Effective, efficient and expensive

The Detroit Regional Chamber featured Geoffrey Canada at the recent Mackinac Policy Conference. A well deserved recognition for the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. The organization provides cradle to college services for all, predominantly low-income, children who live in a 97 block zone of Harlem.

Canada has earned his recognition by getting results. Children growing up in poverty who graduate from high school and go to college in far higher proportions than those served by traditional service providers, including the public schools . (For those interested in an overview of Canada’s work see a New York Times article or read the terrific book Whatever It Takes by  Paul Tough.)

The Harlem Children’s Zone is admired by many for being efficient as well as effective. No unions, no tenure, lots of accountability. Employees that don’t help children meet outcomes are let go. Efficient and effective are clearly important components of Canada’s success. But so is expensive. The Times article estimates that its schools operate with nearly $3,500 per student more than the typical New York City public school. That money largely comes from philanthropy. A lot from Wall Street.

And on top of the $3,500 there is all the after school and summer programming for school aid youth not to mention comprehensive pre-school services for both parents and children. Let’s assume that the cost of all the services the Zone provides is more like $5,000 per year per child more than is available from public sources today. If we are serious about giving all urban kids an equal opportunity to live the American Dream those funds will have to come from public investments. Philanthropy can demonstrate what works, it cannot get to scale.

The Times article describes the service array, in addition to k-12 schooling as: All children who live in the zone have access to many of its services, including after-school programs, asthma care, precollege advice and adult classes for expectant parents, called Baby College. The organization has placed young teaching assistants, known as peacemakers, in many of the elementary school classrooms in the area and poured money into organizing block associations, helping tenants buy buildings from the city, and refurbishing parks and playgrounds. By linking services, the program aims to improve on early-childhood programs like Head Start, whose impact has been shown to evaporate as children age.

Listening to Mr Canada’s Mackinac speech it was clear that two things are true about preparing low income kids to succeed in college and life. You need a leader that will hold all the adults accountable for all students meeting outcomes that we hold for middle class kids. And you need investments far higher than are available today to help low income urban kids. You need both.

For years we have funneled money into schools and other programs that serve low income urban kids and got terrible student outcomes. Big waste of money that needs to end. But now we are going in the other direction – demanding higher student outcomes while reducing funding – that won’t work either. We need to identify those service providers who are getting good student outcomes and provide them with more resources needed to provide the comprehensive set of services that are making the Harlem Children’s Zone a success.

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