The book, Whatever It Takes, by Paul Tough became a best seller because it captured the attention of people in both a scholarly way and yet because of its easy-to-read, entertaining format, and because the issues that Tough writes about are very important to the future of America. That important issue involves education and getting families from disadvantaged communities to rise up and seize opportunities to become enriched socially and economically. Tough highlights the ups and the downs of an expensive, 97-block project called the Harlem Children's Zone. This paper reviews and critiques the book.
An impoverished community can be awakened to a fresh new approach to education, and with cooperation and hard work, the children in that community can be given a far better future. This book is the perfect illustration of important socioeconomic transitions that must take place for that brighter future.
Whatever It Takes
When a neighborhood is motivated to fight creatively and assertively to bring its socioeconomic culture up closer to a middle class community -- by focusing on enrichment programs for the children -- it is worthy of a book like this one. What Tough has done besides document this extraordinary neighborhood is to provide a road map for other neighborhoods where parents roll up sleeves to change the future for their children. Tough wrote this book but he follows the movements of Geoffrey Canada, a bright, alert, very competent organizer.
The story of how the Harlem Children's Zone became a reality is also the story of Canada's energy and creative brainpower. Canada had set up programs in the past ("decent programs" according to Tough on page 2) that helped with after school activities that provided truancy prevention staff and other classes. But Canada could see there was more to attacking poverty than those programs. Having a waiting list for enrollment in these Harlem programs showed Canada that parents were very interested in helping their children, but he was bothered because "If all he was doing was picking some kids to save and letting the rest fail, what was the point?" (Tough, 2). Ingeniously, Canada changed course. He moved the programs "off the treadmill" and reversed the strategy so that by starting with the outcomes he wanted and "worked backward" from there he might create something far more meaningful (Tough, 3). From there, he moved toward the idea of combining educational, social, and medical services, and it turned out he was right in his gut feelings and his programmatic vision.
Throughout the book Tough uses a strategy of contrast and comparison -- the Harlem Children's Zone with the popular and highly lauded middle-school program, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) -- to help the reader understand how successful the Harlem Children's Zone was becoming. There is a dramatic difference between the two programs, and as successful as KIPP has been, it serves mostly students that are already showing outstanding potential. What Canada did was to serve not just impoverished children who can learn with the right program; he brought in gang-bangers (who seemed to society to be lost and not worthy of any attention except for law enforcement), and he brought in those on drugs and others.
Canada's program is about giving families the opportunity to embrace services for their middle school children that they can take part in, and that helps build cognitive skills and social skills as well. "We're not interested in saving a hundred kids," Canada told Tough on page 19. "Even three hundred kids," he went on. "Even a thousand kids to me is not going to do it," Canada insisted. "We want to be able to talk about how you save kids by the tens of thousands, because that's how we're losing them" (Tough, 19).
Only a man like Canada with that much drive and that much ambition could have tackled a task so immense as this one. In order to "…transform every aspect of the environment that poor children were growing up in" and to change the way their families were rearing them -- as well as the "character of the neighborhood" -- Canada would need to enlist funding sources, and would need to build a fire under parents and teachers and community leaders. Clearly he was more than motivated, he was a whirlwind of altruistic energy and honesty. On page 45, Canada asks the two questions that he would have to face and answer as he moved from waiting lists and lotteries to a program that truly embraced the whole concept and the whole community: a) Was the problem related to poor middle class parenting methods? And b) was it possible to "quantify a practice as subjective as parenting?" (Tough, 45). These were highly pertinent questions in terms of the possible outcomes of the Harlem Children's Zone and they were worthy questions too, because previous research showed that middle class and upper class parents tended to be "…more sensitive, more encouraging, less intrusive, and less detached" (Tough, 45).
Understanding the sociology and the psychology that goes into understanding the dynamics of parenting was crucial to Canada's ability to put his plan into place. The research available showed that "children's scores on the language tests were predicted by parents' cognitive stimulation" and it showed that children's scores on "the memory tests were predicted by social/emotional nurturance" (Tough, 47). Also it was important for Canada to understand that children from middle class parents tend to look at their teachers "…as a resource from whom they can demand attention, help, and praise" but poor children are taught by their parents to view teachers as "…authority figures to be deferred to in person and resented at a distance" (Tough, 51). Knowing these cultural truths vis-a-vis education and socioeconomic dynamics would help Canada get his project into high gear, Tough continues.
In the process of understanding families and raising children, Canada found himself up to his earlobes in those situations after getting Joyce Henderson pregnant. When Joyce gave birth to twins -- albeit Canada had vowed that he was not "…set up to take care of children" -- Canada continued his college studies and tried to keep the family above water financially by working full time and going to college. Then when one of the twins died of crib death, it was very sad, and even more challenging was his life in a "cramped apartment" trying to make a marriage work that had been forced upon him by his own doing and by his mother's rule: "if you got a girl pregnant, you married her" (Tough, 55).
The fascinating and instructive aspects of this book are many, but readers are helped in terms of their ability to grasp the powerful messages being offered by the quality of Tough's narrative and of his research. He is a magazine editor, of course, so he is expected to be competent in narrative and research, and he doesn't disappoint. In terms of researching ideas for interventions that truly work in poor neighborhoods, Tough does his own research above and beyond anything related to Canada or the Harlem Children's Zone.
For example, Tough references James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, because Heckman was part of a research project to study the success of the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) in the 1980s. The JTPA seemed to many just another example of the federal government throwing money at a problem. But in the several years that Heckman investigated the job training dynamic set up by JTPA, he realized that JTPA didn't work as it was supposed to. It wasn't just that $2 billion of taxpayer dollars were not wisely spent on JTPA; it was that job training wasn't enough and that the simple fact of ability trumps being trained to do better in life. Also, Heckman found that "…skill gaps exist -- by race, class, and maternal education -- and they open up very early" (Tough, 191).
Additionally, Heckman discovered that "cognitive skills are not the only ones that matter"; indeed, "non-cognitive skills" play a huge role in the earning power of a young person (Tough, 191). In other words, it is "…patience, persistence, self-confidence, the ability to follow instructions" and also the willingness to "…delay gratification for future reward" that makes a successful employee and citizen (Tough, 191). The corollary to this Heckman story is that both cognitive and non-cognitive skills "are teachable -- but it matters a great deal when you try to teach them." (Tough, 191). When the person is sixteen or seventeen, the cognitive skills "…are fairly stuck in place" (Tough, 191).
Hence, this Heckman story gives the author a chance to show the reader why Canada was so focused on teaching young children in Harlem those kind of skills early in life. Tough goes on to give the reader a good sketch of Heckman and his sincerity when it comes to helping kids get out of poverty. Tough spends ample time giving the reader a thorough background review of…