For kids, education is a basic human right. For adults, providing that education is a moral imperative.
Those are the high-minded reasons that we invest in our public schools, but now the number-crunchers at Standard & Poor’s have given us one more: For the national economy, education is the tide that lifts all boats. If American workers had just one additional year of education, S&P estimates the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would increase by $525 billion over five years.
Boosting educational attainment is a cause that I’ve been involved with for more than 30 years. Like S&P, I originally took up the issue as a matter of economic necessity. Back then we were at the very beginning of a multi-billion dollar expansion that would revolutionize the hospitality industry and create tens of thousands of jobs. But we had a problem: Our vision for a “new” Las Vegas was stymied by the old reputation of the city’s public schools.
We worried about the children of our current employees, and we saw that high dropout rates would make future expansion difficult. Even with a lucrative package of salaries and benefits, we would not be able to attract qualified managers who were willing to risk their children’s future in a school system they perceived as “troubled.”
So I jumped headfirst into the movement for education reform, where I quickly learned one very important lesson: Troubled schools start with troubled communities.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way our politicians “do” education reform. For too long now, we’ve debated the dropout crisis as a problem that begins and ends inside the school walls, entirely separate from broader community issues such as poverty and crime.
Our kids are dealing with hunger, homelessness and domestic violence, and we say to them, “Never mind all that; let’s think about reading, writing and arithmetic.” We treat our schools as islands of education, ignoring the stormy seas that must be navigated every day before a student reaches the front door.
All too often, our most vulnerable students get lost in that storm. When they test badly, fall behind, get discouraged and drop out, we target changes in instructional hours, disciplinary policies, dress codes, curricula and a host of other factors inside the school.
These reform initiatives are important, but not sufficient for improving academic achievement. That’s because, more often than not, a student’s difficulty in school is just a symptom of larger difficulties at home. Hunger, homelessness, gangs, drugs, violence – for poor kids, in particular, everyday life can seem like an obstacle course specifically designed to keep them from succeeding in school.
If we want students to stay in school longer and benefit from education reform initiatives, we have to address the environmental issues that are driving them to drop out. Take housing, for instance: We know that immigrant children tend to live in larger households, sometimes sharing the tiniest of apartments with several generations of distant relatives. In such a chaotic housing situation, something as simple as quiet homework time can be a major challenge.
School personnel don’t have the time or resources to address this issue, even though it can have a profound negative impact on a student’s academic performance and likelihood of graduation. Instead of being confined to the school, an effective solution would likely require help from multiple sectors of the community, including housing officials and immigrant support groups.
Oftentimes, complacency is the biggest barrier to this kind of community-wide support. As long as our own kids sleep safe at night and read at grade level, it’s easy to imagine that none of this is our problem. But the S&P study reminds us that it is our problem – every one of us – because our economic wellbeing is tied to the educational success of our students. As a business owner, I’ve seen firsthand how school issues can act as a drag on economic development.
Taking ownership of any problem is the first step in fixing it. In the case of failing schools and at-risk students, that means recognizing that schools didn’t create the problems associated with poverty, and schools can’t solve those problems on their own. When businesses, civic groups and religious organizations unleash their resources to create broad-based solutions for keeping kids in school longer, every member of the community will benefit from the effort.
School problems are community problems. Our fortunes rise and fall together. And dropouts aren’t just “those kids.” They’re “our kids.” The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can get to work building a better future for all of us.
Elaine Wynn is a director of Wynn Resorts and board chair of Communities In Schools, the nation's leading dropout prevention network serving 1.3 million students. She also serves as president of the Nevada State Board of Education of co-chair of the Education Reform Blue Ribbon Task Force.