Sunday, March 8, 2009

TSS: Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough

Geoffrey Canada is a teacher who came up against the most-difficult-to-educate group of kids a teacher can face: kids who grew up in poverty, with broken homes, surrounded by drugs and guns and alcohol. But Canada was not daunted by this group. As a child, he grew up in the same world and, somehow, he managed to transcend that world and make a good life for himself. Canada, unlike other reformers, found much to love in the Harlem in which he grew up. He found support and love among his fellow African American men, support and love he never really found in any other world. So Canada came to want to retain the strengths of the culture all the while bringing in the strengths of the broader American culture.

And did Canada ever have a dream?! Canada wanted to do more than bring in the superheroes to lift a few children here and there out of poverty. Instead, he decided to work in every area of a child’s life to improve the entire world. He started classes to teach parents from day one how to take care of their children. He created a baby school for the youngest of children to learn in an enriched environment. He began preschools and kindergartens and elementary schools and middle schools. He maintained the superhero programs for the oldest and most jaded and most difficult to reach children of poverty.

Did Canada accomplish his goals? His is still a work in progress. But the early results are startling. What could we do if we all worked together to have poor children experience the kind of lives those of us in the middle class take for granted?

Here are a few brutal facts from his book:

“…significant skill gaps exist---by race, class, and maternal education---and they open up very early. At age one there is not a great difference between the cognitive abilities of the child of a college graduate and the child of a high school dropout, but by age two there is a sizable gap, and at three it’s even wider.”

“…GED recipients earn no more than high school dropouts, on the average, even when their intelligence scores are higher. And why? Heckman says it is because they lack all of the noncognitive skills that a person must possess in order to make it through high school: patience, persistence, self-confidence, the ability to follow instructions, the ability to delay gratification for a future reward….”

“…both cognitive and noncognitive skills are teachable---but it matters a great deal when you try to teach them.”

“There was plenty of research around that showed that poor children not only benefited from being in prekindergarten, but they benefited more than other children.”

“And in reading, as it turns out, the metaphorical rich overlap with the literal rich. Even as early as the beginning of kindergarten, children’s level of ability with the printed word tends to correspond closely to the income level of their parents. As Susan B. Neuman, the education scholar, has reported, more than four out of five children at the highest socioeconomic level recognize the letters of the alphabet on the first day of kindergarten, compared to less than two of five children at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Half of all well-off kids can identify the beginning sounds of words when they start kindergarten, while just 10 percent of poor children can do the same.”

“…with very few exceptions, good early readers become great readers, and limited early readers almost always end up as poor readers. Late bloomers are, in fact, quite rare.” (The Matthew effect)

'And then after kindergarten, because of the Matthew effect, the disparities get even worse….Kids who are able to master “decoding,” to grasp the strange fact that black marks on a page connect to sounds…and that those sounds and marks go together to convey information…---those kids think reading is fun. They do more of it. And the more they do, the easier it gets, and the easier it gets, the more they do. For children who have a harder time cracking the code early on, the opposite occurs, a grim process that one researcher calls “the devastating downward spiral.” '

“By middle school, the gap between avid readers and reluctant readers has grown into a chasm. If you rank fifth-grade students by how much time they spend reading on their own, outside of school, you find a huge range. A child at the ninetieth percentile---not the most book-crazy kid in class, but close to the top---will spend an average of twenty-one minutes a day reading…which means that she goes through more than 1.8 million words a year. A child at the tenth percentile---not the most reading-averse kid in class, but close---will spend an average of six seconds a day on independent reading, which works out to just eight thousand words a year.”

‘Joseph Torgesen, a researcher at the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University…looked at a dozen or so experimental studies of intensive reading interventions done in different parts of the country and targeted at different ages. When he analyzed the interventions aimed at nine-to twelve-year-old struggling readers, he found results that were mixed at best. With enough time and work, it seemed, it was possible to push these middle school-aged kids forward on the reading basics, like decoding, accuracy, and word comprehension. But the news was much more discouraging when it came to “fluency”---the ability to read with ease. Torgesen’s conclusion: by the end of elementary school, “if children’s impairments in word-reading ability have reached moderate or severe levels,” catching kids up may be simply impossible. But when Torgesen looked at early interventions with delayed readers---in first and second grade---his mood brightened….The interventions were remarkably effective; each one brought at least half of the targeted students up to an average level of reading ability by the end of the grade, and in one study, 92 percent of them hit that level.’
Other reads this week:


  1. The book sounds like an engaging read. I'm putting it on my list. Thanks for the great review!

  2. If we were only willing to do whatever it takes....


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