverty and school reform, poverty and student achievement, promise academy, promise charter academies, this week in education  
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Next: Do high standards really help kids?


"And it bugs me that we’re all so desperate for feel-good education stories that we willingly overlook problems and limitations until it’s too late,"

Now you're talking -- why is that, I wonder and what can we do to stop it.

It's as if education is more for the journalists than it is for the kids.

Posted by: efavorite | July 21, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I feel that some of these charter schools get much more press than they should. I would never send my child to one of those schools. I am sure they do a good job for some kids, but really, is that all that goes on in education?

I read these education pages because I am interested in education, but more and more I am reading about KIPP and Michelle Rhee. I think they are both ok topics but I am not that impressed with either one.

I would prefer articles on:

Language Immersion programs/Magnet schools

How gifted and talented students are chosen

How schools in diverse districts like Mcps and others classify students of mixed heritage by race and how does that effect "data" about test scores

How major discipline problems are handled in schools (are teachers penalized for referring students to administrators? are there differences in how students at poor schools are disciplined and in how students in wealthy schools are handled?

How detrimental or beneficial are wealthy parents who sue school districts to the educational system?

How NCLB requires schools to post test scores by subgroup and how that makes people who happen to belong to a group that doesn't perform well feel. (One middle school had a pep rally in which they announce that the school had students of a certain ethnic group with the most referrals, they were encouraged to do better, in front of all the other students.

Why not some balanced reporting on teacher unions, some are very good, some are useless.

Why not a real article on the claims about cheating on standardized tests?

The effects of special education laws that were passed and never funded by the federal government on school systems?

Those are a few of the things I would rather read about than KIPP or Michelle Rhee.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Where are the articles explaining exactly why the two states who got the Race to the Top money won the money?

Where are the articles explaining President Obama's actual policy on education?

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I am among the many who admire Geoffrey Canada but several aspects of the HCZ bother me:

The testing. Is this testing done by outside agencies or do journalists just accept the scores provided by Canada? Is it true that the students at the Promise Academy did very poorly on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills?

The money. Is it appropriate for Canada to be paid more than President Obama? Does he have control over millions of dollars, as reported by one journalist? Are these private or public dollars? Is it ethical?

The teachers. How are the teachers treated? Is there a lot of turnover? If so, why.

Instruction. Are children being drilled on test prep all day? Is it true that during a history class, the children were taught out of test-prep materials (with no history books in sight)?

This program sounds too good to be true and for that reason alone, it is right to ask questions.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | July 21, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Andrew's guest blog raises an important issue. (If there is a limit for words by commenters, why no limit for the guest bloggers?

Seriously, There are a lot of programs in the social safety net that have made minimal improvements. But Whitehurst in previous work, as well as James Heckman and Gordon MacInness, have distinquished between high-quality and run-of-the-mill interventions. Early education has to be more than high-dollar day care, and early reading interventions have to focus on comprehension.

That distinction was not made in Whitehurst's latest, when he attacked not only the concept of the HCZ, but the concept of it and the Bolder Broader approach.

Besides, he didn't mention the other benefits of Head Start, nutrition, etc. If Whitehurst is attacking Canada and the HCZ, I don't know enough to counter him. When he's attacking a huge body of social science canon with just a few primitive test scores for a few schools, that's where I get off.

I have no illusions about the challenge of building high-quality community schools, but we should see poor schools as creating an opportunity to bring services from all over the map into a coherent and focused effort. We're already paying for those services, and their mediocre results. Aligning social investments shouldn't be that much tougher than aligning curriculum, but it is more necessary. Considering all of the greater good for the greater number, it would have more bang for the buck than just curriculum reform.

We need coordination of both instructional and social programs. Duanting as that is, that challenge is more doable than crreating thousands of KIPPs. And in contrast to aligning of of the data systems for an alignment accountability culture, it is worth doing.

Posted by: johnt4853 | July 21, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

here's jay's just-published response to my post, in which he politely but firmly refutes all of my points and makes clear who is the real boss in education-land (and, just to twist the knife a little bit, calls me alex and includes no links).

/ alexander

Posted by: alexanderrusso | July 21, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

I agree with celestun100 and would like to add to the list:

Articles and WaPo research on:

Teacher working conditions and how they affect student achievement. How does the political environment in public schools affect the classroom?

Principals: How they receive their appointments.

"Whistle blowers" in public education and how fear and intimidation prevent school reform.

Where does the money REALLY go? How much money are charter schools syphoning from public schools and those children who aren't among the "chosen?"

An investigative report on the treatment of special ed students? Are they really receiving the services they need?

How disruptive kids can destroy the learning process in a class and why school officials continue to let that disruption affect student learning.

If charter schools are so good, why can't/aren't public schools allowed to use the same strategies?

How is technology affecting the creative thinking and problem-solving skills of students?

Why are we avoiding the REAL problems with public schools and shifting total responsibilty to the shoulder's of teachers?

Posted by: ilcn | July 21, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Impressive comments again in the previous posts - thank you.
A local item of concern that has nation-wide possibilities is what happens to students when they make false criminal accusations against a teacher? Some months ago an elementary PE teacher in Fairfax Schools was accused of inapproriate touching of a female student. The jury after twenty minutes found him innocent and said the case never should have been brought up. Fairfax Schools has no policy or consequences, much less punishment, for the child who made the false accusations. Does this mean any kid can get away with ruining a teacher's life?
WaPo, investigate and report! It's a juicy local story that might actually benefit the teaching profession. (Oh, excuse me. We don't want anybody to stick around the classroom longer than 2 to 4 years as in the KIPP model. It's no longer a profession.)

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | July 21, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

icln gives an excellent list of questions that point to what is actually happening in classrooms. That is the kind of reporting that makes sense and would tell the real story of public and charter and private schools.

All this talk charter vs. public misses the point.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

icln mentions:

"Whistle blowers" in public education and how fear and intimidation prevent school reform.

This is a big one and I suppose it is because of the intimidation and fear of job loss that it is not addressed more often.

But just how much reform are you going to have when teachers cannot tell the truth about students progress, behavior and about other teachers or administrators who intimidate others or are imcompetent.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

How disruptive kids can destroy the learning process in a class and why school officials continue to let that disruption affect student learning.

This is another biggie. Administrators and teacher consultants and staff development commonly say that if teachers were more organized, more motivating, interacted more, provided more opportunities for learning, had better rapport, etc. that then there would be no behavior problems.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Some of the answers to above questions are dealt with in teacher blogs. I know I have addressed many of the points raised at mine...

Posted by: tfteacher | July 21, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Why publish this self-promoting creep?

Posted by: MickeyK | July 22, 2010 6:33 AM | Report abuse

Why publish this self-promoting creep?

Posted by: MickeyK | July 22, 2010 6:33 AM | Report abuse

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