Eric Schwarz, Founding CEO of Citizen Schools and author of The Opportunity Equation. Photo credit: Paul Mobley
Sarah Wilson is a first year MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a new blogger for The Wire.
As the nation’s Kindergarten students are settling into their desks for their first year of school, some of them face an obstacle others do not. Members of previous generations faced the same obstacle, but since the mid twentieth century it’s grown bigger. Much bigger.
It’s the academic achievement gap based on parental income levels. While the achievement gap between white and minority students has shrunk significantly in the last 40 years, the gap between students from high and low income families has grown. In fact, in the years since WWII, this gap has doubled. In the 1970s, 40 percent of high income students earned a college degree by the time they reached their mid-twenties. Now, that percentage has grown to 73. For low-income students, the figure has barely increased, from 6 to 8 percent. Perhaps more telling, upper income students who are academically low performing are still more likely than academically high performing low income students to obtain college degrees. To make matters worse, the educational stakes are higher than they used to be. College graduates used to earn only about 20 percent more than high school graduates. Now, college graduates earn almost twice as much as those without college diplomas.
These are just a few of the troubling numbers included in Eric Schwarz’s new book, The Opportunity Equation. This past Friday, Schwarz spoke to an audience who had gathered in the San Francisco office of Nextdoor, a company that operates a free social networking website focused on fostering communication within neighborhoods, to learn about the gap and how Schwarz thinks it can be closed.
“We have, I think, a very broken dialogue,” Schwarz said, describing what he sees as a tendency to blame poverty and public schools and their teachers for the problem. Schwarz’s argument is that the main reason wealthier children are pulling further ahead of their less financially fortunate counterparts is what he described as the “shadow education system” developing in affluent communities. This system consists of summer enrichment camps, private tutoring, music lessons and sports team practices, unpaid internships—opportunities to learn and grow that many low-income families simply can’t afford.
“In the 1970s, low income families spent $835 per year on out-of-school enrichment for their children…while upper-middle-class families spent $3,536,” Schwarz writes in his book. “By 2006, those investments, adjusted for inflation, had grown to $1,315 for lower income-families and $8,872 for upper-income families, nearly tripling the investment gap.”
Wealthier children also spend more time with their parents than do low-income children, benefitting from their knowledge, experience, and the kind of social and professional connections that can help set children up for success. Schwarz sees in these extracurricular differences the key to closing the gap.
“We need to find a way to give all kids access to similar opportunities,” Schwarz said on Friday.
Schwarz believes the Citizen Schools program he started in Boston in 1995 is doing just that. Staffed by AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows and a network of volunteer “Citizen Teachers,” the program operates through an Expanded Learning Time model, which adds about three hours onto the end of school days. During those hours, low-income students receive assistance with their homework and goal-setting, interact with successful adults through apprenticeship programs, and engage in the kind of enrichment activities their wealthier counterparts often take for granted.
Now operating in seven states, including California, the program seems to be producing some results. In 2010, Policy Studies Associates released a report indicating that participants in the program had much higher on-time graduation rates than peers who had not participated, as well as higher math performance and English Language Arts scores on standardized tests.
Laney Siegner, a current Energy Resources Group graduate student who attended the event on Friday, worked with Citizen Schools as a teaching fellow in Boston. While with the program, she taught a student whose success story is featured in The Opportunity Equation. When he first entered the program, the student, who was part of his school’s Therapeutic Learning Community, was angry and prone to outbursts. After beginning a soccer apprenticeship, during which he was coached by a positive male role model, the student’s behavior and grades began to improve. He was able to leave the Therapeutic Learning Community and join the regular education classes at his school.
“He just changed my whole perception of children, and kids, and what is possible,” Siegner said, remembering that child. But he was only one of the many she saw benefit from the work that she and the other teaching fellows and volunteers were doing.
“I’ve never done anything so important in my life,” she said of her experience with Citizen Schools.
For future policy makers, The Opportunity Equation lists a number of possible legislative and governmental strategies to address the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor students. On Friday, Schwarz said that growing the AmeriCorps program, which just celebrated its 20th birthday, is probably the most important step. He also supports several proposed pieces of legislation that would help schools institute Expanded Learning Time programs, and a revision to the tax code that would eliminate tax breaks for individuals who make philanthropic donations to well-funded education foundations or private schools that serve few low-income students. Schwarz proposes the increased tax revenue could be set aside to fund other education oriented policies.