Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough — A Review

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Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes is a sympathetic portrait of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada’s experimental charter program, in its formative years. In this documentary-style underdog story, Tough explores poverty, race, and the cultural factors influencing education. The prevailing theme throughout the book is hope, in spite of adversity, low expectations, and the spectrum of problems plaguing the inner city. Over the course of the story, Tough proves an able educator himself, weaving together a thoughtful discourse on differing academic theories concerning poverty, race, education, and the pros and cons of charter schooling. While Geoffrey Canada is not the only character in this plot, he definitely takes the the lead role. The author is clearly enamored with the same vision as Mr. Canada, but Tough is sensible enough to balance his study with some critique of Canada’s method, allowing that the Harlem Children’s Zone is not a cure-all for America’s urban youth. Nevertheless, this book still portrays the Harlem Children’s Zone in a glowing light; it is an impressive educational model to follow.

The author, Paul Tough, is an education journalist, New York Times editor, and author of How Children Succeed (2013) and Helping Children Succeed (2016). Whatever It Takes may be his crowning achievement. Tough met Geoffrey Canada while writing a story on him for the New York Times Magazine in 2004. Within a year, Tough began writing Whatever It Takes. By the time the book published in 2009, Geoffrey Canada was already a star in the school reform movement.

Canada is highly regarded as a teacher, administrator, and spokesman for inner-city schools, and charter schooling specifically. He’s something of a celebrity, not unlike a star football coach, complete with raspy voice, grizzled demeanor, and blue-collar attitude. Canada has written books on the important role of male figures in the home, as well as escaping violence and poverty. His TED Talk has been viewed almost two million times. He has headlined conferences, even winning a spot among "America’s Best Leaders" in 2005. Canada’s work is also famously showcased in the 2010 movie, Waiting for Superman, a Critic’s Choice Award winner for Best Documentary. He advocates for charter schooling, reforming education, and out-of-the-box thinking on all things education-related, even while his base of operations is in one of the toughest school districts in the country, the heart of Harlem, New York. If the charter school movement had one brochure, Geoffrey Canada’s face would be on the cover.

Part Biography, Part Research

This book is largely biographical, following Mr. Canada and telling his story within the trials and tribulations of the Harlem Children’s Zone. But this book is also a research piece, evaluating Canada’s bold plan by exploring the text’s central question: can they turn Harlem around? On these two rails—biography and research endeavor—the story carries the reader through a positive argument for the school reform movement, ultimately arriving at a broad and hopeful understanding of how poverty and race influence education.

In eleven chapters and an afterword, Tough narrates the story of how the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) grew out of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families back in the 1970’s (pp. 2–3). In 1990, Canada came on board and pioneered a one-block pilot program called the Harlem Children’s Zone (2). This program was more comprehensive than most, addressing the needs of families and communities, with aggressive recruitment efforts—so even the most skeptical and apathetic parents are warmly invited to bring their children along for parent classes and day care—as well as preschool (Harlem Gems, c. 2001) and in-home, follow-up meetings. By 2004, Canada was staging the launch of the Promise Academy, the first charter school driven by the HCZ program.

He might not have taken that route if area schools were willing to partner with Children’s Zone. According to Mr. Canada, area public and private schools wanted no part in what he was doing (5–6). So, the Promise Academies were born. Documenting their first five years, Tough’s central thesis question is whether this program can work. Can the Harlem Children’s Zone and its Promise Academy schools really turn the culture around? Can they reverse the spiral of poverty, raise grades, and launch inner city students with enough “escape velocity” to break through the oppressive inner-city atmosphere?

Writing Style

Paul Tough’s style of writing is fluid and easy to follow, using a narrative/documentary format. In this way, Tough can insert relevant backstories about urban violence, race relations, and Canada’s rough childhood, without losing a unified storyline. Instead of feeling like a detour into tangents, these backstories feel more like layers of context, intensifying the main story line. They clarify the degree of adversity mounted against the Harlem Children’s Zone, giving the book a stirring, personal quality.

Another stylistic note: this book has New York painted all over it. Paul Tough’s portrayal of Canada is gritty, urban, and rich with New York pride. Tough and Canada both clearly think Harlem is worth rooting for.

How Well Does the Author Handle the Subject?

Tough does a responsible job discussing the relevant issues, admitting controversies and alternatives where experts disagree. This measure allows his otherwise sympathetic portrait to retain a degree of objectivity. His survey of the major views on economic and racial inequality is astute and informative, giving a respectful nod to conservative and liberal theories as well as noting landmark studies that have shaped this conversation over the years (24–52). His discussion of competing views about black family dynamics is likewise insightful (102). For example, he invokes Brown University economist Glenn Lourey, who is “outspoken in arguing that the political price of publicly examining black parenting outweighs the potential benefits,” and “these are problems that are in the political arena, and they have political solutions.” (102–3) But in the same discussion, Tough engages the ideas of Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson, who reaches the opposite conclusion, citing qualitative disparities in education along racial lines with substantial differences in family and parenting styles (103–4). While both men admit the subject risks feeding racial stigmas, Ferguson is willing to have the conversation, even if he “wish[es he] could do it in a way that the white community couldn’t listen in.” (104)

Chapter 4, “Contamination,” explores this thorny issue, and delves deep into Canada’s own experience growing up on the streets of Harlem. This chapter is an invaluable glimpse into the intersectional problem of race, poverty, and educational inequality. Here, Tough warns that “public critiques of ghetto values have a way of veering toward a criticism of urban black culture.” (109)

For Mr. Canada, the strategy is not to replace or supplant the culture of Harlem. He is not trying to make Harlem into anything other than Harlem. He just envisions Harlem becoming the best version of itself. Canada speaks of the “richness and culture” of Harlem. Tough observes that “he wants Harlem’s children to embrace a certain set of middle-class values, he doesn’t want them to reject completely the values and habits of Harlem.… [T]here is plenty in the culture of the ghetto that Canada likes and admires.” (109)

Does The Author Prove His Thesis?

The central question of this text is whether the Harlem Children’s Zone works. By the conclusion of the book, Tough shows that the HCZ is a success, all things considered. But this success is measured, hard fought, and part of a larger campaign. Winning battles is great, but the rest of the war remains. By 2009, the year the book was published, the HCZ was sporting above-average scores in math and English, faring better than many private schools and all public schools in the area, despite having perhaps the most economically disadvantaged student body (279).

By 2012, HCZ could boast of near perfect scores on all accounts. (TED Talk, 15:10) The HCZ model has since spread to over 52 communities around North America and their seminars and training are reaching no less than seventy different nations that are working on their own strategies for implementing the HCZ model in cities around the world. In 2012, the Promise Academies of Harlem boasted a one hundred percent passing rate, one hundred percent graduation rate, and one hundred percent college-acceptance rate. (TED Talk, 15:10) Those numbers are impressive for any school, and especially for a struggling inner-city school district.

Realistic Hope, not Utopia

It is easy to be hypnotized by the glowing treatment of Mr. Canada in popular media or by the unremitting popular praise of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Paul Tough clearly agrees with the publicity. He is captivated by Mr. Canada’s vision. Still, Tough’s treatment of Canada is balanced, admitting that the man is controversial, stubborn, occasionally offensive, and overly enamored with high-stakes testing. He sees Canada in a positive but objective light.

How does the Harlem Children Zone do it? Understanding the HCZ Model

To faithfully review this book, the reader needs to understand exactly what Tough is looking at. Space does not allow a full report on the programming and strategy of the Harlem Children’s Zone and its Promise Academies, but it bears mentioning that the school is built on outcomes-based education with the end goal of helping Harlem succeed (3). Quoting Canada, Tough claims that the guiding question behind the HCZ model asks, “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?” (19)

Canada wants to turn a whole community around, and by doing so, create a repeatable model for use in other communities. The steps to achieving this goal are many and varied, but a few stand out, appearing multiple times throughout the text:

In Canada’s view, a culture of success is contagious. If enough people participate, he suggests, it is possible to reach a tipping point at which the rest of the community is close enough to see it, be curious about it, want it, and aspire to it (4).

Another keen insight operating in the HCZ model is that economic disadvantage is not a death sentence. It is real adversity, and it is a real factor in education, but it’s not the grim reaper. Economic disadvantage cannot be dismissed, but there may be a greater poverty gap in terms of social and community resources, both of which HCZ attempts to address through strategies such as Baby College (pregnant and neo-natal parent-training) and Harlem Gems (preschool and parent training). Transformative education, to effectively turn around a community, must address the culture of poverty in tandem with the economics of poverty.

Concluding Thoughts

This book is an important contribution to the growing body of literature on poverty, race, and education. It translates important and heady conversations into accessible language and weaves that thread into a heroic story that needs to be heard.

This book does not necessarily prove that the Harlem Children’s Zone can work beyond city limits. Perhaps the program can work elsewhere, but at the close of this book, the expansion campuses had not yet launched. We know now, from the HCZ website that they have expanded into many cities and are poised to expand into other countries.

Time will tell whether the HCZ is genuinely turning around the culture. The grades and graduation rates look good now, but the HCZ model is also very expensive, and it requires gifted and innovative individuals at its helm as well as a cooperative, optimistic, and hard-working staff and faculty. So it remains to be seen whether this model can be well replicated, and whether it achieves sustained success academically, economically, and culturally. These goals were always ambitious, and undoubtedly they can only be evaluated clearly over a long term.

This book also doesn’t necessarily prove that charter schools work, overall. Charter schools are individual creations; their standards and quality vary from school to school. Some charter schools do amazingly well, others do just fine, others do poorly, and still others collapse into a shameful heap of broken promises and criminal investigations. The HCZ can be commended for its accomplishments even if this text, in its singular endorsement of charter schools, still merits critique. Nevertheless, Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes is an important and fascinating book, well worth reading for anyone working to understand the intersection of race, poverty, and education.

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