If You Want Our Economy Fixed, Fix Education

When we talk about economic recovery, we are being shortsighted when we don't factor education into the equation.
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News flash: Do you want to know the best way to solve the economic problems in America? By closing the education achievement gap. That's right. If we fix education, we will fix our economy. That fact became clear to me in 2009 when I was invited by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan to a presentation of the findings of a report on the economic impact of the achievement gap in America's schools. This report was conducted by McKinsey & Company, a highly regarded global consulting firm. I had always believed that there was a link between education and our economy, but I had no idea how closely the two were related until these findings were revealed.

In their landmark report, McKinsey describes not one, but four different achievement gaps that have a direct impact on the nation's economic viability: the international achievement gap, the racial achievement gap, the income achievement gap, and system-based achievement gap, which quantifies the significant differences in achievement levels between states, school districts, schools, and classrooms serving students with similar demographics. After defining the specific achievement gap categories, McKinsey then went on to quantify the impact of our failing to close these gaps on our nation's budget.

Their findings were staggering.

For instance, our failure to close the racial achievement gap -- the disparity between the educational results between white children and their African American and Hispanic counterparts has impacted our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by at least $310 billion and as much as $525 billion. Moreover, the growing income achievement gap, the education disparity between all low-income children compared to the education attainment of children not living in poverty, has cost our GDP between $400-670 billiom.

As whopping as these numbers are, it is the growing international achievement gap that is most alarming. This gap is measured by comparing the education results of all US schoolchildren with the educational outputs of kids from the other industrialized nations in the world. A recent study conducted by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance that examined whether or not the US is catching up with other countries, found that we ranked just 25th out of 49 countries in student test-score gains over a 14-year period. And even when accounting for family income levels, students in our neighboring countries are doing significantly better. So a student from a low-income family in the US is far less likely to do well in school than a student with the same financial standing in Finland. And while more than 40 years ago, the US was a world leader in high school graduation rates, this is far from the case today.

In their report, McKinsey pointed out that if the US had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and raised its performance to the level of nations such as Finland and South Korea, the United States gross domestic product would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher in 2008. Folks, our failure to close these achievement gaps has led to a permanent national recession, larger than the current recession the country has been recently experiencing!

Unfortunately, more than three years later, the sense of urgency that arose from this sobering report has diminished and not much has been done to close the gap. Instead, we keep waiting for our economy to grow and the job market to improve, yet, no one is focused on how to address these critical educational issues that have such a huge impact on the future of our country's gross domestic product. We need to dust off the McKinsey report and take the bold steps needed to close these achievement gaps.

How? First, as emphasized in the report, inequities in teacher quality and school funding are pervasive -- particularly in communities where there is the most need. In essence, the challenged schools get more of the bad teachers and have, on average, less money than the schools which are attended by more affluent kids. We can change this approach, if we collectively have the will to do so.

It is imperative that we start putting our kids firsts and taking ownership within our schools and communities. As a nation, to ensure that all of our kids receive a quality education, we must further eliminate the disparities between race and ethnicity, the rich and the poor, and doggedly increase the graduation rates. In addition, it is critical that we take a hard look at what is going on in our schools and in our classrooms. And at the very least immediately begin equalizing instruction, improving teacher quality, and increasing resources so our kids can go on to college and positively contribute to our economy.

When we talk about economic recovery, we are being shortsighted when we don't factor education into the equation. This is not a problem for that guy over there, if for no other reason than the economic impact on our country. Let's all do our part by taking simple, powerful and thoughtful steps that toward expanding quality educational options for each and every student. If you want our economy fixed, fix education.

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