How You Can Close The Opportunity Gap

Eric Schwarz is the Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools.  I read David Brooks' New York Times column with excitement. At Citizen Schools, we've been talking about erasing the "opportunity gap" as the pathway to erasing the achievement gap for years. Brooks, and Robert Putnam who he cites, are right on in naming this serious threat to the American Dream.

I'd hate for his readers to throw up their hands in despair, though. We have too much of a stake in the success of this generation to be overwhelmed and settle for the status quo. The fact is, we can do something about it. Now.

I'm spending a lot of my time this year writing a book about these themes. Basically, the issue Brooks and others are starting to recognize is this:

  1. The achievement gap, when measured by family income, is getting much, much worse. By whatever measure (educational attainment, SAT scores, etc.), if upper middle class kids were X ahead of poor kids in the 1960s, now upper middle class kids are 2X ahead. The class-based achievement gap has doubled!
  2. Poor kids are not doing worse. In fact they are doing a little better.
  3. But wealthier kids are achieving at dramatically higher rates -- propelled forward by a dazzling array of lessons, tutors, camps, parental coaching, internships, and other opportunities that upper middle class families provide to their kids to give them the best chances of success.
  4. The dramatically growing achievement gap between upper and lower income kids is mostly driven by out-of-school factors. Various studies, some cited in the new book, Wither Opportunity, edited by Richard Murnane and Greg Duncan, show that teacher and school quality account for about one-third of the class-based achievement gap but opportunities out of school account for two-thirds.
  5. Specifically, Brooks writes, upper income families have in the last generation increased their spending on their children's extracurricular learning (everything from tutoring to violin lessons to camp) by $5,300 per year while lower income families increased their spending by $480. At the same time, upper-income families, buoyed by greater workplace flexibility, have quadrupled the time they spend with their children, including reading to them, while lower-income parents increased their parenting time by only a slight amount.

In my book I'm describing the incredible opportunities I had as an upper middle class kid growing up in Manhattan. The growing opportunity and achievement gaps are personal to me; families like mine unwittingly increase the achievement gap through the incredible advantages we give our kids. I've seen my kids fly past many of their peers in the same high-quality Brookline, MA, public school due to the camps, tutoring, and coaching they have been able to access.

We have a vicious cycle in which being born poor means you lose out educationally more than ever before, and losing out educationally means you lose out economically more than ever before. Unchanged, those trend lines will tear the country apart.

But unlike Brooks, I'm ultimately optimistic, because of my work with Citizen Schools and our partnerships with parents and schools. The expanded learning day gives lower-income kids the same fuel that has powered the growing achievement of the upper middle class: more time to learn, and more chances to be successful with successful adults.

And if you live in Boston, New Bedford, New York City, Newark, Charlotte, Durham, Chicago, Houston, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Mescalero, or the Bay Area in California, you have a way to help close the opportunity gaps in your community this fall. You can teach something that you love at a public middle school that partners with Citizen Schools.

When you help students argue a mock trial, or publish a newspaper, or design a video game, or launch a rocket, you help them develop the muscle memory of success. When an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow helps a student master fractions, or long division, or hyperbole, they do the same thing.

The students and families are hungry for enriching educational opportunities like the ones that shape the elite. Citizen Schools works with schools to mobilize the rest of the community to close the opportunity gap--and the achievement gap with it.

Let me know if you're interested. Or if you've taught with Citizen Schools before, maybe it's time you taught again, or could recruit others. If you agree with David Brooks, then put down your New York Times and close the gap with us.