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Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America

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What would it take?

That was the question that Geoffrey Canada found himself asking. What would it take to change the lives of poor children—not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in big numbers, and in a way that could be replicated nationwide? The question led him to create the Harlem Children’s Zone, a ninety-seven-block laboratory in central Harlem where he is testing new and sometimes controversial ideas about poverty in America. His conclusion: if you want poor kids to be able to compete with their middle-class peers, you need to change everything in their lives—their schools, their neighborhoods, even the child-rearing practices of their parents.

Whatever It Takes is a tour de force of reporting, an inspired portrait not only of Geoffrey Canada but also of the parents and children in Harlem who are struggling to better their lives, often against great odds. Carefully researched and deeply affecting, this is a dispatch from inside the most daring and potentially transformative social experiment of our time.

336 pages, Paperback

First published August 12, 2008

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About the author

Paul Tough

11 books397 followers
Paul Tough is the author, most recently, of The Inequality Machine. His three previous books include How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which was translated into 27 languages and spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback best-seller lists. Paul is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine; his writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and GQ, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He is a speaker on topics including education, parenting, equity, and student success. He has worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Magazine and as a reporter and producer for This American Life. He was the founding editor of Open Letters, an online magazine. He lives with his wife and two sons in Austin, Texas, and Montauk, New York. For more information, please visit his web site or follow him on Twitter.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 482 reviews
Profile Image for nicolle jennelle.
87 reviews4 followers
March 17, 2013
It has been said [by me] that if I hear another Portlander ask me if I've read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" in response to hearing that I'm a teacher, that'd I'd smack said Portlander in the face [possibly literally]. It's not that I hate the book: it's that it symbolizes the modern evolution of casual citations of Michael Moore movies and easy reliance on simplistic conspiracy theories that I think gives over-educated white people a dose of comfort for the guilt of living in a racist, classist society. However- it is difficult for me to explain the complexity of it beyond "our schools are really fucked up. worse than you can imagine." This book explains the whole story: why they're fucked up, and what we can do about it. Charter schools don't mean the privatization of education by evil companies: it's an answer to doing anything to fix this broken system. As Canada states in Whatever It Takes: "Anyone who is really passionate about public education is trying to destroy it." The reality is that the state of education and the effect of poverty on children is a case for absolute emergency. What's most frustrating is that's NOT simple. I wish there was just a giant corporation we could all verbally academically demonize, order a beer and collectively shrug our privileged shoulders at our inability to do anything more than to vote for Obama and not shop at Wal-Mart. That's easy. Poverty, racism and education are NOT easy: it's complicated and it's EVERYONE'S problem. I love this book because it looks at all of the pieces involved and is divinely well-written. This is only the THIRD non-fiction book I've read cover to cover in my life; it's that engaging. While we're a long way from Americans as a whole acknowledging the EMERGENCY of the state of education in our country or giving a shit about poor people, I'd very much love someone to at least say "You're a teacher (first of all THANK YOU)? Have you read 'Whatever It Takes'?" And then, we can have a real conversation.
46 reviews2 followers
March 19, 2009
"It's the parents' fault", is the oft-heard retort to all sorts of problems in our educational system. While that statement may be descriptive, it isn't prescriptive. Geoffrey Canada has an ambitious prescription to help poor urban kids in Harlem, first by ignoring vexing political and social question about the origins of the cycle of poverty. His plan is social engineering on a grand scale -- he needs to break the cycle somewhere, and chooses to draw a line in the generational sands. All the kids born after some date (1998?) in the 97 block Harlem Children's Zone are eligible for the "conveyor belt", with a program to introduce formerly middle-class practices to these kids from before birth to high school. Most notable, he has given up on improving the lives of their parents, except in their parenting of the next generation.

While the HCZ cause is noble, sadly, this book is an uncritical hagiography. The prime objective of the schools is to improve standardized test scores. The book claims that the schools don't "teach to the test", but it is blatantly obvious that they do. In the third grade, practice tests are given monthly for the six months preceding the actual tests. The kids are tutored in the specific areas where they are lacking on these New York standardized tests, and in test-taking skills.
349 reviews16 followers
November 12, 2008
I like the idea behind Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone. Take babies and parents of those babies and put them through a conveyor-belt system, from the time the baby is in the womb until high school. However, parts of the book annoyed me. I know test results are important in today's educational system but I felt Canada was obsessed with them, and like one of the members of his staff pointed out, you can't treat a school like a business. You can't take a kid, throw in X plus Y and get a college graduate with out taking into account the emotions and other things that make up that child. Read this book, and tell me what you think! If it did one thing, though, it has made me interested in education and learning more about education of people, hence the reading of the Jonathan Kozol texts I am tackling.
Profile Image for Philitsa.
162 reviews8 followers
December 10, 2010
This book is important.

I heard this episode of This American life, and as the show often does to me, I stayed seated in my car in my driveway until the segment was over. The theme of the episode was "Going Big", chronicling the deeds of people who took impressive measures to solve a problem. One of those people is Geoffrey Canada, and the show talks about the Harlem Children's Zone.

At the time, I was a new mom (I'm still sorta newish) and the subject of maximizing a child's intellectual development was my obsession (it still sorta is). Knowing that I was doing a good job as a parent wasn't enough; I needed numbers to back up what I thought I was doing right. Listening to this story gave me the statistics I craved, and the details heartbreaking. I didn't expect to hear about how kids don't get what they need and I certainly didn't expect it to affect me so deeply. Part of the reason why I bought this book was to read and re-read those figures over and over:

By age three, the children of professional parents had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children of parents on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words... the size of each child's vocabulary correlated most closely to one factor: the number of words the parent spoke to the child... In professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 "utterances" to their child each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour. By age three, welfare children would have heard 10 million words addressed to them, on average, and professional children would have heard more than 30 million.

What's more, the kind of words and statements that children heard varied by class... By age three, the average professional child would hear about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the ratio was reversed: they would hear, on average, about 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements... Every child heard a similar number of words related to basic instruction and directions. Poorer children didn't hear much else. But the children from more wealthy families were exposed to millions of extra words on top of those basics... As conversations moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another - all of which stimulated intellectual development in a way that "Put that down" or "Finish your peas" never could.

Ever make a half-joking comment to your friends about how people should have to get a license or take an exam or go through a class before being able to have kids? Well, Geoffrey Canada implemented just that. After years of being frustrated at how ineffective single outreach programs were to poor kids, and armed with the research quoted above, he created a comprehensive network of learning that followed kids from before they were born until they finished high school. The start of that is "Baby College", where parents-to-be and parents of toddlers learn how to encourage their growth. The goal of all of this work is to mimic the environment that middle and upper class kids have, full of intellectual, emotional, and medical support.

This book was written after five years of observing this process. It is part biography of Mr. Canada, part history, part antipoverty blueprint, and it's all hope - hope that the cycle of generational poverty that afflicts such a large portion of our society will one day come to an end.

Geoffrey Canada's passion, ambition, and creativity applied to such a worthy topic better win him some global recognition!
Profile Image for Rachel.
174 reviews2 followers
November 23, 2010
This book is about Geoffrey Canada and his continuum of programs designed to get kids from Harlem into college. His programs offer intensive support starting before birth continuing all the way through high school. As I read the book, I had conflicting reactions. I completely agree with the philosophy that interventions need to be all-encompassing. A six hour school day isn't enough when kids are going home to chaos.
I think my main problem with the book is that I don't necessarily agree with the premise. I don't think everyone can or should go to college. There are high school students whose career aspirations don't require college degrees. They have the desire and the talent to pursue careers in construction, auto mechanics, factory work, etc. The decision to enter one of these fields should be just as highly valued in society as the decision to go to college.
After 10 years working in the school system, I have seen how numbers can be manipulated, so I found myself questioning many of the statistics presented. One example - the author mentions the significant increase in test scores for a group of students when comparing their 6th grade scores to their 8th grade scores. It sounds pretty amazing. But then I realized that there were 100 students who started out in the 6th grade class, and by the time they got to 8th grade only 65 were left. What happened to the other 35? The book doesn't tell us, but my guess is that these students were less successful and were asked to leave. It's much easier to improve test scores when problem students can be gotten rid of.
Even though I did have a few issues with the book, I found it to be inspiring overall. Canada is facing a monumental task, but if he can accomplish even half of what he hopes to, he will transform a community and provide a model for other cities to follow.
35 reviews1 follower
February 27, 2009
I've heard about Geoffrey Canada; he was featured on episodes of NPR's Fresh Air and This American Life. As a former inner city teacher and current suburban teacher, I'm always interested in issues like education equity, achievement gap, etc...
I think Canada is a fascinating figure-- idealistic and intensely pragmatic at the same time. God bless him and people like him who serve the poor and oppressed
Profile Image for Molly.
2 reviews1 follower
January 9, 2009
straightforward writing made this book about the effects of poverty (and the many issues that accompany it) on the spectrum of children's education really digestable and extremely compelling. Makes the best case for why an integrated and holistic approach to raising/nurturing/education children is essential for them as individuals as well as the society.
Profile Image for AJ Nolan.
760 reviews10 followers
January 21, 2012
I've read articles and heard interviews with Geoffery Canada and just heard him speak at Old Dominion University, and for the most part I am a fan of what he is doing in Harlem with the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) and his Promise Academy. And this book is definitely worth reading for anyone who hasn't read articles about him, or the HCZ. Canada has been doing excellent work with his varied different initiatives in Harlem, trying to tip the scales in his community, to break the cycle of imbalance of achievement and opportunity for those who grow up in poverty and those who do not. The problem I have is my discomfort with the emphasis on test scores, the same discomfort that his first principal had (a discomfort that got her fired). When I heard him speak, and in the interviews I've read (and in this book), Canada speaks for the need for revolutionary educational reform, and yet he then buys into the same system of non-stop testing and teaching to the tests. It seems to me that teaching to the test is not revolutionary and never can be. However, it is the system we currently have, and so I understand why Canada, KIPP and Teach For America (TFA) all emphasize teaching to the test and pushing to raise the student's test scores by 2 or more grade levels in a year, because the tests are the way we have for evaluating where students are currently achieving. But, as everyone knows, as this book acknowledges, the tests are flawed, not accounting for cultural differences, not counting for lack of motivation in the students to do well on a test (instead of motivating students to become true learners, driven by the excitement and power of learning), and discounting all the educational studies that show that teaching things like writing is best done not by testing, but by simply writing and reading a lot, without fear of writing the "right" or "wrong" way for tests.

I am not pretending to know a solution. I am not an education scholar, and I absolutely know that Canada and KIPP and TFA and all the other great teachers out there that are working so hard within the current system of testing are doing so because they are working to do the best for their students. And we need them to keep on doing that work. I respect everything that Canada is doing, and I also know that their have been a great many successes with his, TFA and KIPPs methods. But I also wonder what would happen if we were truly revolutionary and threw out the tests and instead focused on true, holistic learning. What if we treated teachers as professionals and trusted them to do their job of education? What would happen if we had a program of education like in Finland that focuses on equality of education for all, including the radical (to us) step of having NO private schools. No separate and unequal educations serving and creating a social elite? That is a truly radical idea.


Here's a excerpt for that article:
"For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country."

I'm not saying that we have to become Finnish here in America, but their programs seem to bear looking into, and ultimately, Canada's Promise Schools seem a bit like more of the same. A definite improvement over the regular public schools in Harlem, but not a long-term solution. Indeed, Canada talks eloquently in his desire to get away for the Superman mentality, that we need long-lasting, wide-reaching solutions to combat the education inequality problem, but in the end, the Promise Academies are seeming like a Superman project. That said, I also wonder what would happen if every child in America had the right to quality preschool beginning at age three (like Canada has created with his Harlem Gems, and if all parents had the support of something like the HCZ Baby College, and if all children were guaranteed a right to a quality education in a safe school, with food and health care provided as part of the deal? That may paint a very bright future for all of America.

Profile Image for Nanci.
863 reviews19 followers
November 9, 2018
Great book focusing on education changes in America. This was factual and also page turning.
Profile Image for Nicholas Karpuk.
Author 4 books60 followers
November 10, 2009
I bought this book on the strength of a piece Paul tough did about the Harlem project "Baby College" played multiple times on This American Life. The piece is incredibly uplifting, discussing a program Geoffrey Canada started in Harlem in an attempt to stop the cycle of poverty and violence. The task was to start out kids as early as possible with the right tools to succeed, teaching parents the techniques upper class parents use to give their children good linguistic and mathematical skills.

What I didn't expect in reading the full book is what a rocky and dramatic journey it actually was. Geoffrey Canada experienced a lot of setbacks and difficulties when he extended Baby College into Promise Academy, an attempt to start an elementary and middle school program to bring Harlem kids up to a level where they could become successful adults.

The book is full of heartbreaking stories, failure, and intelligent analysis all written with equal grace. He devotes a decent amount of time into the history of research on what makes people poor and what keeps them poor, discussing different philosophies. The biggest consensus seems to be that the earlier you can intervene in the lives of the less fortunate, the better.

Which is Canada's goal, to create a conveyer to bring as many children from infancy to successful adulthood as possible.

The quality of the story owes as much to Canada as it does to Paul Tough, as the failures and frustrations are given almost as much time as the successes and high ideals. In an acknowledgement Paul Tough actually highlights one of the lowest days Canada had during the entire period, and how he specifically invited Tough to the school to bear witness. He wanted the journalist to have a complete picture, to write the best, most thorough account possible.

It's odd to see the flipside of "Nurtureshock", where intensely concerned parents are told that their rabid affection may be leading their kids. "Whatever It Takes" concerns the kids who aren't really getting the attention at all. Together they form an interesting dichotomy of educational issues between haves and the havenots.

What's sad is that while most of the educational books I've read geared towards the middle class all focus on making kids better thinkers, happier people, and ultimately smarter adults, Promise Academy is obsessed with test scores and pushing the kids to whatever limits are necessary to get them. It's a sad contrast, between parents being encouraged to give their kids access to the upper limits of their potential and kids being given mammoth amounts of effort and funding just to have access to any kind of adulthood success. It's practically two different worlds of standards. The books for middle class kids seem to see test scores as irrelevant, as something that will fall in line naturally if a child is allowed to explore their world.

Everything about "Whatever it Takes" is well organized, presented with care, and it's one of the better books I've read on the topic of education.
Profile Image for AstroPheems.
28 reviews1 follower
March 20, 2019
Re/read this recently and still feel the same way. Augh! Warning: this is a rambly review.
It has all the fixings of a classic pro-charter movement, fancy neolib dressing and lots of talk of innovating ideas. However, the reality is that we live in a systemically and institutionally racist society, and on top of the environment/surroundings that the author describes, these solutions will really only serve a small few, rather than make larger meaningful changes. Additionally, other problems exist: either funding isn't consistent throughout or training or values of teachers and administrators and support staff isn't aligned. The Promise neighborhood programs I've seen has not yielded as many positive results. The ideas Canada sprouted have good intentions, but we really need some drastic and transformative changes at all levels (not just within the school environment) to really even begin to start. The program is a good effort, the book is a good look into someone/some organization trying to make a change at least. I should give this an additional star (to make it 3) because this really is a good case study/example of some classic social theories. Ultimately I am giving it 2 stars. I just believe in a greater change and type of social progress. I don't believe in reducing the inequalities of the world...and making it seem like the only solutions to combat the racial inequalities and policies that really impacts the lives of these students in a very real day to day way, is to develop personal or "psychological grit" to muster through and focus on your studies/programming and cross your fingers that you'll survive and somehow obtain a scholarship from fancy foundations so that you can make it into a 4 year college and somehow survive in a predominantly white and/or rich space. I just don't believe this is the answer. Maybe there should be a sequel written to this so we can get an update. Who knows. I just want us to dream more radically visionary futures than this.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
November 13, 2009
We shared this book with our board of directors in September. It tells the story of the Harlem Children's Zone, one of the most innovative and impactful community development efforts in the country.

Geoffrey Canada, the organization's director, is attempting to transform a 100 square block section of Harlem. Not just provide services to those who want/need them, not just help a small number of young people "escape" their neighborhood, not just intervene in one or two specific urban problems. Within his 100 blocks he is attempting to saturate the community with education, training, resources and opportunities. "The idea is to provide a strong network of support services to help parents make choices that are informed by research evidence, to help families facing the financial pressures of poverty remain intact, and to ensure that children are consistently groomed for academic success" (Jennifer L. Steele, Harvard Educational Review.)

Five years ago, this organization was providing parenting classes ("Baby College) and/or preschool programs ("Harlem Gems") for 88% of the families in their target area of 24 blocks. They have attempted to maintain this same level of "saturation" as they expanded to a 60 and most recently 100 block area. By attempting to saturate a defined geographic community they aim to bring about a "tipping point" in Harlem so that success in school and progress to college become the neighborhood norm.

RCP's mission is to create a safe, healthy, opportunity-rich community where children and youth can thrive. We have always believed that God redeems entire communities, not just individual lives. The Harlem Childrens' Zone experiment is a treasure chest of wisdom, research and out-of-box thinking for us as we yearn for the same kind of tipping point in our own community.
Profile Image for David.
287 reviews4 followers
August 21, 2011
This is a genuinely important book. The famous pro-capitalism quote "the business of America is business" could easily be updated to "the business of America is education" as the only employees who are still in demand are the well-educated and those willing to work for pennies (and the second group are not to be found in the U.S. anymore). Yet voters and politicians who are all blandly willing to repeat how valuable an education is have not taken the concrete actions to improve a system that has degenerated, sometimes into pure irrelevancy, for the kids outside of the achiever class.

This is a fascinating look at the struggle to help the kids who are failing to gain the skills they need within the educational system. It's not a feel good story, and at times it makes for painful reading. The most interesting conclusions are that (1) some parents have little if any ability to give their kids what they need to succeed in school and (2) those kids can still be saved but only if they and their parents get help at an extremely young age AND the help is maiontained through their childhood years. Fixing the problem will require enormous amounts of labor and expense, and thankfully some people, like those at HCZ, are at least proving that it can be done. Whether the will exists to do so on a larger scale remains an open question.
Profile Image for Drick.
809 reviews26 followers
December 27, 2008
This is a unique book on the role of a leader to bring vision into reality. First, it is an unfinished story; the Harlem Children's Zone has a vision of transforming the lives of a whole community, but the book ends with as many questions as accomplishments. Second, it shows the leader, Geoffrey Canada, as a real person with strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs, highs and lows. Too many books on leaders make them seem unapproachable. Third, the story is told as much by the people Canada leads as it told about Canada. Paul Tough, the author, spent time in the schools and programs and got to know teachers, administrators, students and their families.

Intertwined with the story is some excellent background material on theories, models and various attempts to address the ongoing cycle of poverty particularly as it relates to education. The book ends with mention of "presidential candidate Barack Obama" endorsing the model of Geoffrey Canada,which makes this book a must read for anyone wanting to be on the cutting edge of Obama's attempt to address the problems of poverty in a new and refreshing way.
Profile Image for Lady Jane.
47 reviews3 followers
May 9, 2011
I was disappointed in this book. I wanted more information about the actual educational processes that Canada is advocating and implementing. Apart from the discussion of the "conveyor belt" concept and the detailed description of the Harlem Gems program that concentrated on language, I found the obsession with test scores highly disturbing. I also thought that his time-goals for raising test scores for the middle school students were unrealistic. He made decisions based on his benefactors' need for positive numbers and not on the children's need for time to learn.
I liked the "conveyor belt" idea and would like to know more about how the program is currently working now that several years have passed. This is not a new concept, however, but perhaps it is a better implementation than previous models (hard to tell from this book). I hesitate to say that it might be a solution to the education problems in our country because Canada had so much outside funding... which is usually not available. I do think that coordinating programs for new parents, preschool, school and healthcare is the answer for the future of education so that every student truly has the same chance of success.
Profile Image for Kony.
385 reviews237 followers
March 14, 2013
Reads like an extra-long NYT Magazine profile of Geoffrey Canada. Well written, researched, and edited. Fair, informative, and engaging.

As a journalist, Tough is adept at "hiding his tracks" -- muting any personal bias, and making his prose flow seamlessly between various scenes, dialogues, summaries of relevant research, and historical/biographical background that enriches our understanding of the overall story.

Substance-wise, this book helpfully distills all that's sad and wrong about urban poverty: the absence of various aspects of a stable, enriching home life that most middle-class Americans take for granted. If American society is an uneven playing field, inner-city kids are born into deep ditches.

But there's hope yet: social scientists have figured out what interventions can compensate for these disadvantages. They cost a lot, but we know what they are. And Tough does a great job explaining how they work, and illustrating how the Harlem Children's Zone weaves them together.
Profile Image for Ema.
7 reviews
July 25, 2016
I read this book as it was required reading for an educational policy course at MSU. I thoroughly enjoyed and was surprised by the narrative style that Tough uses to describe the work of Geoffrey Canada, the families they worked with, and the scope of the Harlem Children's Zone's mission to reach the community. As an educator, I read a fair bit of literature about educational reform and feel I take them with a grain of salt. This book was a refreshing reprieve from the "white man savior" calls to action that are all too frequent and instead features a community working for the betterment of their own community. I feel Tough was able to join the narrative style of a novel with the factual account of Canada's work and the political climate of education without sounding like a bleeding heart story. Instead, Tough achieved the balance to offer optimism for certain kinds of reform and tangible elements of what is necessary at the community level to change the status quo of growing up and finding an education in Harlem.
Profile Image for Donna.
15 reviews2 followers
August 24, 2009
Paul Tough does an incredible job of detailing Geoffrey Canada's life, his passions, his dreams. While the book is about Canada and the programs he establishes in Harlem, Tough weaves personal stories of families into the mix along with a splash of history about poverty and race relations to give the story an even bigger context.

From this book, you learn that everyone wants something better for their children. You learn that many want something better for other children and spend their careers trying to educate the children in their classrooms and in their schools. And you learn that there are people who live their entire life, dedicate their every breath to changing every child's life, every parent's life, and thereby change a neighborhood, a city... who knows how far it will and can go.

Check out this book if you are a teacher or an administrator. Also, try googling "Harlem Children's Zone, Baby College in Harlem, or Promise Academy."
Profile Image for S.L. Stacy.
Author 8 books33 followers
January 20, 2016
This is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in socioeconomic disparities, education, and even public health. Readers gain insight into both the life and career of Geoffrey Canada, and in particular the successes and failures he experienced creating the Harlem Children's Zone. I would be interested to find out what became of some of the families and children highlighted in the book. I have to say, though, I didn't feel nearly as hopeful after reading Whatever It Takes as some of the reviewers quoted in the book seemed to. It raises a lot of thought-provoking questions and issues, but doesn't have solid answers to offer in order to address them.
Profile Image for Joseph Mole.
43 reviews
August 16, 2015
I've been following Geoffrey Canada's work since reading his book "Reaching Up for Manhood," which I read in grad school. As someone who has spent my career addressing barriers facing children and families living in poverty, I am inspired and challenged by Canada's hard fought success with the Harlem Children's Zone. While the realities described by Paul Tough in this book are very familiar to me, I hope to some day make even a fraction of the difference Geoffrey Canada has made in the lives of children from poor neighborhoods right here in the USA.
1 review
February 3, 2009
This was a hard-hitting look at the impact of poverty upon the education of minority children. It can be applied to any child growing up in an area of 60% poverty whether they live in Harlem or not. Tough chronicles Geoffrey Canada's life experiences and revolutionary perspectives. He deftly combines research with real life experiences to detail the struggle between hopelessness and possibility. I LOVE IT!!!!
Profile Image for Diane.
135 reviews
November 30, 2009
I liked this book because it told about the struggles to get a good idea up and running, the pitfalls, setbacks, and triumphs. I heard the author interviewed on NPR and picked it up at the library, but turns out I needed to waitlist because lots of other people wanted to read it too. After having been a tutor/mentor in language arts for students in grades 3-4-5 for several years, I wanted to see how another program worked to help students who were behind in school catch up.
Profile Image for Bernadette.
51 reviews5 followers
September 12, 2008
this book is about the organization i work for and the big boss man. it's informative and interesting, weaving the developmental theory that underlies our programming with the stories of how it's come be. if you like books like "there are no children here" or "random family" i think you will really like this. i would give it 4.5 stars, but that's just not a possibity.
Profile Image for Kaitron.
88 reviews8 followers
April 6, 2009
I had goosebumps and was close to tears in the 1st 15 pages. So far, this is both an engaging read and incredibly well written book. (Finally an author/editor/copy editor who is skilled in the art of writing and the English language! After some of the books I've read lately, I was beginning to wonder....)
Profile Image for Clownface3 Kinder.
100 reviews2 followers
December 13, 2010
The writing is overly simplistic. The focus on political/social underpinnings of Canada's work was interesting, but would have been more engaging if told within the context of the stories of families in the Zone. Felt like the book couldn't find it's narrative home.
Profile Image for daria ❀.
302 reviews2,015 followers
February 9, 2017
I had to read this for a reading seminar I am taking at school. I'm hoping to eventually become a high school English teacher and this book was a real eye-opener and should be of extreme importance to all educators.
Profile Image for Kylysquirrel.
80 reviews
December 4, 2010
Excellent. A good read on HCZ, education, poverty, and how complicated it is for our nation to raise it's education; but a must and a right we owe future generations of new learners.
1 review
May 17, 2012
In Paul Tough’s book, Whatever It Takes, he takes the reader on a journey through Harlem, New York’s fractured public education system, and introduces a remarkable person with a solution to fix it. Geoffrey Canada, having grown up in an urban school system himself, had a vision for the city of Harlem and the children that resided there. For years Canada attempted to work with public schools in Harlem, attempting to provide the children with the education suburban kids are given on a daily basis. However, he ran into multiple roadblocks in the public system. Even after providing in-school services such as after school programs and tutors, scores were on the decline. It was then that Canada began developing Harlem Children’s Zone.
Canada knew the public school system could not work in urban areas the same way it did in suburban neighborhoods. The children in urban places face too many challenges at home to be taught with the same methods. Although Americans now preach equality for all races, statistics show a very different reality. For example, the average white family living in Manhattan has an annual income of $248,000 while the average black family living in the same city makes a mere $31,000 each year. After viewing many statistics such as this one, Canada made up his mind that the two groups of children had very different lifestyles, and therefore required very different teaching methods as well.
He began with a project he called “Baby College”. Baby College was a free specialty program for expecting parents living in the city of Harlem. Held weekly on Saturdays, attendees of Baby College received free breakfast and lunch, as well as prizes such as gift cards, after attending a seminar on parenting skills. Many of the seminars revolved around vital parenting techniques, such as the difference between discipline and punishment and to use as much vocabulary as possible around their children. Here parents reformed and refined their skills and techniques for parenting. This was an important part of Canada’s overall plan, for he holds a strong belief in the fact that a child’s education begins in the home.
Many parents that attend Baby College later enroll their toddler in Harlem Gems, a pre-kindergarten program run by Harlem Children’s Zone. From the pre-k class, children transition in Harlem Children’s Zone, a kindergarten through twelfth grade charter school sitting in the center of the city of Harlem. However, although this is a smooth transition process now, this was not always the case.
When Canada first opened the school, he began with only sixth grade and kindergarten classes. Each year, a new lottery would be held for each of the two grades, until the school was full. The kindergarten class was progressing quickly and swiftly; the sixth grade class’ scores were decreasing. Canada soon found himself wondering if he could fulfill the promise he had made: success. He began wondering if sixth grade was simply too late of a start for many of the students. To his dismay, he made the decision to not open the Harlem Children’s Zone high school when it came time for the sixth grade class to enter. Instead, they were kicked out to several other local schools. To this day, that choice remains one of Geoffrey Canada’s toughest and saddest decisions, although he stands by the choice he made. He knows how horrible the statement sounds, but was thinking about the future of the school in lieu of the future of that specific group of students. In other words, students in the elementary school were flourishing, and he was scared he would lose funding for the school because of the middle school students. They were casualties
As discussed in class, America has not made very large strides in racial employment and salary equality.

In 1965 the national employment rate for black men in their early twenties was 82 percent, slightly higher than the corresponding figure for young white men, at 80 percent. Nineteen years later, in 1984, the employment rate for young white men had dipped just slightly, to 78 percent- while the number for young black men had fallen off a cliff, to 58 percent. (31).

For the years following 1984, this racial inequality in employment rates has remained an issue. In class, a TIME magazine article that asked white and black Americans about their views on racial equality was discussed. A staggering amount of white people claimed the U.S. now held racial equality, while an extremely low percentage of black Americans stated racial equality in employment had still not been reached.
Another topic covered in both class as well as Whatever It Takes is the controversial charter school trend. Charter schools are not only controversial, but also under immense pressure to perform well academically. When testing time came around, Canada was faced with a difficult choice. Should he give extra help to the lower-scoring students or try to improve the best students? In New York City, scores are scored in four categories: 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s. But the 1s and 2s are reported together as a group, making the public see only three categories. Due to this, Canada decided to ignore the 1s, claiming “I think we may have thrown in the towel on the kids at the bottom… we want to give the extra time to the students who are doing the best” (144). In class, when charter schools were discussed, the topic of academic success was mentioned, as well as the fact that many times these schools only care about scores. This quote personifies that conversation.
Another topic covered in class was poverty. In this book, Paul Tough discusses poverty on numerous occasions. Harlem Children’s Zone was developed to combat poverty. As mentioned previously, the average white family living in Manhattan has an annual income of $248,000 while the average black family living in the same city makes a mere $31,000 each year. Canada’s response to this statistic was simple. He stated, “There’s just no way in conscience we can allow poverty to remain the dividing line between success and failure in this country, where if you’re born poor in a community like this one, you stay poor… we have to give these kids a chance” (18). In class, New Jersey’s poverty rate was discussed along with the extraordinarily large amount of children born into poverty. This book addresses that horror as well.
Whatever It Takes was written with very little bias. Geoffrey Canada is a black man, while the author, Paul Tough, is a white man. Charter schools are discussed, a very conservative idea, but a love for Barack Obama, who was the democratic candidate for president at the time, is also expressed. However, a tiny bit of class and racial bias can be detected in the writing.
Canada grew up in poverty and was able to escape the vicious cycle. However, he is only person spoken of in the book who has done so. The book provided no examples of people who fell into poverty, only people who were born into it. For example, Tough writes in depth about a woman who “grew up in Harlem in the 1980’s… her mother became addicted to drugs and lost control of her life… she bounced around between upstate and the city, in and out of foster homes” (63). Many stories such as this woman’s are shared about birth into poverty, yet none about falling into poverty are expressed. In other words, only one view of people in poverty was shown.
There is also a slight racial bias in the book. Canada attended Bowdoin College, where students were very enthusiastic about integration of different races. However, Canada established an Afro-American Center at the college. Many “criticized the Afro-American Center as too radical” and even bias against white Americans (121). This is important to note because many excerpts in the book are written with a slight radicalism in favor of Black America. Although no one can deny the oppression the community has faced, it is possible that Canada’s membership to a “radical” group has clouded his opinion and views on White America.
Some people have also criticized Canada for only being concerned about poverty in Black America and ignoring white American families plagued by poverty as well. This bias can perhaps be viewed on the very first page of the book when Tough writes of Canada, “the parents in the auditorium were the ones he had hoped to attract… mostly African American, some Hispanic” (1). This sentence can perhaps demonstrate more racial bias in the story.
Whatever It Takes is a compelling story that makes the reader feel hopeful about urban education. Well-written and powerful, this story on Canada’s accomplishments inspires readers to combat poverty and racial inequality themselves. It also challenges previous opinions on charter schools and the public education system. But most of all, Whatever It Takes is a call for change.
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591 reviews30 followers
September 22, 2018
WHY do I keep reading books like these?? Do I really need more evidence that early intervention is crucial for childhood development? More heartbreaking anecdotes about the lost ones, the older kids who, despite everyone’s best intentions including their own, will simply never catch up? More recognition of the power of dedicated individuals in shaping lives? (Spoiler alert: yes, I guess I did, and quite possibly so do you).

This is a remarkable, powerful book. Mainly it’s a history (through 2007) of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a bold initiative to provide “escape velocity” to inner-city children; to launch them on a trajectory that includes college, life and work skills, and, perhaps for some, returning back to set new examples in their home communities; to plant new seeds. Into this Paul Tough weaves the personal history of Geoffrey Canada, the Zone’s larger-than-life creator and driver; vignettes from the lives of many of those in the Zone; a surprising amount of science, policy, research, best-practices, and frank acknowledgment of areas of uncertainty. Much of the latter requires uncomfortable discussion of racial issues, discussion that is often difficult to attain in the US. One researcher cited by Tough puts it eloquently: “I don’t see a way to get the attention of the black community, to the degree that I think we need their attention, without having some discourse that is racially conscious.” He allowed himself a half smile. “I just wish I could do it in a way that the white community couldn’t listen in.”

What pushes the book into five-star territory is Tough’s credibility: much as he admires the central figures in his book, he’s no hagiographer; there are no saints here. Heroes aplenty, and Tough treats them with respect that’s greater and more meaningful than adulation. This made the book feel honest, believable. There’s no triumphant ending, no fanfare at the end. Just... a lot of pain. Many successes, all of which require constant attention and maintenance. Some losses. Heartwrenching decisions. Recognitions of mistakes. Resolve. This book hits hard.
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