The Plight of a Good Idea: Prenatal Care, Health Services, and Nutrition Programs Could Support the Cause of Urban School Reform. So Why Is the Obama Promise Neighborhoods Project under Fire?

Article excerpt

The Obama Administration came up with a great idea for a federally funded education experiment: Give money to nonprofits and universities to organize doctor's visits, prenatal parenting classes, eye exams, early literacy initiatives, and other steps to help schools in some 20 disadvantaged communities counter the destructive effects of poverty on their students. Education would be at the center of the Promise Neighborhoods project, the Department of Education declared in announcing the program earlier this year. And to protect taxpayers' pocketbooks, it would demand a 50% funding match from other sources for most grant winners.

The response was overwhelming. Some 339 nonprofit and university coalitions nationwide entered the competition for grants. Then, Grover Whitehurst, a director of federal education research during the Bush Administration who's now at the influential Brookings Institution, attacked the plan and its underlying premise. "There is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S.," he wrote.

A week later, a congressional appropriations committee slashed the Administration's planned $210 million Promise Neighborhoods funding to $20 million.

Whitehurst's widely publicized claim was based on his study of a single charter school in Harlem, the Promise Academy run by the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), a nonprofit that is addressing the struggles of impoverished urban students by offering children in 97 blocks of central Harlem a suite of social services (among them, health care, prenatal help for parents, and intensive preschooling) and charter schooling. President Obama has pointed to HCZ as the model for his Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

Not only is it difficult to make a sweeping declaration about the contribution of health care, nutrition, and other supports to learning from the experience of a couple of hundred students in one school (during his Bush years, Whitehurst argued for more rigor in education research), Whitehurst acknowledges that the Promise Academy has produced strong academic results. After three years at Promise, the school's students--overwhelmingly poor and black or brown--score as high as New York City's typical white students on state tests. His indictment of the Obama Promise Neighborhoods plan instead rests on the even narrower case that other charter schools in New York City have produced even better results than Promise Academy without providing any "social services" to their students.

To help make his case, Whitehurst turns to a 2009 study of student achievement in the HCZ by Harvard researchers Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie, who compare the school performance of Promise Academy students who have participated in two of the HCZ's many community programs with the performance of students in the programs who didn't attend HCZ charter schools. They conclude that the impressive student achievement gains in the HCZ are a result of the quality of HCZ charter schools or a combination of the charters' quality and HCZ's social service programs, but not a function of those programs alone.

Standards vs. Supports

Whitehurst says his report was a standard think-tank analysis done to inform congressional policy priorities. But the HCZ rests on a deep fault line in the school reform landscape. Many of today's reformers are loath to acknowledge that addressing the physical and psychological aspects of poverty could be part of the school reform equation. Doing so would be an admission that students' backgrounds play a role in achievement. And that, these reformers fear, would allow reluctant educators to argue that impoverished students shouldn't be held to high standards and that the educators who teach them shouldn't be held accountable for students' lagging performance. …