Geoffrey Canada (via Flickr)
Geoffrey Canada (via Flickr)

Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada has been a big supporter of Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg’s education initiatives. So I was surprised yesterday to hear Canada criticize the kind of focused attention on test scores that has characterized their leadership.

The education world’s focus on basic academic results could put valuable programs at risk as the economy sours, Canada warned yesterday during a conference hosted by TC’s Campaign for Educational Equity.

He said he worries that the recession will hit poor communities such as Harlem the hardest, as government and private funders slash budgets for education and other services.

Canada said that distress could be compounded by the education world’s fixation with math and reading performance because other subjects could get short shrift when funds are scarce.

“Unfortunately, so much of the discussion is around academic outcomes that people are going to make some false choices,” Canada said. “We are going to create a hole that we are not going to be able to dig ourselves out of.”

Another panelist tried to calm Canada’s fears, saying that programs that are considered successful won’t be at risk. “They’re still going to fund results,” the panelist said.

But funding results is exactly the problem, Canada replied. The emphasis in recent years has turned so squarely onto results — usually in the form of test scores — that programs that don’t demonstrate a clear academic benefit are in jeopardy, even when they are valuable, he said.

Canada said funders often ask him questions like, “You’ve got that chess program — how are the kids’ grades?” He said he thinks, “That’s what we pay the chess instructor for. When I send my kid to play soccer I don’t expect his reading scores to go up!”

And funders often ask for evidence of success that is difficult or impossible to generate, Canada said — evidence that he pointed out isn’t required in other fields.

“We’re giving huge amounts of money to people who admit that not only have they failed … but they almost destroyed the whole economic system of the world,” Canada said, his voice rising as he referred to the Wall Street bailout that is costing taxpayers more than $700 billion. “Then somebody asks me if kids should take violin and do I have evidence?!”

Canada said a healthy dose of deficit spending could guard against underachieving American students further down the road. “If they give us $50 billion we will build something great in this nation that will last way longer than this administration,” he said.

“It’s clear we’re going to be under a lot of budget pressure,” Canada said. “Cities are thinking, do I clean my streets or keep my schools open. You shouldn’t be making a decision like that in America.”