Social change powered by data


“You used to be a fun guy, talking about all the cute kids you were helping. Now, all you do is talk about data.” Geoffrey Canada jokingly referred to comments from friends, who noted the transformation in his behavior as he created an important new model for education: the Harlem Children’s Zone.

You might have seen Geoff in the American Express commercials on TV, or in the recently released movie, Waiting for Superman. His approach to using information represents a new version of the old aphorism, “What gets measured, gets done.” Meaningful measurement can motivate, guide, and enable everyone who works on improving the lives of our children to understand what’s going right and what’s going wrong with the education of those children.

Harlem Children’s Zone has created what they call “a new paradigm for fighting poverty.” It has five core principles:

  • · Serve an entire neighborhood comprehensively and at scale.
  • · Create a pipeline of support. Provide support that starts with prenatal programs for parents and finishes when children graduate from college.
  • · Build community among residents, institutions, and stakeholders, who help to create the environment necessary for children’s healthy development.
  • · Evaluate program outcomes and create a feedback loop that cycles data back to management for use in improving and refining program offerings.
  • · Cultivate a culture of success rooted in passion, accountability, leadership, and teamwork.

The emphasis on outcomes, data, and the use of information for continuous improvement reminds me of the visit I had with Dr. Beverly Hall, the superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools. As she told the story, two ingredients for her successful reform of those schools are: (1) making sure that everyone – from the teacher’s aide and the cafeteria worker to the principal and associate superintendent – understands his or her role in educating the system’s children; and (2) using data at all levels to set goals, monitor performance, and continuously improve outcomes (by improving every step that everyone takes toward meeting those outcomes).

Our Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood includes a unique and powerful approach to promotion of children’s success through community organizing, which builds upon data. Neighborhood residents, both adults and youth, designed a community assessment, to understand the needs of the neighborhood’s children and their families. Powered by that information, six Solution Action Groups, totaling 120 or so residents and experts, will identify how this community can support children’s success in school and in life, “from cradle to career.”

Challenges exist in Saint Paul, some of which Geoffrey Canada faced in Harlem, some of which he did not. One challenge, for example: of the 8,500 children 18 and younger in the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, barely a few hundred attend schools in the neighborhood. So, the approach to improving their educational achievement is not as simple as creating something at an existing site and expecting that it can help most children in the neighborhood. We will look at solutions which can address all children, some of whom are too young yet to attend school.

Another challenge: organizing resources. We will have to produce significant community change without expecting that financial resources will increase. In fact, they might decline. Our approach will build upon the ingenuity of an empowered neighborhood to identify how the formal systems of education, health, public safety, and human services can realign, along with the community systems of families, friends, and neighbors, to create a new environment that supports our children.

Data powers all this: the data from our community assessment; data on educational performance; other data on community conditions. Data will provide the raw material for helping us determine where we want to go, how we will get there, and whether we have arrived.

More on the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, as time goes by. For now, I hope I’ve made clear how sound, credible information, placed into the hands of community residents and others who care about the well-being of our children, can fuel a process of highly productive community organizing that improves the success of the neighborhood’s children in school and in life.

Comments? Please let me know.

Interested in learning more about the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood? Check the web site:

Interested in joining a Solution Action Group? Take a look at the description and the application on the website.