Paul Tough

Writer & Speaker

Whatever It Takes

A carefully researched and deeply affecting dispatch from inside the most daring and potentially transformative social experiment of our time: the Harlem Children’s Zone. 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.

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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 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.

The following excerpt is from Chapter One

By the time Geoffrey Canada arrived at the Promise Academy lottery, the auditorium was almost full. He had expected a modest turnout — he figured the rain would keep a lot of parents away — but by 6:00 p.m. more than two hundred people had crowded into the back of the hall, and there were dozens more still streaming in the front door. Here and there, members of Canada’s staff were consulting clipboards and calming anxious parents. His director of education hurried past him, shouting into her cell phone. It was April 14, 2004, a cool, wet night in Harlem. The hand-lettered sign out front of PS 242, streaked with raindrops, said "Welcome to the Promise Academy Charter School Lottery," and inside, past the sign-in table set up in the school’s front hallway, a tall, bull-chested young man named Jeff was handing a rose to each woman as she walked in. "These are for the moms," he said with a smile. "Welcome to the ceremony."

Canada, a tall, thin black man in a dark blue suit, surveyed the crowd. From what he could see, the parents taking their seats in the auditorium were the ones he had hoped to attract: typical Harlem residents, mostly African American, some Hispanic, almost all poor or working class, all struggling to one degree or another with the challenges of raising and educating children in one of New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods. In many ways, their sons and daughters were growing up the way Canada had, four decades before, just a few miles away in the South Bronx: cut off from the American mainstream, their futures constrained by substandard schools, unstable families, and a segregated city.

Five years earlier, frustrated by Harlem’s seemingly intractable problems, Canada had embarked on an outsized and audacious new endeavor, a poverty-fighting project that was different from anything that had come before it. Since 1990, he had been the president of a well-respected local non profit organization called the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, which operated a handful of programs in upper Manhattan targeted at young people: afterschool drop-in centers, truancy prevention, antiviolence training for teenagers. They were decent programs, and they all did some good for the kids who were enrolled in them. But after Canada had been running them for a few years, day in and day out, his ideas about poverty started to change.

The catalyst was surprisingly simple: a waiting list. One Rheedlen afterschool program had more children who wanted to enroll than it was able to admit. So Canada chose the obvious remedy: he drew up a waiting list, and it quickly filled with the names of children who needed his help and couldn’t get it. That bothered him, and it kept bothering him, and before long it had him thinking differently about his entire organization. Sure, the five hundred children who were lucky enough to be participating in one of his programs were getting help, but why those five hundred and not the five hundred on the waiting list? Or why not another five hundred altogether? For that matter, why five hundred and not five thousand? If all he was doing was picking some kids to save and letting the rest fail, what was the point?

Canada became less and less sure of what his programs really added up to. Each one was supported by a separate short-term grant, often on a contract from one city agency or another, and in order to keep the money flowing, Canada was required to demonstrate to the foundations and agencies that paid for the programs that a certain number of children had participated. But no one seemed to care whether the programs were actually working. In fact, no one seemed to have given a whole lot of thought to what, in this context, "working" might really mean.

Canada began to wonder what would happen if he reversed the equation. 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 out comes 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 out comes 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. He was all too familiar with the "fade-out" phenomenon, where a group of needy kids are helped along by one program or another, only to return to the disappointing mean soon after the program ends. Head Start, the government-funded prekindergarten program for poor children, was the classic example. Plenty of studies had determined conclusively that graduates of Head Start entered kindergarten ahead of their inner-city peers. And plenty of studies had shown that a few years later, those same graduates had slipped back to the anemic achievement level of neighborhood kids who hadn’t attended Head Start. A few years of bad schooling and bad surroundings were powerful enough to wipe out all of the program’s gains.

Canada wanted to find a way off the treadmill. So he asked himself a series of questions, and gradually his thinking took shape.

Read the PDF of all of Chapter 1 from Whatever It Takes

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Q&A with Paul Tough

What first interested you in Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone?

Back in 2003, I happened to see in the paper a few brief mentions of Geoff and his project, and right away I was intrigued. I had always been interested in the issue of urban poverty — when you live in New York City, it’s impossible to ignore — but it looked like one of those social problems without a real solution. The political debate seemed stuck, and most programs to help poor neighborhoods appeared too small and haphazard to make a difference.

What interested me about Geoff Canada was the scope of his ambition. He was taking a big chunk of Harlem — twenty-four blocks, back then — and he was planning to address every problem that was holding back poor kids in that neighborhood, from their families to their schools to their community. He didn’t want to chip away at the problem of urban poverty. He wanted to solve it.

What was your goal for the book?

I had two goals. First, I wanted to tell the story of Geoff and the people who surround him in Harlem — the teachers, students, administrators, and parents who are taking part in this experiment. I wanted to describe their successes and their failures, their conflicts as well as their collaborations. I spent almost five years reporting in Harlem, attending parenting classes and sixth-grade math lessons and basketball games and parent-teacher meetings, and the time I spent there turned out to be a period of great change, not only for Geoff and the scope of his project but also for plenty of individuals whose stories I’ve tried to tell in the book.

So that was half the goal. At the same time, though, I wanted to use the book to explore some big questions about poverty.

Like what?

Why do so many poor children do badly in school? Why do they tend toward bad outcomes in life? And what can be done to change those outcomes?

Of course, not every poor child does badly in school. Some reach astounding levels of success, and in fact, Geoff Canada is a great example of that. But overall, the statistics are overwhelming. Where you are born, how much money your parents have, how much education they have — those facts make a huge difference in how kids turn out.

We’ve known for a while that kids born into poor families in neighborhoods like Harlem have big obstacles to overcome in order to succeed. Until recently, though, no one really understood just what those obstacles were. Some people blamed genes; others faulted the culture of poverty; others found the U.S. economy inherently racist or discriminatory. But over the past decade or so, some new and more credible answers have started to emerge. There has been a surge of research in a number of related fields, from economics to psychology to neuroscience, all pointing toward some surprising and significant new answers to those questions.

So that’s the other part of what I wanted to explore in this book — just what was it in the lives of poor children that was holding them back, and what could be done to change that?

I find this research fascinating as an intellectual puzzle, but of course these questions are not only of academic interest. They’re central to the future of our democracy.

Geoff Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone have attracted quite a spectrum of supporters. What is uniquely appealing about Canada’s approach to fighting poverty?

In the years that I’ve followed Geoff’s project, public recognition of his work has mushroomed in a way that I didn’t expect — and I don’t think he did, either. Over the past few years, he has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and Charlie Rose, and both Today and 60 Minutes have done features on his work. Bill Clinton talked about Geoff and the Harlem Children’s Zone on Late Night with David Letterman. And last summer, Barack Obama embraced Geoff’s work in a campaign speech. Obama announced that if he is elected president, the main thrust of his urban-poverty policy will be a billion-dollar initiative to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in twenty cities across the country. That speech was a big turning point for Geoff’s project — for the first time, a viable presidential candidate was talking about building on his work in a big way, at the national level.

That said, one striking fact about Geoff is that he has truly won bipartisan support. A lot of Democrats admire his work, but many of his biggest financial backers are Republican investment bankers. He gets a lot of support from corporate America.

Why do you think that is?

Unlike many do-gooders, Geoff has a buttoned-down approach. He always focuses on results, on the bottom line, on working toward his ultimate goal. In many ways, he thinks like a businessman, and I think that appeals to a lot of people in corporate America. They think he’s going to use their donations efficiently and effectively.

Has he always been a corporate type?

Not at all. One of the most interesting parts of my research was exploring Geoff’s biography — interviewing him, reading old college newspapers, talking with people who knew him when he was young. He grew up angry and alienated and poor, the son of a single mother in the South Bronx, feeling completely cut off from mainstream white America. As a teenager, he was much more drawn to the Black Panthers than to Martin Luther King Jr. And in college, he was part of a radical black-power movement, leading protests at his very white northeastern school. What’s fascinating to me is how he has hung on to many of the values that he held back then — while changing his methods entirely.

What makes the Harlem Children’s Zone relevant beyond New York City?

As Geoff often says, neighborhoods like Harlem exist all over the country, in Detroit and Baltimore and New Orleans and Houston and in dozens of other cities. And in each one, the situation is the same — there’s one neighborhood where poverty is concentrated, where crime rates are higher and test scores are lower and good jobs are pretty much nonexistent. In a lot of cities, those areas have been in bad shape for so long that people have just written them off. What Geoff is proving in Harlem is that there is a way out for those neighborhoods, and a way for kids who live there to succeed. It’s not an easy road — it takes a lot of work and a lot of coordination — but lives of children in neighborhoods like those can be turned around.

And the word is spreading. The Harlem Children’s Zone now runs something called the Practitioners’ Institute, and its headquarters on 125th Street gets a steady stream of visitors, community leaders from around the country who want to learn how to create their own version of what is happening in Harlem.

I think the story of the Harlem Children’s Zone is relevant to middle-class and affluent neighborhoods too. It’s the great challenge facing the country: Do we really want to level the playing field? What do we need to do to make equal opportunity, that basic element of the American dream, a reality?

You’ve written in the New York Times Magazine about the education-reform movement — organizations like Teach for America and the KIPP network of charter schools. How does that movement connect to Geoff Canada’s efforts in Harlem?

There’s a lot of overlap. The people running those organizations share a set of beliefs with Geoff: that the achievement gap between poor minority kids and middle-class white kids is the most important civil rights issue of our time; that despite the disadvantages they face, every poor child can succeed; that in order to overcome those disadvantages, those kids often need an extraordinary amount of support; and that finding a way to get them that support is a shared national responsibility.

But there are some important differences too. Those education reformers tend to focus on schools alone. And they have produced many excellent schools and teachers. But Geoff’s project is based on the idea that schools alone can’t solve all the problems facing poor children. Which is why he runs not just a charter school but also a parenting program and an all-day prekindergarten and an after-school tutoring program and family-support centers. He thinks that in order to succeed with big numbers of kids, you need to do it all.

What came as the biggest surprise in your reporting?

It was probably the nine weeks that I spent at Baby College, the Harlem Children’s Zone program for new parents. It’s a pretty remarkable undertaking. The instructors are trying to give parents practical information about immunization and safety — but at the same time, they’re trying to change their minds about some pretty fundamental questions about parenting. Over those two months, the parents and the instructors talked and debated and argued about spanking, about TV, about spoiling babies. There were a lot of angry moments, and a lot of moving moments — even a lot of funny moments.

But what struck me was that the whole nine-week session was a microcosm of so many political debates about poverty and families. Do poor parents raise their children differently than middle-class parents do? Are those differences responsible for some part of the achievement gap? Which differences are important cultural traits, and which ones are just about parents who aren’t aware of other options? Is the way you raise your child anyone else’s business?

When I’ve spoken to academic audiences about parenting, I often hear a lot of resistance to programs like Baby College. The objection is that they represent cultural imperialism, or that they blame parents for being poor. But the most remarkable thing to me about the parents I spent time with was how eager they were to learn a different way of doing things. Like every other parent, they wanted their children to do better than they had done, and they were desperate to figure out how to make that happen.

So is the whole project working? How much has Geoff Canada been able to accomplish in Harlem? And what kind of evidence of success has he collected?

It will be another few years before there is definite evidence that Geoff’s methods work. But the results I’ve seen suggest that he’s on the right track, and he’s already made a big difference in the lives of thousands of children and in the condition of the neighborhood as a whole.

With some programs, the evidence is still mostly anecdotal. It seems clear to me that Baby College is effective, just because I saw how it changed the parents. But there isn’t yet clear scientific data that measures how much of a difference Baby College makes in outcomes for children.

The place where solid evidence is already emerging is the charter schools. As my book describes, the middle school struggled for its first few years, but its most recent test results look very strong. And in the elementary school, this year the third-grade students took their first big state test. Some of these kids have been with the Harlem Children’s Zone since birth. And it looks as if their scores will be truly impressive — almost indistinguishable from those of middle-class kids living in better neighborhoods.

Reviews & Praise

“When it comes to an introduction about poverty and parenting in urban America, you could hardly do better than [Whatever It Takes].”

New York Times Book Review

“This is a serious book about a pressing issue, but Tough manages to make it an easy read with a cast of sympathetic characters ... We don't know how this story will end. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the Harlem Children's Zone — about the power of an idea, the role culture plays in student achievement, accountability, the indomitable human spirit. This book should be on every policymaker's reading list.”

Washington Post Book World

“A remarkable book ... a story more gripping and inspiring than you'd imagine social policy could possibly be.”

GQ magazine

“This unflinching book will motivate us all to take action and make our schools places of possibility and hope”

Essence magazine

“This is an engrossing look at a visionary man and a bold experiment that has caught the eye of a wide range of politicians, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has promised to replicate the program throughout the U.S. if elected.”

Booklist (starred review)

“Smoothly narrated, affecting and heartening, this book gives readers a solid look at the problems facing poor communities and their reformers, as well as good cause to be optimistic about the future.”

Publishers Weekly

“Outstanding literary nonfiction, distinguished by in-depth reporting, compelling writing and deep thinking.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“I wish every city had a Geoffrey Canada. As Paul Tough shows so vividly in Whatever It Takes, Canada is a man of integrity and heart who knows what it takes to ensure that every child has a fair shot in life. His vision of a renewed Harlem community, and his accomplishments toward achieving it, attest to the power we all have to overcome poverty and hopelessness in America.”

— President Bill Clinton

“At once a warm and immaculately reported piece of journalism and a nearly complete overview of the contemporary educational debate. A massive accomplishment, and pretty much mandatory reading for anyone working in urban education — or anyone interested in the future of our democracy.”

— Dave Eggers, co-founder of 826 National and author of Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers

“Paul Tough shows, from the inside, how the nation's most important work gets done.”

— Adrian Nicole Leblanc, author of Random Family

“Paul Tough’s clear-eyed portrait of Geoffrey Canada offers the most cogent, provocative, and original thinking on urban poverty to come along in many, many years. Whatever It Takes pushed me to question what I thought I knew. Powerful and hopeful, disturbing and daring, it’s one important book. Essential, even.”

— Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

“This is not just a gripping story of one man’s heroic attempt to pull an entire neighborhood’s worth of children up by their bootstraps. It’s also a wise and expansive chronicle of a living, breathing science experiment. In Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough takes on one of the biggest questions going: how do you teach people to be successful?”

—Stephen Dubner, coauthor of Freakonomics

“Geoffrey Canada’s work is a model for the nation. Whatever It Takes is a moving account of his commitment to giving Harlem’s children access to the same dreams as children in New York’s most privileged neighborhoods.”

— Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children’s Defense Fund

Whatever It Takes is easily the most compelling and potentially the most important book on the problem of poverty in urban America in years. Paul Tough has a sharp eye for the telling detail, a sure grasp of the literature, and a gift for storytelling that together make for a bracing narrative, hard-edged in its realism but also brimming with hope and possibility. Not to be missed.”

— Michael Pollan

Whatever It Takes is a must-read for any American committed to solving our nation's greatest social injustice—the fact that in a country that aspires so admirably to be a land of equal opportunity, the socioeconomic circumstances into which you are born still determine your opportunity in life. In describing the groundbreaking efforts of Geoff Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone, Paul Tough deepens our understanding of the problem and of the only viable path for solving it.”

— Wendy Kopp, CEO and Founder, Teach for America

“This is a fascinating book. The question of whether these terribly disadvantaged kids will fail or succeed takes on all the nail-biting urgency of any high-stakes, novelistic thriller. But the dangers here are all too real, the risks are cruel, and the victories feel as unlikely as they are magnificent.”

— Elizabeth Gilbert

“Paul Tough is a lucid, engaging storyteller, and his account of this visionary man in Harlem changed my understanding of poverty in America in the most surprising way: it made me feel hopeful.”

— Ira Glass