Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

David Brooks in Opposite Land

vonzastrowc's picture

Yesterday morning, I emerged long enough from our newborn's diapers and wipes to catch up on some reading. My jaw dropped when I came across this paragraph from David Brooks's Friday op-ed:

[The impressive results of charter schools in the Harlem Children's Zone] are powerful evidence in a long-running debate. Some experts, mostly surrounding the education establishment, argue that schools alone can’t produce big changes. The problems are in society, and you have to work on broader issues like economic inequality. Reformers, on the other hand, have argued that school-based approaches can produce big results. The Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right.


Did Brooks really just argue that the Harlem Children's Zone's success supports the schools alone approach championed by "reformers"? That's like arguing that the Surgeon General's reports discredit the link between smoking and cancer.

As just about everyone knows, the Harlem Children's Zone combines education, social services and community programs to improve the odds for children and youth in Harlem--It's an odd poster child for Brooks's argument. (Corey Bower offers a much more detailed critique of Brooks's op ed here.)

Brooks's logical contortionism has been on display for some time now. Last June, he maligned the signers of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a manifesto advocating both in-school and out-of-school interventions to boost student achievement. How inconvenient, then, that Harlem Children's Zone president Geoffrey Canada is among what Brooks calls the "status quo camp": people who signed the Broader, Bolder manifesto. 

As I've noted before, Brooks joins a long line of national commentators who are turning important conversations about school improvement into a morality play pitting the "establishment" against the "reformers." In the process, he is promoting false and damaging dichotomies between efforts to improve schools and efforts to offset social and economic disadvantages that contribute to achievement gaps.

By the way, as long as Brooks is pointing to interventions that dramatically narrow achievement gaps, he might want to have a look at Say Yes to Education. In several inner cities, Say Yes has nearly closed the high school and college graduation gaps separating urban youth from their suburban peers. How? By providing low-income youth comprehensive supports ranging from health care to academic help and college scholarships.

Of course, that wouldn't support Brooks's morality play.