Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Miracle of Harlem?

By Biko Agozino
‘The Harlem Miracle’ as reported by The New York Times in an opinion article by David Brooks on May 7, 2009 is noteworthy if only because a Harvard University Economist, Roland Fryer, claimed that the Harlem Children’s Zone study changed his life by making him hope for more than marginal gains in closing the academic achievement gaps between white and black students. I wonder why the focus is on the gaps between white and black when Asians appear to be the ones setting the achievement standards at the moment. Perhaps it is too much to expect that black students could rival Asian ones.

Education reform programs, according to Brooks, tend to produce small 0.1 to 0.3 standard deviations gains whereas the Harlem Children’s Zone experiment produced 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. The trouble is that standard deviations are double-edged swords; the bigger the standard deviation, the wider the spread or distribution of the population from the mean, positively and also negatively. In other words, standard deviations of 1.3 and 1.4 might also mean that the outliers below the mean are farther away from the mean than standard deviations of 0.1 or 0.3. Before we start celebrating standard deviations, we should also know what are the minimum and maximum scores and what is the measure of central tendency or the mean without which standard deviations are meaningless by themselves.

Dr Fryer is quoted in the article as using the analogy of curing cancer to celebrate the report that Promise Academy ‘eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students’. This might not be the appropriate metaphor to use because it assumes that there is something wrong with the black students or that they were suffering from an illness that the school cured. The problem might lie in the teaching methods or learning methods rather than some disease within the students themselves. Before we try to replicate the ‘cure’ as he urged, we must be careful not to produce iatrogenic repercussions or the creation of a disease in an otherwise healthy student as a side-effect of trying to heal ‘literally and figuratively’.
In the opinion of Mr. Brooks, the disease of Harlem students is that they lack middle class values such as being goal-oriented, exercising self-control and knowing how to work hard and that the experiment inculcated these values in the students by teaching them how to shake hands, how to look people in the eye when talking with them and not to accept excuses. He recommends New York Times articles like ‘Whatever It Takes’ (whatever?) and ‘Sweating the Small Stuff’ (no air-conditioners in the classroom?) to support this opinion but that begs the question whether goal-orientation, self-control and hard work are essentially middle-class values? Some of the hardest working people in the world are not middle class at all and just because poor people do not have the means to live all their dreams is not to say that they have no goal-orientation. Is there any evidence that poor students lack self-control?
Believing that this is the case, the Miracle of Harlem proceeded to detain black students in school double the time that white students spend in school if they are below their grade and one and half the time that their white peers spend at school, if they are performing at their grade level! That is no miracle, it seems punitive and prejudiced. It has always been assumed by black parents that their children would work twice as hard as white children in order to get a fair shake in societies structured in dominance but for the educational system to accept this handicap as the ‘cure’ for the supposed ‘cancer’ afflicting black students is to institutionalize discrimination.
What if there is a different method of learning that would produce even better results without having to detain black children in school for up to twice the time it takes white students to learn their Maths and English? What if school work is not really hard work but smart work which students could master effectively if only they knew how to study smart rather than hard? That method is described in two of my blogs: ‘For a Culture of Learning’ and ‘When the Piranha met the Honey Bee at school’ in http://massliteracy.blogspot.com/ (below) and I would be happy to know if Dr Fryer and his team would also study this method that produces better results for students who work smart and not necessarily hard.

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