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Education is in crisis. Let’s clone Dave Eggers

If we don’t do something right now, the California dream of a decent college education for every hard-working kid will be no more. Enter the writer turned publisher turned philanthropic startup genius, whose ideas* for how to rescue students and teachers are so simple and effective, they almost make you feel optimistic.

* Get all your brilliant friends to tutor kids; crowdsource college scholarships; produce a movie that shows why teachers are superheroes; tell stories that make us care.

A little more than a decade since the publication of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (has it really been that long?), Dave Eggers, now in his 40s, is one of his generation’s great writers. We pretty much saw that coming. Who would have guessed, though, when he started tutoring kids in the back of a pirate shop in the Mission, that nine years later, 826 Valencia would have turned into a full-fledged education brand, serving almost 24,000 kids around the U.S. last year and inspiring similar projects as far away as London? For all his literary fame, Eggers has become at least as influential as an educator and an advocate for teachers.

Increasingly, he’s concerned about the future. Legislators have slashed nearly $20 billion from California’s education budget just since 2008, and this summer, cuts could run billions deeper. It’s an unsettling moment.

Ask anyone to define the American idea, and most people, after a few stumbles, will come up with something like this: Anyone, from anywhere, can amount to anything. If you told a story about that idea, it wouldn’t be about muskets, or wagon trains, or moon shots. It would be about a little kid with a backpack heading to a good public school, and a bigger kid, years later, graduating from a good college. If that story gets more complicated, if new obstacles are thrown in the way, if college gets tougher to afford and to finish—it’s the American idea that we’re messing with.

Against this backdrop, Eggers has launched his latest education venture, ScholarMatch, in a bright storefront space across the street from 826 Valencia. High school and college students—his students and others—who are struggling to afford tuition can tell their stories on ScholarMatch.org and build their own financial aid packages out of small donations from individuals who feel moved to support their education.

And—because Eggers never does just one thing—in a few days, his new documentary, American Teacher, which he coproduced with Academy Award–winning director Vanessa Roth and his longtime 826 colleague Nínive Calegari, will premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film makes the case that, more than better testing or sophisticated reform schemes, the biggest priority in education policy should be to improve the lives of teachers.

“There are definitely better theorists out there, and better data analyzers than me, for sure,” he said, when we sat down at ScholarMatch a few weeks ago. “I give examples. It’s what I know.” In a pair of conversations with San Francisco, Eggers talked about his experiences in classrooms across the Bay Area and his hopes for his newest education nonprofit—and for public education.
 
[The conversations have been combined and edited.]

You’ve been working in education for a decade now. How have things changed for your students in that time?
The main change, in the last two years, has been the California State University system imploding. The go-to option for many of our students has gotten a lot less attainable. Between that and the University of California system’s problems, there’s a terrible state of uncertainty. You have a lot of students who did all the right things for 12, 13 years. They’re 18 now, and they’ve been more or less promised an affordable higher education in California. But we’ve seen tuition increases that would have been unconscionable 20, 30 years ago. It’s highly unfair. And it’s shooting ourselves in the foot as a state and a nation.

Do the kids feel these changes? A lot of students, being the first in their family to go to college, they feel insane pressure. Sometimes it can seem to them, like: Is this really worth the struggle that my family is going through, cutting back on everything else, selling the car to pay for tuition? And the assurances of a job when students get out aren’t what they were 5, 10 years ago. In a lot of cases, the kids cannot justify the sacrifices. 

It wasn’t like this when you started 826 Valencia?
I think it has changed drastically. The ladder is a lot more rickety. And now the UCs have cut back pretty sizably on the number of in-state students they admit who need financial aid. A lot of our kids who, even last year, would have gotten into all the UCs, this year got into one or two, or none, and I know it has to do with the increased number of out-of-state and international students who are accepted because they’re paying full price. It’s pretty much the opposite of why the UC system was created in the first place.

When did you start tackling the problem of money for college?
When 826 Valencia opened, we immediately started giving college scholarships. We’d average 100, 150 applications. We’d sit around a table with the staff and some board members for six or seven hours, and choose five out of those 150. It was the worst job ever. It was inspiring, because the kids were amazing, but choosing five was terrible. Almost every year, some donor would say, “I can’t stand that this student isn’t going to get a scholarship. I’ll jump in for a sixth scholarship; does someone else want to jump in?” It became clear that once you knew the students, you would be more likely to participate in their education.

How did this idea turn into ScholarMatch? I saw Kiva.org, and that was pretty brilliant. Then I saw Kickstarter.com. I thought, you could get people who are personally invested to kick in money directly, instead of funneling everything through a committee of deciders. I went to every counselor and high school teacher I knew and said, “Would this be of use? Is there anything else like it?” Because I don’t know the web that well. I don’t have Internet access unless I’m here at the office. Everyone kept saying, “There’s nothing like it.”

How much money did kids need to find? Ninety percent of our students were not thinking beyond state schools. The money they needed was almost always less than $5,000, $6,000.

It’s not just about getting them to college, but helping them stay there. I’ve got a student now, one of my favorites, an artist, supertalented and really together. She got into a couple of art schools. She was going. Then her parents got divorced, the money got tied up, and she dropped out. She started taking courses at City College, a few here, a few there. We’re trying to help her get back on track. I went to the University of Illinois. You learn, at state schools, there’s turnover. If you get off that four- or five-year track and you don’t have a rock-solid support system, going back and finishing becomes less likely every year that you’re out. Miel’s story is incredible that way—how long and hard she had to fight.

That’s Miel Alegre, your executive director at ScholarMatch. What’s her story?
EGGERS: She’s here. Miel?
ALEGRE: I got into SUNY Binghamton, and I really wanted to go. My parents said they wouldn’t pay if I wasn’t going to be a banker. All I needed was $2,000. I worked two jobs. I couldn’t do it. I just gave up. I went to community college, dropped out a couple of times. I ended up working for four years before I finally made it into a university. And none of my credits transferred.
EGGERS: When you’re in community college, your peer group is much more transient. They’re not passing through on a schedule. There’s not some massive counseling office to help you get into a four-year college. You’re on your own.
 
You launched ScholarMatch last spring. What did you expect? What happened? We thought, the minute the site goes up, there’ll be 10,000 donors. We didn’t find that volume. But the average gift was much higher than we expected. Helping each student get a profile up took infinitely more time than we expected—the same amount of involvement as the entire college application process. We thought the focus would be mostly senior year—fall, really. But we’re going to start holding workshops for sophomores and juniors and their parents, to get them thinking before that senior-year scramble. And we’ve just hired a full-time college counselor.

The college counselors in public schools are in an impossible position. In California, the student–counselor ratio is 945 to 1. Yet counselors are so necessary. We can never assume the kids have got it all figured out. I have a student this year, one of the smartest kids I’ve ever had. He’d thought of one school—a big state school—because somebody knew someone there. I said, “That’s fine, where else?” He’s like, “That’s it.” And he’s a kid who will get a full ride. I said, “OK, we’re going to get down to business.” I had him check out 15 schools, then narrow it down. We have to stop kids, ask them where they’re applying, can we look at their essays? In most cases, students want that one-on-one. I know this because I was a terrible college applicant. My essay was horrific. 

What got you interested in working in education in the first place? My mom was a teacher. Even before she was certified, she volunteered in our schools every week. I got used to the idea of being involved on that level.  Later, when I lived in Brooklyn, I used to walk by P.S. 51 and I guess I just had this pull. I was working as a full-time writer for the first time, and my hours were flexible. I used to think, idly, that people like me could be useful in the schools. I just didn’t know how. I started talking to friends of mine who were teachers, and they helped shape the idea of 826 Valencia—a place where volunteers, especially those with some expertise in English and writing, could be useful to teachers and students. It just seemed like a simple enough connection to make—so simple that it would have been weird not to act on it.

826 Valencia was a little like ScholarMatch, right? Eventually it became a big success, but the crowds didn’t show up at first. No. For almost two months, I rallied like seven tutors a day, and no kids showed up. Volunteers dropped out. They thought, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” It was really terrifying! Things didn’t pick up until the summer. We got better known. And Nínive Calegari came on as executive director. She was just a force.

The theme of storytelling as a way to teach and a way to empower runs through a lot of your work now. Is this something you thought about from the beginning? Really, the goal of 826 Valencia was making sure the kids in the Mission could get help on their homework. That was it. Drop-in tutoring. We didn’t map out any other services. Because it was sort of an offshoot of McSweeney’s. Our staff were half of the tutors! At 2:30 or 3:00, people would go from their desks, editing, to the tutoring table, and they’d do their work there until a student came in. It wasn’t about stories. Then it sort of morphed. Publishing became a big aspect of it.

How so? Very early on, Isabel Allende said, I’ll give you this grant if you ask your students to write about peace. I’d been working at Thurgood Marshall High School. The previous year, there had been a campus fight that—at least to hear every student I ever met talk about it—was just a fight. But instead of it just being broken up, 12 squad cars showed up, with cops in riot gear, and a lot of people were hurt. The students thought, “Boy, if this were happening in Mill Valley, would there have been 12 cop cars? How do they see us if they think there need to be guys in riot gear breaking up a high school fight?” It had so wounded their pride and their sense of self that all their essays turned into ways to address that. Their book [Waiting to Be Heard] ended up selling many thousands of copies. It became a big deal. Every year after that, we made sure we did a book with a high school. This year, it’s with Khaled Hosseini and June Jordan School for Equity.

Kids can find a big audience online. That doesn’t have the same effect?
Back in 2004, 2005, we offered a blogging workshop. We thought we’d be overwhelmed, but nobody signed up. We tried again the next year. Nobody came. But every time we post a poetry class, we’re way oversubscribed. It’s funny. When you say, “Your essay is going to be in a book and be on that shelf at 826, in your school library, at City Lights,” they’ll go through a wall for that. They’ll show up mornings, lunches, afternoons, weekends.

Why do you think that is?
For kids who don’t feel like they have a voice, there’s a sense of importance and permanence that a book conveys that nothing else can replicate. If anyone is going to save the physical book, it’s this next generation. People in their 30s, 40s, 50s, they think you’ve got to throw a computer screen at every problem. But I can’t think of one kid in our after-school programs who is going to go out and buy a Kindle. Or whose parents are going to say, “You know, what’s really important in our life is an iPad.” Books are perfectly good vehicles for communicating these stories. They’re inherently democratic. You can borrow that book, you can share it with your family. It’s been surprising, and encouraging, for a lover of physical books, that the kids have that same sort of reverence for the form.

Where did you get your ideas about teaching? I had great teachers growing up. And when we started working with schools, we’d always look for the teachers first. The first one we worked with at Thurgood Marshall was Jesse Madway. He said, “Let them free-write, let them put it down however they want. Don’t come in and say, ‘Five paragraphs, topic sentence.’ If you give them a litany of instructions before they ever put pen to paper, it paralyzes them. The thoughts, the emotions—that’s what’s most powerful.” Then we take that mass and say, “That’s a great line, this is a fantastic thought. This seems like it could be a really powerful opening sentence.” Our books have some of the best student writing you’ll ever find, because we’ve unleashed the kids.

How do you draw out their best stories?
We talk to them about their lives. The first year we did the college essay–writing weekend at Mission High, there was a student who wound up going to Stanford. Smart kid. His draft was mostly about how important an education was for him. I said, “OK, most kids want to go to college. You can’t have your essay be only about that.” But slipped in was the fact that his dad had just shipped out to North Carolina to repair tanks and trucks for the Army. So this kid became the de facto man of the house, taking care of his sibling, going to school, helping his mom. I said, “Well, that’s interesting!”

You’re having ScholarMatch students continue this kind of writing and send personal essays from college. We started that at 826, with our scholarship students. On a whim. The essays were incredible. Our very first scholarship student, Chinaka Hodge—do you know her?

I follow her on Twitter. That’s hilarious! She’s probably famous now. She wrote these vulnerable, candid updates that brought us all back to freshman year. She felt a little lost. People would write back, “Chinaka, don’t worry about it.” [Read more about Hodge in Back Story.]

Have you had students who influenced you? I’ll give an example of a time I learned the hard way. There was a Palestinian-American student writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When you have a stack of essays, there’s a tendency to think, “I’ve got to get through this.” So I went too fast. I said, “This has to be shortened, I think you can lose this.” I actually drew an X through a giant paragraph. She assumed I was X-ing out the paragraph because it wasn’t the right opinion. I was totally in the wrong. The kids are so vulnerable, especially when they’re writing. The negative impact you can have in the five seconds it takes to put an X on a paper is immeasurable. We all remember someone who discouraged us.

There’s a story in your 2005 book Teachers Have It Easy about a great teacher who left the profession because he felt that no matter how hard he worked, it wasn’t enough. How do you deal with your own sense of discouragement? I’ll go to June Jordan tomorrow, and I’ll think, “Why aren’t we in every high school, doing a book with all of them?” But whatever frustration you feel is quelled by actually going in, talking to one student for an hour and a half, making some progress on one essay. And then you feel, “We got something done here.” Focusing on the giant statistical abstract of the United States, or trends in education—that’s where people get panicky, they get frustrated, they feel helpless. The only way to handle the madness of all you can’t do is to focus on the reality of all you can do.  That’s what we’ve taught our tutors. They might read that Horace Mann is a failing middle school. But if we send them there on a tutoring gig, they will work with some extraordinary students, with an amazing teacher.

I think about this a lot. There are some good reasons to measure schools­— Oh, of course.

—and I’m sure you’ve had the experience of going into a school that wasn’t working. So how do you measure, how do you criticize, in a productive way? In all my time in this city, I’ve yet to walk into a school that I thought was broken. Isn’t that funny? At Horace Mann, their scores are way down, but I’ve spent time there, and I’ve never seen a teacher who wasn’t doing his or her job. It’s very complicated, why their scores, you know, don’t measure up to Singapore and Finland. In some ways, I think measurements are good, and maybe we weren’t measuring that well for some time. But the way school measurements are used in the political realm is incredibly destructive to the actual kids and the actual schools and the actual teachers and principals working in those schools. When you’re in these schools, you realize how delicate the ecology is, and how incredibly sensitive students are to how they’re perceived.

So what do we need to fix? What can we do? There were 2,800 public school teachers in San Francisco just given pink slips—19,000 statewide. They won’t know until August whether they’ll be able to come back in the fall. That’s completely absurd. My main focus outside the work of 826 and ScholarMatch is to attract, retain, and compensate public school teachers better. Our ability to pay and train teachers is indicative of our seriousness about education as a whole. Right now, we try to get by with as little as possible, and the results show. In places like Finland and Singapore, teaching is on par with law or medicine, the most prestigious careers, and teachers are trained and paid accordingly. A recent study from McKinsey says teachers’ salaries should start in the $65,000 range or higher—and the end salary should be in the $150,000 range.
 
Your new film, American Teacher, premieres May 3 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. How does it make your case?
It follows four teachers, in schools across the country, when they’re struggling and considering leaving. One is pregnant and worried about her maternity leave and medical benefits. Another is unable to live on her salary. There’s one second-year teacher who’s just drowning at a big public school, with 42 kids in her class. You get to know the teachers and care about them, and you think, “These are the people who should be in the profession,” but we make it really difficult for them. Forty-six percent of teachers leave the profession before their fifth year.

Besides pay, what do you think needs to change to make teaching a really attractive option for 21-year-olds, and something they’ll still want to be doing when they’re 25?  Support and professional development are almost nonexistent at most schools. And the conditions in general—teachers need to be treated like creative professionals. No Child Left Behind drove a lot of teachers out of the job. They were suddenly expected to be on a certain page of a certain manual on a certain day, and they weren’t teachers anymore; they were robots. It seems like we’ve done just about everything we can to make the profession unattractive.

If people here wanted to do something as individuals, on a policy level, what would you like to see? Communities can make teacher compensation a priority. There could be a push in San Francisco to say, “You know what? We deserve the best teachers there are. We’re going to compensate the best teachers we have.” And whenever there were openings, we’d have 100 candidates across the country fighting for them. That’s how you build a great educational system. You attract the best people. That certainly could be done on a city level with mayoral leadership, district leadership, parent groups.

And ScholarMatch? What is its role, and how do you see it growing?
There are no big fixes. No grand solutions. We’d love to design a system where millions of students found funding online from millions of people in the community. But, at least early on, it’s going to be dozens of students getting help from dozens of people. We’re growing it the way we grow everything—slowly, methodically, malleably. Retention rate is incredibly important for us. The 826 scholarships, we’ve had only one student drop out. And he dropped out to become a novelist.

Douglas McGray, the editor in chief of Pop-Up Magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation, has contributed to the New Yorker and This American Life.