Geoffrey Canada and Education's Future

By Jay Mathews
Friday, December 19, 2008; 6:30 AM

I have devoted many years to writing about schools, but much of the time I am really writing about poverty. Paul Tough has devoted several years to writing about poverty, but much of the time he is really writing about schools.

This is apparent in his insightful book "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America." You don't see the words "schools" or "education" in the title, but be assured this is one of the best books ever written about how poverty influences learning, and vice versa.

As usual, I am late reviewing the book because I took my time reading it. I got a copy in September, when it came out. Books like this I like to absorb slowly and carefully. I keep them in a small room in my house where I know I will be alone, at least for short periods of time. It makes for great concentration, even if my reviews always miss their deadlines.

I have institutionalized this personal failing by creating the Better Late Than Never Book Club, of which Tough's book is the latest featured selection. The club -- which sells no books and offers no discounts, sorry -- celebrates volumes I consider so important that I review them even if they are months, and in some cases years, past their publication dates.

Tough is an editor at the New York Times Magazine. I met him once, briefly, at a dinner. He appears to be about the same age as my children. That made me happy because it means he is going to be with us a long time and become, I am certain, the nation's leading chronicler of whether we succeed or fail in our national effort to give slum children the skills and habits they need to have the same wide array of life choices suburban children have.

"Whatever It Takes" is Tough's first book. It is about Geoffrey Canada, who wants to send an entire Harlem generation, the children now in that New York neighborhood's schools plus toddlers and new babies, to college and to lives of creativity and substance. The eldest participants in Canada's Harlem Children's Zone have not graduated from high school yet. The children in his Harlem Gems preschool and Promise Academy elementary school have years to go before they start college. The infants who are part of the young families attending his Baby College parenting classes have even longer to wait. So Tough has time, and a remarkable amount of material given the deep reporting in this book, to bring us back to Canada's world again and again in coming years and help us understand how this might work throughout the country.

Tough tells the story from the point of view of not only Canada but the parents, students, teachers, principals and wealthy funders of what its founder calls a conveyor belt of programs. Canada is a former teacher who turned himself into a successful educational entrepreneur after growing up very poor in the south Bronx. He and his brothers were raised by a single mother, a common experience for impoverished children, but Mary Canada had been a bright child. She had gone to college for two years before her family ran out of money. That taste of higher education made all the difference in the stories she told her sons. She knew they were not doomed to the same life she had.

I have not encountered another writer as adept as Tough in explaining the often complicated research, particularly the work of child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, that has revealed what parents can do to make children ready for school. Their study of 42 Kansas City families discovered that by age 3 on average the children of professional parents had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, while the children of parents on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. They weren't born with more word power. Over two years the researchers visited each family once a month for an hour and recorded every word spoken in the homes during that time. The only significant difference was the middle-class kids were hearing three times as many words as the poor kids.

In the book, Canada reflects often on the difference between his upbringing and the upbringing of his young son in suburban Long Island. At the Harlem Children's Zone we meet a variety of people at every stage in the transformation process: teen parents Cheryl Waite and Victor Boria and their infant son at the Baby College; earnest teacher Monica Lucente at Harlem Gems; bright but troublesome middle school students Ymani Jones and Julien Coutourier at the Promise Academy; plus a legion of specialists offering Children's Zone families support outside of school that is crucial to keeping children in school.

Tough's st yle is vivid, clear and honest about all the cultural and racial divisions. "White America didn't come up very often at Baby College," he writes, "but when it did, it was regarded with a certain distance. The idea wasn't to adopt middle-class white culture, or even to imitate it -- it was more like poaching an idea or two, borrowing some tricks and customs, like adapting a recipe from a foreign cuisine."

The book would not have worked, Tough says, if Canada had not been so open and honest. During one of Canada's worst weeks, just before he had to acknowledge publicly that his hopes for achievement gains at the Promise Academy had taken a blow, Tough says, "He called me on the phone and, in a subdued voice, said he thought I should probably come up to the school the next day, as it might be useful for my book."

There are no trumpets and violins at the end. Canada does not defeat poverty in Harlem. But the preschool and elementary school show promise. Tough makes the vital point, repeated by other urban educators, that if those early years programs can be expanded, there might be less need for the hero teachers working 10-hour days that one often finds in the highest-performing middle and high schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Canada's conveyor belt rumbles on. We must wait for more Tough articles and books to see what happens next. This might be America's most important story, and this honest yet hopeful book makes me want to read more.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company