Diary of a pre-certified teacher, Vol. XIII: Whatever it takes

Augustine Brehon Contributor
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Black people need to expand their vocabulary and read to their kids more. They also need to be nicer parents.

That’s the upshot of the book “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” written by Paul Tough. Tough’s 2008 book, equal parts history, profile, science and sociology, is the story of a remarkable man, Geoffrey Canada, and his ambitious project to break poor black kids out of poverty.

In my first installment of this diary, I noted that Karen, my “Foundations of Education” professor, told the class we did not have to read “Whatever it Takes,” a book that had been assigned to another class. In the college bookstore “Whatever it Takes” was stacked near books that were on our syllabus, and some students had mistakenly bought it. Karen told them they could “take it back” to the bookstore.

That was unfortunate, because “Whatever it Takes” should be required reading for anyone, like me, who is studying to become a teacher.

It tells the story Geoffrey Canada, a remarkable man who is attempting to change the education system in Harlem by changing the entire culture of poor black America. Specifically, he wants to change the culture of parenting in the black community.

Canada is an African-American educator and activist who in the 1980s and ’90s came across statistics that changed the way he looked at the problems of poor black people. One study revealed the massive discrepancy between the vocabularies of poor people and everyone else, and how this affected everything from taking a test to doing well in a job interview. In the first few years of life, babies from poor families hear far fewer words than whites, and what they hear is often negative. Hearing fewer words, and negative words, was having a physiological effect on the brains of poor children—it actually affects brain development and brain chemistry. Infants of all races who are read to and treated with love, support and kindness do better on tests, in conversation, in job interviews, etc.

Lack of this kind of nurturing, Canada believes, kneecaps poor kids before they even get to the first grade. The liberals are wrong that racism and economics were why blacks did not get ahead—after all, massive social spending and economic booms have not changed the black unemployment rate in the last 40 years. And conservatives are mistaken in claiming that character or IQ is destiny. How could it be, if IQ is malleable in the earliest years of life? What matters is how a child is spoken to and treated in the first few years of life. Change that, and you may be able to change everything. Paul Tough, the terrific journalist who wrote “Whatever it Takes,” sums it up:

“However you measure parenting, middle-class parents tend to do it very differently from poor parents—and the path they follow, in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages, both cognitive and non cognitive: a bigger vocabulary, better brain chemistry, a more assertive attitude. As [researcher Annette Lareau] pointed out, kids from poor families may be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite—but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.”

In 1990 Canada formed the Harlem Children’s Zone, a massive social experiment that set out to change the way poor black kids are raised, read to, spoken to, even fed. In 1997 the Zone started a program encompassing 24 blocks; in 2007, it was expanded to cover almost 100 blocks. It involves both charter schools and public schools. Canada has been on Oprah and 60 Minutes, and his results are impressive. Here one just one stat from the website: “Of the 161 four-year-olds that entered the Harlem Gems in the 2008-2009 school year, 17% had a school readiness classification of delayed or very delayed. By the end of the year, there were no students classified as ‘very delayed’ and the percentage of ‘advanced’ had gone from 33.5% to 65.2%, with another 8.1% at ‘very advanced,’ up from only 2%.”

This is wonderful, hope-filled stuff. And if we can be blunt, it is easily verifiable to anyone with familiarity with the problems holding back many poor black families. A few weeks ago in my “Foundations of Education” class, we had a discussion about stereotypes. Karen, our professor, put some statistics on the board: Asian kids do better in school than all other groups. Blacks do worse than anyone else. Why is this? Karen asked. Using common sense, students replied: because Asian families emphasis work and learning early on. It’s not a race thing as much as a learning thing—an infant learning thing. To use an example from my own people: in 1945, two kids are born in Belfast. One has parents that do not read to or encourage him. The others are music fans; the house is filled with American soul, rhythm and blues, Christian hymns, and folk songs. It’s not hard to figure out which kid flunks out of school and becomes a drunk and which becomes Van Morrison. Unfortunately, Karen rebuked the students who made this argument. “You’re using stereotypes!” she said. Yes. Stereotypes that are true—not because of race but because of facts about how the human brain develops.

What is so brilliant about Canada’s breakthrough is that it has the potential to push past the left-right debate about education. The other day in class Karen read aloud an excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s book “Savage Inequalities.” Kozol is a sad-sacked geyser of liberal empathy, his books and lectures long laundry lists of rat-infested schools with collapsing infrastructure. But Kozol has little to say about the crisis of bad parenting in the black community. On the other side is libertarian Charles Murray, who thinks that IQ is destiny and any attempt to change it is futile. But perhaps the key is to take the best of the liberal and conservative argument. By all means, fix the infrastructure of our schools. And when that is done, completely revolutionize the way poor black parents raise their kids—and use shame if need be.

Recently in the New York Times, Geoffrey Canada summed up his philosophy: “For me, this is not an intellectual debate. This is quite literally about saving young lives. For parents in devastated neighborhoods such as Harlem, the decision to send their child to the local failure factory or a successful charter school is no choice.” It takes both a village and good parents to raise a child.

Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.