First Person

Just How Gullible is Anderson Cooper?

What is it about the Harlem Children’s Zone that causes pundits and reporters to suspend disbelief?  Perhaps it’s the deep desire for evidence that the large and persistent racial gap in educational achievement can be overcome.  The enduring racial inequalities in educational and social outcomes in the U.S. are a blight on our society, and evidence that these inequalities can be eliminated, however, tenuous, can be elevated into the feel-good story of the year.

Last night, Anderson Cooper reported on the Harlem Children’s Zone for the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes.  “For years, educators have tried and failed to get poor kids from the inner city to do just as well in school as kids from America’s more affluent suburbs,” he began. “Black kids still routinely score well below white kids on national standardized tests. But a man named Geoffrey Canada may have figured out a way to close that racial achievement gap.”  Cooper asked Canada, “So you’re trying to level the playing field between kids here in Harlem and middle class kids in a suburb?”  “That’s exactly what we have to do,” Canada replied.

As is customary, Cooper spoke with Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who has analyzed the achievement of students attending the HCZ Promise Academy charter schools.  Fryer said, “At the elementary school level, he closed the achievement gap in both subjects, math and reading.”   

“Actually eliminating the gap in elementary school?” Cooper asked.

“We’ve never seen anything like that. Absolutely eliminating the gap. The gap is gone, and that is absolutely incredible,” Fryer said.

I suppose that one can look selectively at the most recent achievement data available—the 2009 state assessments in English Language Arts and math—to draw this conclusion, but boy, is it a stretch.  The figure below shows the 2009 English Language Arts and mathematics achievement of students at the HCZ Promise Academy and HCZ Promise Academy II, for grades three, four, five and eight.  This achievement is contrasted with New York City citywide averages for Asian and white students.  The group differences are represented in standard deviation units, using the citywide standard deviation for the scale scores on the respective tests.


In grade 3, HCZ students score higher than the citywide average for white students in both ELA and math, a remarkable accomplishment.  They also outperform Asian students in ELA, but are about a quarter of a standard deviation below the citywide Asian average on the math assessment.  Were we to limit our attention solely to third grade, one could, without too much hyperbole, claim that HCZ had eliminated the racial achievement gap within New York City.

But there are other elementary and middle school grades on which to compare HCZ and white and Asian students across New York City, and the story is quite different for these other grades.  In grades four, five and eight, HCZ students score consistently about .6 standard deviations below white and Asian New York City students on the state ELA exam.  The gaps are also large in mathematics, although the eighth-grade gap is considerably smaller than those in fourth and fifth grades.  In fifth grade, HCZ students score .9 standard deviations below white students citywide, and 1.1 standard deviations below Asian students.

Taking all of these data together, there is virtually no basis for claiming that the Harlem Children’s Zone has eliminated the racial achievement gap in elementary and middle school.

The data that I’ve presented compare HCZ students with New York City students.  But recall that Geoff Canada’s objective is to level the playing field relative to middle-class suburban kids, who may be higher-achieving than the white and Asian students attending NYC public schools, as a good fraction of the most affluent children and youth in New York City attend private schools.  How do things look if we compare HCZ students with students in Scarsdale, the economist’s suburb of choice for claims about closing the achievement gap?

As the figure below indicates, the math gaps look about the same, since Scarsdale students score in the same ballpark as white and Asian students in New York City.  Thus, HCZ third-graders outperform even Scarsdale third-graders, but there are large gaps in grades four and five, and then a smaller, but still substantial, shortfall in grade eight, with Scarsdale students scoring .36 standard deviations higher than HCZ students.  However, the gaps in English Language Arts are much larger at every grade level, because Scarsdale students score considerably higher on the state ELA exam than do white and Asian students in NYC at every grade level.  In grades four, five and eight, HCZ students score from .97 to 1.22 standard deviations lower on the state ELA exam than do Scarsdale students, a huge gap.  Score differences of this magnitude indicate that the typical HCZ student might score at the 15th percentile of the Scarsdale distribution of performance in these grades.  


In the 60 Minutes segment, Roland Fryer used a football analogy to describe the accomplishments of HCZ.  “We’re ten touchdowns down in the fourth quarter,” he said. “We kick a field goal and everyone celebrates, right? That’s kind of useless. We’re still 67 points down … What Geoff Canada has shown is that we can actually win the game.”

But here’s the problem.  We’re not in the fourth quarter.  We’re in the first quarter, and most of the game still lies ahead.  The Harlem Children’s Zone is not a mature intervention.  No child has gone through his entire childhood and youth exposed to the intervention, and we don’t know what the outcomes will look like until that occurs.  I am hard-pressed to conclude, based on the most recent data available, that the results are, in Cooper’s terms, “nothing short of stunning,” or that the gap is gone for good.  The 2009 results for third-graders are terrific;  those for students in grades four, five and eight are not.  These latter grades show large and persistent gaps within New York City in both English Language Arts and mathematics, and even larger gaps with the affluent students in Scarsdale, particularly in English Language Arts.  If the third-grade pattern were to persist through the end of high school—on assessments we can trust—that would truly be nothing short of stunning, and well worth celebrating.  But it’s still too early to declare victory.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.