Paul Tough and others knowledgeable about urban education have been discussing his book, Whatever It Takes, at Talking Points Memo’s TPM Cafe this week. Tough’s book chronicles the life of Geoffrey Canada and the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which brings together a number of programs to help children growing up in poverty. Unlike schools, which usually don’t work with children until they are 4 or 5 years old, the HCZ approach starts even before children are born, with a parenting program called “Baby College.”

TPM Cafe invited the Education Trust’s Amy Wilkins, Teach For America’s Kira Orange-Jones, the Education Sector’s Andy Rotherham, and Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America to respond to Tough’s book. The conversation started with a look at how the HCZ approach fits into the two education platforms battling for candidates’ attention this summer, the Broader, Bolder Approach and Education Equality Project (click either for a refresher).

Alex Kotlowitz pointed out that poor families need both, to which Rotherham replied (and Amy Wilkins agreed) that it’s really a question of where to begin:

All else equal we can expect a great deal more from our public schools than they’re delivering today. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do more on the other issues that affect achievement, but that in the meantime educators should seek to do more today in the realm they directly control – the schools.

Tough responded that what makes the most sense is doing all of the above, simultaneously: a spectrum of early-childhood interventions plus more accountability for schools. But he acknowledged that one side of that equation is easier to push for than the other, which brings me back to an earlier question. If it’s common sense to work on closing the achievement gap from all angles, how do we make sure that happens? (Rotherham and Tough think Barack Obama might be the answer — but what about in the long-term, beyond any individual political leader?)