Harlem Children’s Zone Success Is Primarily Attributable To Good Schooling Rather Than Social Services

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Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone is one of the most-discussed charter school ventures in America since it combined a “no-excuses” schooling philosophy with the provision of a lot of additional social services to in-need kids. Consequently, it exists in a kind of contested space between people who think we should improve education by trying to make schools function better and people who think that educational outcomes can be best improved by focusing on non-school factors.

A new paper in the American Economic Journal from Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer titled “Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Increase Achievement Among the Poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone” (plenty of ungated early drafts out here) suggests that the success of HCZ is primarily the success of a school:

Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), an ambitious social experiment, combines community programs with charter schools. We provide the first empirical test of the causal impact of HCZ charters on educational outcomes. Both lottery and instrumental variable identification strategies suggest that the effects of attending an HCZ middle school are enough to close the black-white achievement gap in mathematics. The effects in elementary school are large enough to close the racial achievement gap in both mathematics and ELA. We conclude with evidence that suggests high-quality schools are enough to significantly increase academic achievement among the poor. Community programs appear neither necessary nor sufficient.

Again, to me, this conclusion that in-school factors are an important determinant of student learning is total common sense. If you extract this general issue from the highly politicized terrain of charter schools and performance pay, I never see liberals denying it. Yesterday, for example, I witnessed many progressive bemoaning the fact that Texas schools may need to start the year without textbooks due to budget cuts. I didn’t see anyone react to that by saying “everyone knows in-school factors are irrelevant” or “that book money would be better spent on wraparound social services.” Giving kids useful social services is, I think, a good idea. When kids get access to quality dental care, they get healthier teeth. That’s a good thing. We should want to live in a country where even children whose parents are poor grow up to be people with healthy teeth and gums. If this helps kids learn, then so much the better. By the same token, when kids get access to quality schools, they learn more.