Citizen Schools: Education and the Economy

March 15th, 2014

March 6, 2014

Eric, thank you very much for those overly generous words. You remind me slightly of what Lyndon Johnson used to say when he was introduced too generously – I wish my parents had been here for that. My father would have appreciated it, and my mother would have believed it. You know, there’s one thing in politics that we learn where you have utterly failed me, and that is the management of expectations.

I’d like to tell you why I accepted Eric’s invitation to be the chairman of the board of Citizen Schools and to make it an important focus of my philanthropic activities. It rests on three judgments. The first judgment is that equality of opportunity is the central challenge that will bear on the legitimacy of the American system going forward over the next generation. You know, we are not going to achieve full income equality. We do not really want to achieve full income equality. It is not a reasonable aspiration in a world where people’s abilities and capacities differ, where market demands shift. But it is, I would suggest, central to the legitimacy of our system, that everybody have a chance to succeed no matter where they start.

And on that standard, we are falling down as a nation. We think of ourselves as a topsy-turvy, turbulent, churning society, but there is less equality of opportunity in the United States than there is in every country in Western Europe. We think of ourselves as, generation after generation, perfecting the American dream. But for the first time since George Washington, in this generation, the gap in income between the children of the rich and the children of the poor will be wider than it was the previous generation. We think of equal opportunity as centrally related to education, but, amazingly, despite all the things that have been done to promote financial aid, to promote access, the gap in the college attendance rates between the children of the rich and the children of the poor, is today far greater than it was in the 1970s.

And we are seeing the roots of an expanding gap. By the time they turn 12, a child from an affluent family will, on average, have received 6,000 more hours of enrichment activity of some kind than a child from a less affluent family, and that gap has more than doubled since 1970. That is not good enough, and that is not the stuff of a system that is going to be sustainable. So the first judgment that brings me here is that, as a country, we have to do better on equal opportunity.

The second judgment that brings me here is the knowledge that this is a tractable problem. We have a problem to compare it to. It’s not a problem we have resolved in this country. It is a problem that is still with us. But, 45 years ago, white students were five to ten times more likely to go to college than black students. Today, that gap is more like 20%, like a factor of five. Forty to 50 years ago, the gap in achievement between white and black kids was twice as large as the gap in achievement between rich and poor kids. Today, it is half as large. Forty to 50 years ago, it was inconceivable that we would have an African-American president, and today, it is something that we take for granted.

That did not happen by accident. That did not just randomly happen. That did not happen just because Congress passed a law, although the Civil Rights Act made an enormous contribution. That happened because a society was broadly engaged in recognizing an injustice and then doing something about it, and a central part of doing something about it was what we did in education – what we did in higher education with affirmative action, what we did in the South with desegregation, what we have tried to do in urban school districts.

Now, I am under no illusion. We have a long way to go in correcting and addressing racial gaps. We are not there. But equally, I have seen what has happened in my lifetime, and that tells me what a committed society can do. I am convinced that, if Du Bois was right, the problem of the color line was the problem of the 20th century – that the problem of the class divide is the problem of the 21st century. I am convinced that it will not be solved except through a concerted attack on educational inequity, and that is an attack that will have many aspects. It will involve many different initiatives. But I am convinced that the approach focused on extended learning time and focused on the involvement of ordinary citizens, of Citizen Schools, is as or more promising than any other approach to addressing that class divide in education.

Let me tell you why. There are really three things that have convinced me. First, I am not really a very touchy-feely guy. I’m a guy who cares about this stuff, but I’m a guy who looks at numbers and challenges conclusions and argues and all of that, and what impressed me when I first talked with Eric was that he understood that it didn’t really matter if this stuff made the citizens who participated in the after-school programs feel good and if it was fun for the kids and there were stories that touched people’s hearts. That ultimately wasn’t that important if it didn’t actually change kids’ achievement. And he understood that we don’t let surgeons decide whether their new surgical procedure works based on their intuition. We don’t let drug companies decide whether their drug’s an effective drug based on their intuition. We insist on rigorous and objective evaluation, and Citizen Schools has rigorous and objective evaluation.

This is not as sweeping an intervention as taking a kid out of a regular school and sending the kid to a charter school. This is not as fundamental a change as say who a teacher is in a program like Teach for America. But the evidence is that it is as or more effective in terms of generating incremental educational achievement, and it is vastly more scalable. Whatever you think about the controversies that are going on in this city about charter schools – I suspect most of the people in this room think that the charter school movement deserves to be supported, rather than squashed – whatever you think about that, we’re not going to see the day in a relevant horizon when half the kids in any major city are going to a charter school. And so if we’re going to solve this problem, we’ve got to find some interventions that work alongside the public schools.

And so if rigorously proven efficacy is the first reason why I think this is so promising, the second is that this is an approach that cuts across the traditional divide. It is not at all government, let’s-just-change-the-way-public-school-operates, but it is not some libertarian paradise that does away with the public school, either. It is an approach that works with the grain of the system.

I saw it. I attended the other day, actually probably six weeks ago, the touch football games with the Boston school where my daughter works in the after-school program working with disadvantaged kids, and I talked to the guy who was the vice principal of that school and had been there for 30 years. He was kind enough to say some very generous things about my daughter, and I have to say that’s probably the part of the conversation I liked best. But a very close second was when he talked about, look, we can’t do all the things we want to do for the kids. Our day ends at 1:30. There’s no one for them to go home to at 1:30. They need help. They need to be occupied productively after 1:30, and we don’t do that, and that’s why it’s so wonderful to have this program in this school to help make it work for the kids.

Most of the teachers in that school are in a union, and maybe the union asks some unreasonable things, but the great majority of those teachers are good people who really need a lot of help, and what I find so attractive about this is that Citizen Schools is an approach to supporting education reform that is real reform, that is real change, but it is not fighting an unproductive war where children are caught in the crossfire. And so that’s the second reason why I think this is such a promising approach.

And the third is that it’s actually supported by overwhelming, broad logic. Malcolm Gladwell famously popularized the observation that many people can become superb at something with 10,000 hours of focused practice. If you think about it, that makes the 6,000-hour difference in enrichment activity between the more fortunate and less fortunate kids a pretty sobering thing. If we are going to succeed in addressing the injuries of class, it is not all going to happen by changing the six hours in a conventional school day on the conventional schedule. It’s going to occur by doing smarter things with kids before they go to school. It’s going to occur by doing smarter things with kids over the summer, when the evidence is that there’s so much regress for kids who are less fortunate. And it’s going to come after 1:30 in the afternoon. It stands to reason that this should work and that it does work.

So I have said for a long time that the Duke of Wellington famously observed that the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon had been won on the playing fields of the great British private school – they called it public school – of that era. I’m convinced that the battle for America’s kids, and its legitimacy, will be won or lost in its public schools and that the approach being pioneered and driven by Citizen Schools is a remarkably effective approach and a remarkably scalable approach, an approach consistent with the broad value of American society that Americans are people who pitch in with a sense of community to solve problems.

So I look forward to the day when someone will look back and be able to say that just as America made progress towards equality with respect to race, and that is a continuing and ever-present task, so also, at the beginning of the 21st century, it began to make enormous progress with respect to providing ever more equal opportunity, and I’m convinced that Citizen Schools will be an important part of all that. Thank you very much.