How do people in Harlem educate themselves and their children?

Traditionally, social scientists have focused on schools, and specifically, on school failure. They have considered families and communities only to identify failings and weaknesses that would contribute to school failure. This has yielded long lists of such failings that easily make life more difficult for children and families.

In this project, we refocus on what families and communities are doing, and doing well. We think about education broadly, not as something that happens mostly in schools, but as something in which everyone is always involved, at home, in the streets, in churches, and in all settings where people discuss with each other the conditions of their lives.

Our first step is to talk with leaders of local institutions, such as churches, mosques, clubs, after-school programs, and so on. We want to learn about their understandings of education, the programs they offer, the resources they have, and the challenges they face. We would like to visit community programs and speak with staff members. Eventually, we would also like to learn about the education that happens within families, on the job, in barbershops and beauty salons, on street corners, and in other settings.

We hope to bring our findings back to our colleagues and peers in academia and politics. Too much social science research continues to blame the urban poor for their conditions. For example, the current focus on “closing the achievement gap” makes people look for the causes of “low achievement.” Few researchers now explain low achievement in terms of low intelligence. But they continue to talk about certain conditions as negatively impacting intelligence, motivation, ability, and so on. We argue with this approach and seek to bring into the debate what people in the inner city already know about schooling, about education, and about surviving and thriving there.

In short, we begin with the knowledge that people in the inner city educate themselves in useful ways. We ask that people teach us what they are already working to do and what still needs to be done. We hope that this will make a difference in shaping the programs that are intended to help.