Whatever It Takes | Notes & Review

Posted on November 28, 2008


Paul Tough. Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Geoffrey Canada on Charlie Rose.
Geoffrey Canada on Oprah, pt.1, pt.2.
Geoffrey Canada at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
Going Big” on This American Life.
NYTime.com article, “The Harlem Project.”
60 Minutes, The Harlem Children’s Zone.


A tremendous and honest read, one that I would recommend for anyone working with youth and/or children of any capacity, not just impoverished. Why? Not only are there lessons of education, but there are great leadership lessons as well, about change, passion, vision, discipline, failure, and never giving up. And, as with other posts on my blog, this is important because valuing the development of our young must be of highest priority and deepest value in our cultural ethic.

Not only does Tough write an engaging story, one with personal and intricate elements, he balances well the greatness of the dream and the convictions and dedication of the people with the inherent down-sides, failures, and mis-steps along the way. Honest journalism of that kind of diligent and hard work is a powerful combination towards incremental steps of progress. May we all build upon each other towards achieving even greater greatness.


Instead of coming up with a menu of well-meaning programs and then trying to figure out what they accomplished and how they fit together, what if he started with the outcomes he wanted to achieve and then worked backward from there, changing and tweaking and overhauling programs until they actually produced the right results? When he followed this train of thought a little further, he realized that it wasn’t the outcomes of individual programs that he really cared about: what mattered was the overall impact he was able to have on the children he was trying to serve. (3)

Classic “ends defines means” strategy, one that I find, frustratingly, ever so elusive. Why is this so difficult? Why do we get so distracted by what the individual programs will produce, and slowly lose sight of what it is that we’re trying to accomplish? This “vision-entropy” is quite a plague with leadership, and reading this kind of dedication and focus was helpful and inspiring to me. And, a key element of the rest of the book/story of HCZ (the Harlem Children’s Zone).

When it comes to the objects of his focus,

He would need to select a single geographical area and devote all of his energies to that one place. He would have to start intervening in children’s lives when they were young, at birth or even earlier. The support system he provided would need to be comprehensive, a continuous, linked series of programs. It wasn’t enough to help out in just one part of a child’s life: the project would need to combine educational, social, and medical services. And he wanted serious numbers. He wasn’t interested in helping just a few kids, the ones who were already most likely to succeed, the ones whose parents had the resources and foresight to seek out aid and support for themselves and their children. (4)

Canada’s objective was to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood couldn’t slip through. (5)

In 1994, the vision began to emerge. Pay attention to the key management and organizational pieces:

At that time, a vision was just beginning to form in Canada’s mind of an alternative to the traditional social service agency: something bigger and more efficiently run, an organization that would bypass the sentimental you-can-save-this-child-or-you-can-turn-the-page appeals to donors and instead offer, in exchange for substantial financial commitment, results–measurable, quantifiable outcomes that even the coldest-hearted capitalist would appreciate. (9-10)

Part of the story is, of course the story of race. While some may still ignore this reality, especially with a new African-American president-elect, it does not negate its existence. That active “turning-a-blind-eye” ignoring merely abdicates our compassion and our responsibility.

“For me,” Canada said, “the big question in America is: Are we going to try to make this country a true meritocracy? [1] Or will we forever have a class of people in America who essentially won’t be able to compete, because the game is fixed against them?” (18)

Saving a few no longer felt like enough. (19)

What many miss in the development of leadership is the ability to ask the right questions, and to have the questions drive the vision.

What would it take to change the lives of poor children not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in a programmatic, standardized way that could be applied broadly and replicated nationwide? Was there a science to it, a formula you could find? Which variables in a child’s life did you need to change, and which ones could you leave as they were? How many more hours of school would be required? How early in a child’s life did you need to begin? How much did the parents have to do? How much would it all cost? (19)

The questions had led Canada into uncharted territory. His new approach was bold, even grandiose: to transform every aspect of the environment that poor children were growing up in; to change the way their families raised them and the way their schools taught them as well as the character of the neighborhood that surrounded them. But Canada had come to believe that it was not only the best way to solve the relentless problem of poverty in America; it was the only way. (19-20)

Chapter 2 was perhaps the most sociologically fascinating part of the book, asking the questions, “Why are poor people poor? And by extension: Why do they stay poor? And what would it take for them to get out of poverty?” (23) This is one chapter that I may re-read from time to time. Several sources were cited in this chapter and are listed and linked below. The following are some notes of the theory reported in the book.

1. One explanation blames powerful economic and social forces beyond the control of any one individual. (24)
2. The opposing explanation for American poverty is that it is caused by the bad decisions of poor people themselves and often perpetuated by the very programs designed to help relieve its effects. (24)
3. The reformers had found an answer: because the government wasn’t helping enough. (26)
4. It was the child’s family background. (27, cf. Equality of Educational Opportunity)
5. Because government was helping too much. (28, cf. Losing Ground)

“Some people are better than others,” [Murray] concluded. “They deserve more of society’s rewards, of which money is only one small part. A principle function of social policy is to make sure they have the opportunity to reap those rewards. Government cannot identify the worthy, but it can protect a society in which the worthy can identify themselves.” (29)

6. African Americans in the inner city were the victims of a series of tectonic shifts in society and the economy since the end of WWII. (30)

[Murray and Wilson] both rested on a series of assumptions about human nature–and especially about the nature of the poor Americans in ghetto neighborhoods–that were as yet untested…If the right set of incentives and disincentives and opportunities were dangled in front of poor ghetto residents, they would respond in predictable ways: they would get jobs, they would become better educated, they would be more likely to marry, and they would raise their children more conscientiously. The two men acknowledged that the dysfunction of ghetto families was the result of decades–generations–of discrimination, isolation, and cultural decay, as well as one of the most cataclysmic shifts in the economy in American history. But they shared a faith that the problems those forces had produced could be fixed simply by the passage (or the dismantling) of the right federal laws. (33)

7. Deep-rooted differences in intelligence. (33, cf. The Bell Curve)
8. A child’s chances of success in life depended at least in part on something tangible, measurable, and, most importantly, teachable…They are poor, this evidence suggested, not because of government aid, not because they are genetically flawed, and not because the system denies them opportunities, but because they lack certain specific skills. (36, cf. Journal of Political Economy)

Now we get to some tangible responses to the problem:

Let’s provide enough of a safety net to prevent [parents] from falling into extreme poverty…but then let’s aim all of our serious resources and attention at the children themselves…Why not try to systematize that process, so that poor children are regularly growing up with the resources they need to become successful middle-class adults? (38-39)

One perspective radically transformed the perspective of poverty:

[Take] the poverty debate out of the realm of morality, where it often got bogged down, and into the realm of science…The human-capital perspective, by contrast, said, Forget for a moment how different policies make you feel. Instead let’s examine what different policies and interventions actually accomplish. (39)

The human-capital perspective did an end run around that criticism. Of course poor people have deficits…That’s what poverty is: a lack of resources, both internal and external. But those deficits, whether they were in income or knowledge or even more esoteric qualities like self-control or perseverance or an optimistic outlook, were not moral failings. The appropriate response was not to deny them or excuse them, nor was it to criticize them and cluck about them and wag a finger at them. It was to solve them. (39-40)

“Indeed, changing the way parents deal with their children may be the single most important thing we can do to improve children’s cognitive skills.” (41, cf. The Black-White Score Test Gap)

The more significant advantages that middle-class children gain, these researchers argue, come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey. (52, cf. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life)

Chapter 3 charts the development and some stories of “Baby College,” a free 9-week course on successful parenting. Subjects/topics include brain development, discipline (non-corporeal), home safety, prevention of asthma, immunization, reading, and “creating a nurturing environment.” (83) It has become an “essential part of Canada’s vision, perhaps the essential part; in many ways, it was the pilot program for the entire HCZ. (58)

The staff members never acted as though they were doing the parents a favor, and parents weren’t made to feel as though they should be grateful for the program. Quite the reverse, in fact: the parents were made to feel appreciated, like they were the ones doing a good civic deed.

In the end, the real goal of Baby College was not to impart information. It was to change the parents’ whole vision of themselves as parents, to encourage them to accept the idea that their child’s education and intellectual development began at birth, if not before, and that they, as parents, had a crucial role to play in that development. (97)

Chapter 4, entitled “Contamination,” moves into the area of race in the United States.

The mission that Canada has taken on is not just about Harlem; it’s also about black America. In a very real way, he is trying to deliver his race as much as he is trying to save a neighborhood. (99)

The chapter looks at the overall [and generalized] culture of blacks vs. whites in America, comparing and contrasting outlooks, expectations, philosophy of education, and values. Canada uses the word “contamination” to describe a process of media-inculcated negativity, and the positive change that is possible.

“This is what I’m betting,” he explained. “When you’ve got most of the kids in a neighborhood involved in high-quality programs, you begin to change the cultural context of that neighborhood. If you are surrounded by people who are always talking about going to college, you’re going to end up thinking, ‘Hey, maybe this is something I could do, too.’ You can’t help but get contaminated by that idea. It just seeps into your pores, and you don’t even know that you’ve caught the virus.

“And that kind of contamination can be spread. If we touch enough kids at the same time with the same message, then it won’t seem unusual to think, “I should do well in school, I should speak proper English, I should do my homework.’ These things won’t seem like you’re not being from the hood or you’re not keeping it real. And the same way that this went bad, that it went from kids being respectful and decent to kids being disrespectful and indecent, I think it can go good.” (125)

Chapter 5 begins to ask the tough questions of what can a school actually do and accomplish. One, accelerate kids by exposing them to a whole lot more instruction. Two, a business model was absolutely essential for the Promise Academy, and the entire organization.

Canada believed the best way to achieve that goal was to act not like a bighearted altruist but like a ruthless capitalist, devoted to the bottom line. He didn’t think it was right to hold himself or his employees to a looser standard of achievement simply because they happened to be making the world a better place. (135)

Three, a huge focus on results. Sadly, it is here that we begin to see the brutal of realities of millions of dollars invested, thousands of hours spent, and success,only in lowering more test scores than it raised.

Chapter 6, entitled “Bad Apples” doesn’t shy away, being intimidated or disheartened by the results of Chapter 5. “The bottom line was quite simple: We can’t fail.” (157)

As Canada often said, he was tired of programs that helped a few kids “beat the odds” and make it out of the ghetto; his goal was to change the odds, and to do it for all of Harlem’s kids. The idea that Promise Academy might stand as an island of success in the middle of Harlem’s ocean of failure–that felt entirely wrong to him. (162)

Either Levin was right, and the best approach was to take the inner-city ten-year-olds who really wanted to learn and give them a concentrated, life-changing dose of high-quality education in middle school, or Canada was right, and the only way to save large numbers of poor children in a neighborhood like Harlem was to give them all a high-quality education, even the least motivated and least prepared, beginning at a very young age, and to do it in the context of a boader transformation of the entire community. (163)

“The fact is,” he said, “we’re in the saving-kid business. That’s not what schools traditionally do, but that’s what we do.” (170)

The overall feeling of the HCZ’s story can be found in one paragraph, an anecdotal story of the hiring of a new school principle, Glen Pinder.

At his job interview, Pinder asked Canada what kind of job security he’d have as principal of the middle school, and Canada told him he’d have none. No contract, no grace period, nothing. If he didn’t deliver results, he’d be fired. Pinder took the job anyway. (170)

“And, well, yeah, so you’ve got to go in and rally the troops. That’s why you’re a leader. We’re in a war.” (171)

Regarding a new perspective on expectations, and the fear of overreaching, “Expectations will be set very high for your children. If we try to reach the stars, we will land on the moon.” (172)

Regarding a new perspective on crisis, “Crisis is good…I think it’s well worth it to be in the heart of this battle and to struggle with it. It’s been a long time since we as an agency have really had to put ourselves on the line.” (187)

Chapter 8 introduced the “Conveyor Belt” which, in summary, is Canada’s analogy for the overall plan of the HCZ. It is “weaving disparate programs into a seamless whole.” (194) Essentially, it is to get kids on the belt, very early, and to never take them off it until they graduate high school. This chapter also introduced the work of James Heckman, (which I’ve referenced before), and forms the basis for the analogy.

Early interventions can make a big difference in the lives of poor children…the skills that a child learns early on make it easier for him to master more complex skills as he grows up…”Skill begets skill; learning begets learning. Early disadvantage, if left untreated, leads to academic and social difficulties in later years. Advantages accumulate; so do disadvantages.” (193)

That last line in the paragraph above introduces,

…the Matthew Effect, named after a fairly un-Sermon-on-the-Mount-like verse from the Bible: “To every one who has, will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (207) Start early…and you can accomplish almost anything; start late…and it gets harder and harder to make an impact. (210)

Chatper 9 is entitled “Escape Velocity,” another analogy used to describe the amount of educational momentum required to “escape” the “gravity” of the impoverished environment kids are still in.

“When Newton wanted to get people to understand the concept of gravity, Canada explained, he told them that if you fired a cannon from the top of the highest mountain in the world, the cannonball might travel a long way, but it would eventually fall to earth because of the power of gravity. And the faster you shot the cannonball , the farther it would travel before falling to earth. “What that article didn’t say is that if you shoot the cannonball fast enough, it will actually escape earth’s gravity and go into orbit,” Canada said. “The question is what it takes to achieve escape velocity.” (231)

Another new perspective on “frustration” is given in this chapter:

“People react to frustration in one of two ways. They can feel so overwhelmed that they stop performing, or they can take that frustration and use it to push themselves to be better. Many of our communities are filled with people who got frustrated and stopped. These children need to get frustrated and keep going. I want the children to be frustrated at this point. I don’t want them to be comfortable with where they are.” (219)

Chapter 10 tells the story of a graduation ceremony, again highlighting the joys and challenges of their efforts. Chapter 11 asks the critical question: “What Would It Take?” Well, first, it would take an intensive “conveyor-belt strategy.” Second, it was coupled with a seemingly contradictory strategy, the “teenager strategy,” the “it’s-never-too-late strategy.”

And therein lies the tension. As with most endeavors, there is a both/and, a “double-ring” (as Leonard Sweet likes to say), two opposite things happening at the same time, a “paradox” of education, two seemingly contradictory philosophies co-existing, in fact, in co-dependency. And with that, a fierce dedication to do all that can be done. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and am thankful for the educational experience, vicariously through this story. May I not just learn the lessons intellectually, but may this awaken a new discipline, a new passion for our kids, and to achieve results in new ways.

A selected list of Resources and Programs mentioned in the book:

Avance: http://national.avanceinc.org/
Early Head Start: http://www.ehsnrc.org/
Harlem Children’s Zone
– Geoffrey Canada: http://www.hcz.org/
KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) – Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin : http://www.kipp.org/
Nurse-Family Partnership: http://www.nursefamilypartnership.org/
Parent-Child Home Program: http://www.parent-child.org/
Teach For America – Wendy Kopp: http://www.teachforamerica.org/

1995 Hart & Risley Study.
Canada, Geoffrey. Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America.
Carnegie Corporation of New York. Starting Points : Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children : The Report of the Carnegie Task Force on Meeting the Needs of Young Children.
Coleman, James S. Equality of Educational Opportunity. (The Coleman Report)
Jencks, Christopher. Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America.
Jencks, Christopher, Meredith Phillips. The Black-White Test Score Gap.
Heckman, James. Journal of Political Economy: “Lessons From The Bell Curve”.
Heckman, James. Schools, Skills, and Synapses.
Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.
Mayer, Susan. What Money Can’t Buy.
Murray, Charles and Richard J. Herrnstein. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.
Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, 10th Anniversary Edition.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. (The Moynihan Report)
Neuman, Susan B. Changing the Odds for Children at Risk: Seven Essential Principles of Educational Programs that Break the Cycle of Poverty.
Newman, Katherine S. Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market.
Phillips, Meredith. The Black-White Test Score Gap.
Rothstein, Richard. Class And Schools: Using Social, Economic, And Educational Reform To Close The Black-white Achievement Gap.
Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephan. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.
Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged.

[1] Interestingly, Malcom Gladwell’s new book, Outliers discusses this very issue.