Canada’s Legend-ary TED Talk Lie

Geoffrey Canada recently did a TED talk entitled ‘Our failing schools.  Enough is enough.’  Canada is the president and CEO of The Harlem Children’s Zone and star of ‘Waiting For Superman.’

The premise of Harlem Children’s Zone is a good one.  It serves to provide school and complete wrap-around services (health, mental health, nutrition, etc.) to kids from Harlem beginning at birth and supporting them all the way through college.  The program, you might imagine, is very costly — hundreds of millions of dollars — and Canada, himself, pulls in about $400,000 a year.

During the question and answer section of the talk, Canada called on musician and TFA board member John Legend who asked the very relevant question:

John Legend: So what is the high school dropout rate at Harlem Children’s Zone?

Geoffrey Canada: Well, you know, John,100 percent of our kids graduated high school last year in my school.  A hundred percent of them went to college.This year’s seniors will have 100 percent graduating high school.Last I heard we had 93 percent accepted to college.We’d better get that other seven percent.So that’s just how this goes. (Applause)

Now I know that generally when a ‘reformer’ brags about a 100% graduation rate, he means that 100% of the students who made it to senior year also graduated while neglecting to mention what percent of the cohort had not made it to senior year.  This is the statistic that is quite easy to find by looking at the New York State report cards.  Here are seven consecutive years of enrollment statistics I got from there:

So the 62 graduates in 2012 had been the 97 6th graders in 2006.  This does not represent a 0% dropout rate, as Canada implied to John Legend, but a 36% dropout rate.

But looking at these numbers also reveals two large scandals of which I had only been aware of one before looking into this:  First, notice how there are 68 8th graders in 2007 (down from 100 6th graders in 2005) but no 9th graders in 2008.  This is because Canada ‘fired’ the entire group of what would have been their first 9th graders and first graduating class.  This story is not a big secret anymore, though Canada doesn’t seem to have lost much of his credibility for it.  For the second scandal, notice that in the 2007-2008 school year there were 88 6th graders but in 2008-2009 there are no seventh graders.  This is because they also rid themselves of an entire class of 6th graders that year.  The next year they decided to only take new 5th graders which is why we see they had 12th graders and 11th graders in 2011-2012 but no 9th or 10th graders.

Regardless of how poor the performance of those two lost classes were, Harlem Children’s Zone could have easily kept those students and have been able to answer critics of their test scores by saying that those two classes of students were students who had started as 6th graders in the school and that HCZ should only be judged by the performance of the classes of 2016 and beyond since those students will have completed their entire schooling through the program.  I guess that this could have been construed as an ‘excuse’ which would have gone against the ‘no excuses’ ideology.

As far a performance goes, the HCZ Promise Academy high school may have decent state test scores, but when it comes to national tests they only had on the ACT a 20 in Math, a 15 in English, a 15 in Reading, and a 17 in Science.  Aside from Math, this puts them in under the 20th percentile for those tests.

I’ve spoken to two teachers who have worked at Promise Academy, one is a former elementary school teacher there and another is a current middle school teacher.  The middle school teacher said that the school had recently had almost a complete turnover in staff.  When a place is supposedly so great, teachers would want to spend some time there, in my experience.  The elementary teacher described a horrible abusive working condition where uncertified co-teachers often taught test prep and where there was little support from the administration for teachers and nearly zero interaction with Canada, despite his nearly half a million dollar a year salary.

To see Canada get publicly humiliated in a debate with Diane Ravitch from September 2011, watch the live version of Meet The Press from Education Nation here.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship.