The Opportunity Equation

"Do the teachers like you?"

Written by Eric Schwarz, Founding CEO of Citizen Schools and author of The Opportunity Equation, launching Sept. 2

Of all the questions I get about Citizen Schools, perhaps the most frequent is: “Do the teachers like you?” Many questioners seem conditioned to expect the worst of public school teachers and assume that a second shift of educators, offering different approaches and taking less or no pay, will inspire resentment from the full-time teachers who lead classes for a majority of the day.

Generally, however, America’s teachers have embraced Citizen Schools and embraced an expanded learning day and citizen power in their schools. While a few teachers may react defensively and hide behind the closed door of their classrooms, the best teachers welcome any help they can get. Teachers’ unions as well have generally embraced Citizen Schools. As stated earlier, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten visited the Edwards ELT [Expanded Learning Time] campus and declared it in a New York Times column, “one of the most impressive schools I have seen in America.” The Boston Teachers Union has gone so far as to explicitly advocate for a nine-plus-hour learning day for all students, with the extra time delivered either by teachers receiving extra pay or by outside programs like Citizen Schools. 

This is the opening of chapter 12 of The Opportunity Equation, my new book that launches in five days. I'm an after-school guy and an expanded learning time guy who believes that extra learning time beyond the traditional school day -- and delivered mostly by folks who aren't certified teachers -- is the unheralded key to lifting up educational opportunity in America. But expanded learning time and Citizen Schools get their power from lifting up and supporting teachers, not trashing them, as too often seems to be the fashion. As the book describes:

Allowing teachers time for pull-out tutoring, giving students extra academic practice time, and engaging parents in their child’s learning are all important ways that Citizen Schools supports teachers. But the most important way we support teachers is by motivating students to try harder in school. By exposing students to exciting real-world projects, Citizen Schools helps make traditional school subjects become more relevant and enticing. All of a sudden a topic sentence becomes a key skill to win a mock trial, not just another academic standard on a long list that needs to be mastered. A student becomes motivated to learn the Pythagorean theorem because it helps unlock the secret of programming a video game.

If you are a teacher now or aspire to be one, I hope you will check out my book and talk about it with colleagues as you continue searching for ways to build your craft and a new paradigm for schooling. If you are a parent, please consider buying the book for your school's library or for a favorite teacher or mentor.

If you are interested in purchasing The Opportunity Equation, you can buy the book from one of six major retailers here.

The Essential Starting Point Is Empathy

This post is by Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools. Two moving articles I've read in the last week have reminded me of a primary reason I started Citizen Schools -- one that has nothing to do with the education of children, or at least not directly.

Is A Hard Life Inherited? by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times told the story of the growing isolation and impoverishment of the working class neighbors he grew up with in rural Yamhill, Oregon. A few bad choices combined with slim opportunities led boyhood friends of Kristof's to feel increasingly isolated from either the idea of or the reality of an opportunity society. Smart creative children are now too often jobless, in prison, or on drugs. Kristof describes the crisis facing working class men in Yamhill and in rural towns and inner cities all across America and then ends by wishing more of his privileged colleagues in journalism and business had more first-hand exposure to life near the poverty line. "There are steps that could help," Kristof writes, "including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy."

On Sunday The Boston Globe wrote a powerful story, The Working Poor Who Fight To Live on $10 an Hour, that profiled a number of Bostonians living on the financial edge. I was particularly moved by the story of Larry McCain, a man my age who described working since the age of 8, starting with sweeping up hair at a barber shop and searching for stray golf balls at Dorchester's Franklin Park Golf Course, about a mile from where colleagues and I started Citizen Schools a few decades later. Until he was fired recently, McCain worked at Logan airport, cleaning used food trays and inspecting new ones. He was earning $9 an hour, meaning that he relied heavily on the local food bank to eat and can only afford the rent in his 130-square foot rooming house apartment because of a discount he gets for cleaning the common bathroom shared by several tenants.

opp eqOver the years I have been in a few dozen apartments like McCain's, first when I accompanied my Mom on visits to see her students as a teacher in East Harlem, then as a journalist in Oakland and Quincy, MA, and most notably meeting with students from Citizen Schools when we were getting the program started.  Recruiting into Citizen Schools the children of Moms and Dads who worked hard but still lived below or barely above the poverty line was a big part of my job. As I write about in my book, The Opportunity Equation, these conversations were deeply moving for me. I was just starting a family myself, and while in some ways my life was very different from that of the parents we worked with, in so many other ways we saw things eye to eye.

A primary goal of Citizen Schools has always been to give young people extra learning time, extra mentoring, and extra chances to successfully engage in hands-on, real-world projects. But that is not the only goal. Another primary goal is to build understanding and empathy among those who hold power today. When our Citizen Teachers -- many of them financial advisers and engineers and white shoe lawyers -- make their way into urban schools on the other side of the tracks from where they live and work, they build empathy. The kids get access to a new world. And so do the adults. Statistics become faces. Hopeless narratives you see on TV become hopeful narratives you see in front of you. Inner-city kids become creative problem solvers and eloquent defenders of their ideas.

My hope has always been that eventually the adults involved with Citizen Schools will realize the urgency of lifting opportunity for all, as many of them already do. "Those" kids become "our" kids, or "my" kids. Eventually, as with Lindy Smalt, an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow profiled in my book, the mentors in Citizen Schools have their justice nerves awakened. For Lindy, the epiphany came from her work with Abdellah, a student in her class. "He is small and gets swallowed in large classes of screaming, sassy preteens," she wrote. "But he is diligent, positive, and extremely kind, and he deserves a chance.  And there are millions more like him."

I hope you will join me at an upcoming book event (see list here) and pre-order the book for yourself and for a favorite teacher or mentor in your life.

The Opportunity Equation: How Citizen Teachers Are Combating the Achievement Gap in America's Schools

This post is by Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools. In jopp equst over a month my book -- our book -- hits the bookstores and I'm going to be hitting the road.  The Opportunity Equation is part personal story, large part Citizen Schools story, and most of all a call to action to citizens across the country to get active in addressing our nation's growing opportunity and achievement gaps.

The book is already getting pre-publication reviews and they are encouraging. Kirkus Reviews calls the book "a call to action for citizens and educators so that the achievement gap can be closed as rapidly as possible."  And Publisher's Weekly said, "Combining data-rich statistics with frequently funny and animated accounts of his work with Citizen Schools, including a bracing candor about mistakes and learning on the fly, Schwarz offers...a constructive blueprint for boosting achievement without abandoning public education."

It is my hope that this book will provoke new thinking about education, build understanding, influence policy, and mobilize citizens to do their part in lifting up opportunity for all children. Stories like that of Alan Su, a whiz kid engineer at Google who taught a computer programming apprenticeship five times at the Clarence Edwards Middle School, and of Margie Tkacik, who allowed me to be the first Citizen Teacher in our program when I taught a journalism apprenticeship in her classroom, will help readers see themselves as key participants in the change that needs to happen.

I want to use the book and a planned 20-city book tour in September to advance the ideals of Citizen Schools and advance understanding of the opportunity gap that exists—and is growing—for low-income youth. The conversation needs to shift from blaming convenient scapegoats like teachers unions and poverty to lifting up solutions and finding practical ways to empower everyday citizens to improve our schools. This message can only truly take root if we mobilize thousands of citizens like you to promote the ideas of the book and the values that Citizen Schools represents. We’ll be in touch before the September 2nd launch date with more ways you can be a part of this movement, but for now want to share a few ways to help us build momentum:

  1. The book is now available for pre-order, so if you’d like to be one of the first to read it, click here to learn about ordering options.
  2. Learn more about the book and share the site via social media to spread the word!
  3. Read excerpts from the book and start a dialogue with others in your network.
  4. Plan on coming to one of the book tour events in September (30+ events in 20+ cities) and commit to promoting the book and the events in your network via social media and personally inviting your friends.
  5. Share your own Citizen Schools story. We want all elements of this book tour to celebrate the impact that Citizen Schools has on the students, Citizen Teachers, AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows, and more, and we need your help. Submit your story to our blog!

I look forward to reflecting back on these upcoming months and seeing that they truly galvanized those inside and outside of the Citizen Schools community to elevate our conversation about education and lift up opportunity for all children.  Thanks in advance for your interest and commitment.