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The Promise Academy’s Real Lesson: Be Broader, Bolder

The Promise Academy, praised by David Brooks, is a wonderful school, but it is not unique and hardly a “miracle.” There are several schools in Harlem and other parts of New York where poor children are achieving at high levels. Many of these are charter schools, but some are public and private schools. In most cases, these schools succeed not because they impart middle class values, (there is very little evidence that the middle class is the only group that values hard work and courteous behavior) but because of high academic expectations and a clear, coherent approach to educating children. Most importantly, these schools succeed because they also address social, health and psychological needs of the children and families they serve.

This is the point that David Brooks doesn’t seem to understand. He claims that Promise Academy’s high scores “are powerful evidence” in a debate between those (like New York City’s Schools Chancellor Joel Klein) who say better schools alone can close the achievement gap, and those (like supporters of the “Broader Bolder Approach” campaign) who say that for significant gains in achievement, school improvement must be supplemented by improvements in children’s social and economic conditions. Brooks believes the evidence favors the Klein claims.

But if the Promise Academy is evidence in this debate, it actually serves as further proof of the arguments made by those calling for a Broader and Bolder Approach. Even a “meticulous economist” like Roland Fryer must recognize that hungry, sick and stressed out children generally do not do as well in school as those whose basic needs are met. But then again, Fryer is an advocate for paying poor children for higher test scores. Perhaps the “miracle” he thought he saw at the Promise Academy came from the fact that those students weren’t being paid anything at all yet they were still learning.

Brooks needs to get out to see more schools. Perhaps then he will see that the success of schools like the Promise Academy are derived from the combination of quality education and a focus on their social and emotional needs. That’s why Geoffrey Canada, whom Brooks rightfully regards as a champion or urban education, is a signatory to the Broader Bolder Approach statement. Maybe Brooks needs to join us too.

Pedro Noguera is a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University and executive director of the university’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education. He is a co-chair of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.

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