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Just How Gullible is Anderson Cooper?

What is it about the Harlem Children’s Zone that causes pundits and reporters to suspend disbelief?  Perhaps it’s the deep desire for evidence that the large and persistent racial gap in educational achievement can be overcome.  The enduring racial inequalities in educational and social outcomes in the U.S. are a blight on our society, and evidence that these inequalities can be eliminated, however, tenuous, can be elevated into the feel-good story of the year.

Last night, Anderson Cooper reported on the Harlem Children’s Zone for the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes.  “For years, educators have tried and failed to get poor kids from the inner city to do just as well in school as kids from America’s more affluent suburbs,” he began. “Black kids still routinely score well below white kids on national standardized tests. But a man named Geoffrey Canada may have figured out a way to close that racial achievement gap.”  Cooper asked Canada, “So you’re trying to level the playing field between kids here in Harlem and middle class kids in a suburb?”  “That’s exactly what we have to do,” Canada replied.

As is customary, Cooper spoke with Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who has analyzed the achievement of students attending the HCZ Promise Academy charter schools.  Fryer said, “At the elementary school level, he closed the achievement gap in both subjects, math and reading.”   

“Actually eliminating the gap in elementary school?” Cooper asked.

“We’ve never seen anything like that. Absolutely eliminating the gap. The gap is gone, and that is absolutely incredible,” Fryer said.

I suppose that one can look selectively at the most recent achievement data available—the 2009 state assessments in English Language Arts and math—to draw this conclusion, but boy, is it a stretch.  The figure below shows the 2009 English Language Arts and mathematics achievement of students at the HCZ Promise Academy and HCZ Promise Academy II, for grades three, four, five and eight.  This achievement is contrasted with New York City citywide averages for Asian and white students.  The group differences are represented in standard deviation units, using the citywide standard deviation for the scale scores on the respective tests.

In grade 3, HCZ students score higher than the citywide average for white students in both ELA and math, a remarkable accomplishment.  They also outperform Asian students in ELA, but are about a quarter of a standard deviation below the citywide Asian average on the math assessment.  Were we to limit our attention solely to third grade, one could, without too much hyperbole, claim that HCZ had eliminated the racial achievement gap within New York City.

But there are other elementary and middle school grades on which to compare HCZ and white and Asian students across New York City, and the story is quite different for these other grades.  In grades four, five and eight, HCZ students score consistently about .6 standard deviations below white and Asian New York City students on the state ELA exam.  The gaps are also large in mathematics, although the eighth-grade gap is considerably smaller than those in fourth and fifth grades.  In fifth grade, HCZ students score .9 standard deviations below white students citywide, and 1.1 standard deviations below Asian students.

Taking all of these data together, there is virtually no basis for claiming that the Harlem Children’s Zone has eliminated the racial achievement gap in elementary and middle school.

The data that I’ve presented compare HCZ students with New York City students.  But recall that Geoff Canada’s objective is to level the playing field relative to middle-class suburban kids, who may be higher-achieving than the white and Asian students attending NYC public schools, as a good fraction of the most affluent children and youth in New York City attend private schools.  How do things look if we compare HCZ students with students in Scarsdale, the economist’s suburb of choice for claims about closing the achievement gap?

As the figure below indicates, the math gaps look about the same, since Scarsdale students score in the same ballpark as white and Asian students in New York City.  Thus, HCZ third-graders outperform even Scarsdale third-graders, but there are large gaps in grades four and five, and then a smaller, but still substantial, shortfall in grade eight, with Scarsdale students scoring .36 standard deviations higher than HCZ students.  However, the gaps in English Language Arts are much larger at every grade level, because Scarsdale students score considerably higher on the state ELA exam than do white and Asian students in NYC at every grade level.  In grades four, five and eight, HCZ students score from .97 to 1.22 standard deviations lower on the state ELA exam than do Scarsdale students, a huge gap.  Score differences of this magnitude indicate that the typical HCZ student might score at the 15th percentile of the Scarsdale distribution of performance in these grades.  

In the 60 Minutes segment, Roland Fryer used a football analogy to describe the accomplishments of HCZ.  “We’re ten touchdowns down in the fourth quarter,” he said. “We kick a field goal and everyone celebrates, right? That’s kind of useless. We’re still 67 points down … What Geoff Canada has shown is that we can actually win the game.”

But here’s the problem.  We’re not in the fourth quarter.  We’re in the first quarter, and most of the game still lies ahead.  The Harlem Children’s Zone is not a mature intervention.  No child has gone through his entire childhood and youth exposed to the intervention, and we don’t know what the outcomes will look like until that occurs.  I am hard-pressed to conclude, based on the most recent data available, that the results are, in Cooper’s terms, “nothing short of stunning,” or that the gap is gone for good.  The 2009 results for third-graders are terrific;  those for students in grades four, five and eight are not.  These latter grades show large and persistent gaps within New York City in both English Language Arts and mathematics, and even larger gaps with the affluent students in Scarsdale, particularly in English Language Arts.  If the third-grade pattern were to persist through the end of high school—on assessments we can trust—that would truly be nothing short of stunning, and well worth celebrating.  But it’s still too early to declare victory.

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