Customer Reviews: Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America
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VINE VOICEon September 28, 2008
... and see what life we can make for our children", a quote by Sitting Bull, embraces the philosophy and vision of outstanding educator, reformer, and leader Geoffrey Canada, creator of the Harlem Children's Zone. Part biography, part call to action, "Whatever it Takes" is a transformative book of the highest order, one that challenges, inspires, and calls people to do what's best for our children.

Author Paul Tough writes a compelling and highly readable story of Geoffrey Canada's struggle from social service agency manager to this hugely comprehensive program designed to hold students in a web of great education and accountability until they enter college. Frustrated by seeing too many students who were in need of help and not receiving it, Canada envisioned a dream in which the children would be taken care of, from womb to high school, so that they wouldn't be haggled the by overwhelming needs that often interfered with their development and hence, education. Canada dared to ask the hard what, "What if?", and now, years after asking it, the Harlem Children's Zone is proving it's results.

What's interesting about the book is that Tough doesn't sugar coat anything. The HCZ has had it's ups and down, its issues and celebrations. Canada's philosophical battle with the Promise Academy's first principal Terri Grey, shows the conflicts that arose; two people with the same intentions, disagreeing on the way to go about it. Often, in a book like this, there is a temptation to be upbeat and happy about something new and innovative, probably so as not to give potential critics ammunition to shoot it down. Tough paints its honesty. It's simply refreshing. Dealing with students in poverty comes with no easy answers. The work, however, is some of the most personally rewarding work that anyone can do, and that shines clear through every single page.

Another interesting focus of this book is the role that race plays in our society, and the issues of race that our society is still choosing to ignore. Through Canada's life story, which stems from an inner city urban upbringing, to an almost improbable life as a college student in Maine, Tough echoes challenges people of color have in our still majority white society. Canada lives in both worlds, and has raised kids in both worlds. His ability to see the benefits and challenges in each world makes him effective in his current job.

I devoured this book, and now I'm anxiously awaiting to watch the HCZ over the years, to see the ultimate benefit of their students. Canada and his team has put their minds together ... and now let's see what kind of world his students will have.
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on November 30, 2008
"Whatever It Takes" is a very good book with some significant limitations that prevent it from becoming a great book.

The book's strengths include the following:

*** It provides some profiles of the challenges facing individuals in poverty in Harlem.
*** It provides an in-depth description of the workings of the Harlem Children's Zone, focusing in particular on its parenting programs and middle school programs.
*** It provides an interesting profile of Geoffrey Canada, the creator and director of the Harlem Children's Zone, who is certainly a fascinating man who deserves the spotlight.
*** It provides a good and user-friendly summary of the research literatures on the influence of parenting practices on how children do in the short-run and long-run, the disparities in parental environment across socioeconomic classes in the U.S., and how quality preschool programs affect how children fare as adults. It also includes some brief but interesting discussions of the KIPP charter school program.

What are the book's limitations?

*** It never provides a real summary of what Geoffrey Canada's vision would cost if implemented on a large scale. What would it really cost for the nation to provide parenting classes, high quality preschool, longer and high quality school years, and high quality after school programs, for all parents and children who need these services? This omission of cost estimates prevents the debate over the merits of Geoffrey Canada's vision from being fully joined in this book.
*** Geoffrey Canada's vision is that there are large synergies between all these different services: that is, the social return to implementing parenting classes for at risk families, for example, are affected by whether their children also have high quality schools to go to, or high quality preschool. The book does not in any serious way critique the vision of the visionary it is discussing. Yet there is no real evidence either for or against such synergies. Geoffrey Canada might well be right, but he might be wrong. For example, as mentioned in the book, there appear to be high social returns to high-quality preschool even if the children subsequently go to a lousy public school. Do we need to undertake all these programs together, or can they be pursued separately? If they must be pursued together, then this creates much larger logistical and cost barriers to seriously pursuing anti-poverty policies.
*** The book does not include much in-depth description of the pre-K component of the Harlem Children's Zone. The elementary school also receives less attention than the parenting program and the middle school program. However, at least as judged from the book's evidence, the pre-K program and the elementary program components of the Harlem Children's Zone may be more successful than the HCZ's middle school program and parenting program.

Overall, this book is essential reading for anyone who is interesting in anti-poverty policy or urban policy in the U.S. Comprehensive and concentrated anti-poverty policy in urban neighborhoods is certainly an important policy option to consider, and I know of no book that considers this option in as much depth. While one wishes the book had included additional information, what it does provide is a very useful start.
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on September 21, 2008
The book is an excellent narrative of an inspired yet incomplete effort to transform urban education in a way that seeks to transform a community. It's a thoughtful description of some of the contending philosophies on poverty and education. It dramatically describes the required flexibility and willingness to change course (sometimes effectively and sometimes not) in developing a new model. It reflects the inevitable tensions between the range of stakeholders that a visionary like Canada must manage. I bought 25 copies for the teaching and management staff at our school on the West Side of Chicago--Austin Polytechnical Academy--and eagerly await the discussion.

Dan Swinney, Center for Labor and Community Research
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on June 12, 2015
In “Whatever It Takes,” Paul Tough tells the inspiring story of how Geoffrey Canada (founder of Harlem’s Children Zone) is attempting to change Harlem by radically reforming the way that children are raised and educated in Harlem. Canada’s vision is to create a “conveyor belt” (yes, he actually calls it that) to success. With its gamut of schools and services, Harlem’s Children Zone is designed to provide parents and their children with the support structure that they need to enter and succeed in the American higher education system. For Canada, Harlem’s Children Zone is designed to be a virus that will infect and contaminate all of Harlem, forever transforming it.

This book praises Geoffrey Canada as a charismatic visionary who has done his research. Half of the book details how Harlem’s Children Zone actually functions, and the other half explains the academic debate around education empowerment. For both Paul Tough and Geoffrey Canada, the scientific evidence says this: Yes, nature and nurture are important, but so is schooling. Through early, sustained, and deliberate intervention, children can adopt the habits, attitudes, and ways of thinking that will transform their lives. And Geoffrey Canada is obsessed with transforming the lives of Harlem’s residents, whatever it takes – and regardless of Harlem wants to change or not.

Paul Tough is a very good and diligent reporter, but much of the book is unsettling. It reads more like a hagiography rather than a nuanced and sophisticated look at the American education reform debate. For one thing, he never questions Geoffrey Canada’s obsession with test scores, and he would never dream of questioning the agenda of the hedge-fund billionaire who is financing Geoffrey’s “quest to change Harlem and America.” For both author and protagonist, the ends justify the means. Yes, the focus on test scores means that teachers and students are stressed-out all the time, and are deeply unhappy, leading to massive turnover among the faculty. But getting into college changes lives, doesn’t it? Isn’t getting Harlem kids into the middle-class worth all the sacrifice? These are questions that no one can answer except the parents and the kids themselves, but I don’t think anyone has really bothered to ask them these questions. There’s something deeply repugnant about the top-down, results-oriented, data-driven approach that Geoffrey Canada has opted for in Harlem. Whether or not he succeeds in creating the conveyor belt to success he envisions, the fact that he thinks it’s a worthy goal to properly and rationally structure the lives of children is worrisome in itself.
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on January 6, 2009
Everyone should read this book. I suggest listening to the 30 minute radio story before reading. Search for "This American Life" series from National Public Radio. The episode that contains this story is "Going Big" which aired late September, 2008.
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on January 7, 2016
This volume if very quotable. I recommend the Kindle version for that purpose. It's well researched and presented in a clear, measured style. I think it's a must-read if someone is serious about education reform and practices.
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on April 6, 2012
Any way you cut it, Geoffrey Canada is an impressive man. Born into poverty in the South Bronx in1952 , he was able to rise above the obstacles typically blocking a young black man from being successful. He did have dalliances with gang activity and even fathered a child while still in high school. Still he managed to get himself into Bowdoin University in Maine and then onto Harvard for a Masters in Education. For the past twenty years he has worked with foundations dedicated to lifting impoverished children out of poverty through education. Like many in the field, he became frustrated with the approaches used because no matter how successfully they worked, they still only affected a small number of children, leaving many more children to be left behind in America's crime ridden ghettos. He felt there had to be a better way and branched out on his own to start the

Canada knew there was plenty of research out there that said what qualities were needed in a curriculum to promote a child's education to thrive. Too much research in the past had put the blame on African-Americans themselves. Their academic gaps were due to the breakdown of the family, lack of jobs, high mobility, discrimination and even according to Charles Murray in The Bell Curve (1992) a lack of intelligence. Canada was more interested in why children thrived, not why they didn't. Since the 90s there has been a wealth of documentation that pointed to why middle class children did well in school and poorer children didn't. The extent of language used in the home was one of the most salient characteristics in the life of the middle class child. From birth, middle class parents talk to their children in complex ways often missing in the poorer household in which language tends to be more command directed. Successful learners are explained things and read to from the time they are born. Opportunities for children who do well in school are vast and even a trip to the grocery store can be a language rich experience.

Baby College was born. New and expectant parents were invited to join a program designed to share the latest tips and ways to raise academically successful children based on the latest research. Canada and his associates scoured the neighborhoods of Harlem, knocking on doors to find participants. Folks were wary and many found it counterintuitive to give up their "spare the rod and spoil the child mentality." Canada found his work cut out for him but soon he found his most resistant young parents enthused about the changes they could make in their children's futures based on sound data.

Canada also opened schools, admission based on lottery, from pre-kindergarten through high school. He promised the students that if they stuck with the program he would see to it they were prepared to enter college. This promise was more difficult than he expected. The younger children did quite well, with their test scores rivaling the test scores of children from better neighborhoods throughout the state. However, the students in middle school were not catching up to their more fortunate peers and Canada had to rethink his project's goals. Middle School was just too late to try to make the kind of changes for which he hoped, so he redoubled his efforts by putting more energy into the early childhood programs. He called it the "conveyor belt" method and knew if he could get children onto "the belt" shortly after they were born and keep them on through high school, they could be successful academically regardless of family background or status.

It's hard to argue with Canada's methods or beliefs. It's the rare teacher who hasn't said about a particularly vexing but lovable child "If I could just take that child home with me, you'd see some real changes in her." In essence that is what Canada's program does. It involves parents from the get-go in their child's education and if the parent is not or cannot be available then the school provides the support needed. Canada has been working off grants from billionaires to fund his programs and has caught the eye of President Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Recently he was named one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. (Of course, so was Justin Bieber and Chris Colfer from Glee so I'm not sure it is such an honor.) His hope is for communities across the country to replicate his programs. Obama has pledged billions to this effort but with the country embroiled in three wars and unemployment still hovering around ten percent, I'll believe it when I see it.

Some of the hoopla about Canada is perplexing. Schools have been using language-based programs for disadvantaged students as well as their more thriving peers long before Canada caught on to them. Though his programs are designed to fill in the holes for families that can't provide the necessary stimulation for their young, what to do about those families that don't want government interference or don't trust it. Canada's programs so far are lottery based and though he claims to never turn a child away from entering the lottery, just the fact a child's family has gone through the effort to try and enroll their child in Canada's programs speaks to a certain level of support and self-selection. Still, his programs are getting results and though they will undoubtably be expensive to reproduce they may help lessen the academic gap between middle-class and impoverished children. Some children will still be left behind; expulsions still exist in his programs but his approach should be one more weapon in the arsenal to combat a culture of poverty.
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on October 26, 2008
This afternoon I was sitting in our church's annual meeting where all of the ministries are reviewed for the members of the church. Our church is an urban church, mostly middle class, mostly white. I had just finished reading "Whatever It Takes" last week. I was struck by the similarity between the programs of our church and those put in place by Mr. Canada. We have the early programs for new and continuing moms (and their husbands), nursery school starting at age 2 1/2, preschool, and myrids of programs for youth up through college. (And of course, beyond.) This is a main line protestant church. What is missing for us is the recruiting program to get into the neighborhood and bring in people to the program who don't know of the nearly free approach to learning about parenting and learning from the ground up. I think the challenge for us is to be willing to become passionate about extending the Harlem Children's Zone Concepts we have taken for granted. We who are in charge of the "White Conveyor Belt" must agressively work to include those in our community who wouldn't naturally know of it. Of course, this population is mostly African-American. One could get passionate about the design of the Harlem Children's Zone on the basis of the excellent read provided by the excellent descriptions provide in this book.
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on November 7, 2010
"From womb to high school" should be the responsibility of the parents, not the schools. The problem with public schools today--and, sorry, but charter schools such as Canada's are not public schools since they can accept or reject students as they choose, which real public schools cannot do--is that the laws force schools to be parents for people who are irresponsible and refuse to do their jobs as parents.

Public schools are not "failing" because of what happens inside the schools; it's because of what happens outside of schools. Dangerous communities, parents who don't give their children what they should (attention, time to talk and share, good nutrition, discipline, supervision, encouragement and help to learn, etc.), and a general public who demands services from schools it doesn't want to pay for.

The students who succeed at Canada's schools are the ones who cooperate with the rules and regulations; if they don't, they are "counseled out" of his school. This is a term which means they are told that Canada's school and the student and/or family is "not a good fit" and they need to enroll elsewhere. The attrition rate for charter schools is high, but that's a secret few will talk about.

Charter schools also do not typically accept students who are violent or have special needs, but traditional public schools--real public schools--must enroll anyone who walks through the door, as long as they live within district boundaries, no matter what their need is. I would bet there aren't many students at Canada's schools who don't speak English or are intellectually disabled.

Yet, amazingly, people continue to use schools such as Canada's to insist that charter schools are "better" than traditional public schools and can be run at lower costs. Of course they can. They can choose to ignore federal laws (while receiving federal monies) and choose who will and won't attend their schools.

So many people state that schools should be run like businesses, but if they were then students who were chronically disruptive and/or refused to work and follow rules would be fired/expelled. That's what Canada's schools do that traditional public schools are not legally allowed to do. Where do the students who leave Canada's, and similar schools, go? To traditional public schools.

Most people in the public, and that includes politicians, think schools are the same as decades ago when they went to school, but as more and more responsibility has been give to public schools, more and more authority has been taken away. And more people now expect schools to do what parents used to do. If children are fat, people want to blame schools but never give a thought to what they are eating at home and how much exercise they get there. If schools are chaotic, people want to know why schools don't control that instead of asking why parents aren't teaching their children how to behave and respect authority. If children are getting pregnant or substance abusing, people want to know why schools aren't doing a better job preventing that instead of asking why parents are not supervising the actions of their children.

If children are being bullied, no one thinks to ask if the parents of the bullies are cooperating with the efforts of the school or even why the parents of the bullied are not contacting the parents of the bullies. Recently I watched two parents blame school staff for the tragic suicide of their son, but no one ever asked the parents how their minor age child had access to a gun and ammunition in their home. Wasn't it their responsibility to keep that locked and away from their child? Did they ever talk with the parents of the bullies? File a police report? A harrassment report with a phone company or ISP or social networking site? As sad as their story is, this was their child and ultimately their responsibility to protect him. People don't understand what restrictions schools are under and how few the options are for discipline. But people expect schools to be parents as well as schools, far beyond what "in loco parentis" ever intended. These are the families and students of traditional public schools. These people would be rejected by schools such as Canada's for noncompliance.

I think what Canada is doing is admirable and needed. He has helped many people get a good education and opened up the conversation about what schools could be, if all schools were given the same autonomy as public schools. But let's not pretend he is some kind of guru or miracle worker in education. Anyone can be successful in an endeavor if they can choose the participants. I would be more impressed if he, as traditional public schools do, had the same results with the students public schools must take, and be subject to the same federal laws, and not be allowed to tell them to leave if they don't comply with his rules. Then, and only then, would he and his schools be truly worthy of the accolades given now.
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on September 21, 2015
This book is extremely leftist and doesn't teach about self-reliance at all in black communities. I actually thought Canada would be much much more stricter on the kids in the school. Kind of like a Joe Clark in the movie Lean on Me, but turned out completely different. In one portion he feared that the students would be,"better than the kids from other schools," which would alienate them intellectually. I'm a black man myself and I see this all the time with kids in the community who aren't smart picking on the kids that are. So this inturn forces the kids who are smart to lower themselves to the kids who aren't smart level. Anyways, It was an okay book. 3 stars.
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