HOW much evidence does the government need before trying something new in the troubled realm of public education?
Should there be airtight proof that a pioneering program works before we commit federal money to it — or is it sometimes worth investing in promising but unproven innovations?
Last month, the Senate subcommittee that allocates federal education money weighed in on one such promising innovation, slicing, by more than 90 percent, the $210 million that President Obama requested for next year for his Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
Mr. Obama first proposed Promise Neighborhoods in the summer of 2007, pledging that, as president, he would help create in 20 cities across the country a new kind of support system for disadvantaged children, paid for with a mix of private and public money. In a single distressed neighborhood in each city, Mr. Obama explained, high-quality schools would be integrated into a network of early-childhood programs, parenting classes, health clinics and other social services, all focused on improving educational outcomes for poor children.
The Obama administration requested and received from Congress $10 million for the program for fiscal year 2010, and the Department of Education used that money to create a national competition for up to 20 Promise Neighborhoods planning grants. Although the grants were capped at a modest $500,000, the response to the program was overwhelming — 339 nonprofit groups and institutions of higher education from across the country formed coalitions, raised matching funds and filed applications.
Promise Neighborhoods was inspired by the example of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which over the last decade has compiled a solid, though still incomplete, record of success in the 97 blocks of central Harlem where it operates. Students at the group’s two charter elementary schools, mostly low-income and almost all black or Hispanic, have achieved strong results on statewide tests, often exceeding average proficiency scores for white students. Last year, 437 parents completed Baby College, the Zone’s nine-week parenting class, and 99 percent of the children graduating from the prekindergarten entered kindergarten on grade level. This fall, more than 200 students from the Zone’s afterschool programs will enroll as freshmen in college.
The central argument against fully financing the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, given voice in recent weeks by various policy groups, journalists and bloggers, is that despite such promising data, the Zone has not yet proved itself.
This case was made most forcefully in a report from the Brookings Institution that came out a week before the Senate committee’s vote. The report acknowledged that the charter schools at the heart of the Zone have, indeed, substantially raised test scores for the children enrolled in them.
But the report also argued that the scores are not as high as those at some other charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx that don’t include the kind of coordinated system of early-childhood programs, family support and neighborhood improvements offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone.