We are in favor of scaling up proven programs, but against the Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
As far as we know, the only evidence that the Harlem Children’s Zone (or any similar approach) has been effective is the relatively recent study showing impressive effects on test scores at its charter schools. We discussed this study in a four-part series and concluded that:
- The effect demonstrated was extremely impressive and unusual.
- There are serious questions about how “real” the effect is (to what extent did it come from narrow “teaching to the test?”), how likely it is to be sustained as opposed to temporary, and how significant it is in terms of likely effects on actual life outcomes.
- These questions aside, there are also major questions about just what aspect(s) of Harlem Children’s Zone are crucial and whether they can be replicated at all, let alone at a reasonable cost.
Given this situation, we don’t feel it’s time to attempt a replication in 20 communities at once, at a cost that seems likely to stretch into the billions if and when these replications are fully carried out.
We’re not just concerned about mis-spending money. We’re concerned about overreacting to evidence, overpromising results, and thus damaging the credibility of future proposals along these lines. We’re concerned that the funds will be allocated, the Promise Neighborhoods will be rolled out, and 10 years from now we’ll check back and see no narrowing of the achievement gap.
We hope that someday, there will be a truly replicable program with an extremely strong case that it can put a significant dent in the achievement gap. If and when that day comes, a failed Promise Neighborhoods scale-up – and any other oversold programs – will come back to haunt us.
We feel it is appropriate to pursue some replication of, and experimentation with, the Harlem Children’s Zone model. We feel a rollout of this magnitude would be a mistake.