There are several reasons why former Treasury secretary and Harvard president Lawrence Summers supports Citizen Schools. A key one would be his daughter Ruth.
She is a teacher at the Boston nonprofit and has been instrumental in schooling her father about the group’s mission to help low-income students get the same educational advantages as wealthier students. In his speech to the group Tuesday morning, the hard-driving economist and adviser to presidents offered a rare display of emotion.
“Ruth, I’m proud of you,” Summers said, as he choked up. “You’ve made such a difference.”
Low-income students do not have the benefit of hours of after-school activity or parents who can shuttle them to tutoring sessions, classes, or sports events, but Citizen Schools, founded in Boston in 1995, has tried to bridge that economic gap. The program partners with public middle schools and mobilizes AmeriCorps educators, volunteer teachers, and teachers in training to help public schools offer activities and a longer school day.
In addition to being inspired by his daughter’s stories, Summers said that the Citizen model — it involves an extended school day — could serve as a way to help solve one of the most difficult problems in American society: growing class inequality.
In today’s knowledge-based economy, education increasingly determines opportunity and success, and money increasingly buys educational advantages.
“The gap in the life prospects of a child who is rich and a child who is poor is greater than it was over two generations ago,” Summers said. “We are, as a country, moving in the wrong direction.”
Summers, who served as President Obama’s top economic adviser, cited statistics that children from wealthy homes receive about 6,000 more hours of learning activity outside of school — from tutoring to ballet classes — than low-income peers. He highlighted that difference with a finding by the author Malcolm Gladwell, whose research showed it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become successful at an activity, whether piano playing or football.
Summers noted that children from low-income families earning as little as $20,000 a year leave school at 1:30 p.m. and often don’t have additional activities.
“That is why we don’t have equal opportunity in America,” Summers said. “We are not delivering for kids who don’t get those 6,000 hours. We have got to do better in education.”
In Boston, Citizen Schools offer an extra three hours of learning a day at participating middle schools. Instead of leaving school at 1:30 p.m., the student stays until 4:30 p.m., getting the equivalent of an extra three to five months of learning a year.
“Middle school is in need of a makeover,” said Eric Schwarz, cofounder of Citizen Schools. “They need the learning to be interesting, engaging, and hard, and they need to see the link between school and the real world.”
Summers said US students are falling behind their peers in countries such as Korea, Germany, and Japan. In an interview after the speech, he said he’s at a point in his life where he can contribute the most by “saying what I believe and doing what I think.”
“In Washington, I’d be parsing my words,” he said.
Summers was widely considered one of two finalists to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Summers, however, asked Obama to withdraw his name from consideration in September amid concerns about his role in deregulating financial markets during the Clinton administration and his sometimes brash or imperious demeanor.
Obama nominated the Fed’s vice chairwoman, Janet Yellen.
Summers will become the next chairman of the Citizen Schools board, succeeding Andrew Balson, a managing director at Bain Capital. Summers said he likes that Citizen Schools has its outcomes independently reviewed, characterizing the results as “promising and strong.”
Although he described himself as a “hardheaded guy” in his speech, he said improvements in the nation’s educational system will not be won by “waging a war” on the traditional public schools, but rather by engaging with them and working together.
Sometimes, he said, “It’s better to go with the grain.”