Time is ripe for social action to improve education

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A quality education is the foundation of lifelong learning, good health and economic success. United Way focuses on the building blocks of stable families; income, education and health. Certainly education resides in the center of that work because it is the determining factor in ensuring that families can achieve the other two. As our region struggles with an unemployment rate above 10 percent and a state in fiscal crisis, we must all be focused on ensuring our education system is producing a highly-skilled and educated workforce, ready to take on the market challenges of the coming decade.
Yet, as statistics show, the strong foundation that education is meant to provide in our children’s lives is weak and crumbling here in Chicago, and throughout our state and our nation. In a survey of 30 developed countries, students in the U.S. ranked 25th in math and 21st in science – hardly commensurate with our nation’s status as a global leader.
In Chicago, nearly half of all teens do not graduate, and 46 percent of our children start school without the skills they need to learn and without the support they need to transition successfully from middle school to high school. These are the issues United Way focuses on in our education strategies – because we know research shows that critical interventions in early childhood and middle school increase graduation rates. Consider this: if 50 percent more students graduate, that translates into increased earning power of $200 million more annually. And for every dollar spent on early childhood interventions, we see a $14 return in savings to taxpayers and communities.       
Too many conversations about education focus on where the problems have come from and where to affix the blame, instead of the very real, very positive, very measurable case for immediate, focused action. Let’s use America’s natural optimism and “do something” attitude to propel us forward into a future where we are in the top 10 for both math and science. Let’s build a foundation through our school system where kids are able to learn, thrive and graduate from high school on time, ready for college and work. It starts with every one of us and it requires the support of all segments of our community: corporations, non-profits, governmental leadership, organized labor, parent organizations, community leaders and every resident who cares about the future of our children and our country. 

 United Way is the social action partner for the documentary, Waiting for “Superman” that will premiere here in Chicago on October 1. Waiting for Superman is directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth and examines the crisis of public education in the U.S. told through multiple interlocking stories. 

Using this film as a catalyst for discussion, United Way is bringing together people and organizations with the passion and expertise needed to make sure kids get a quality education. To learn more about United Way’s Education Initiative, please visit here.

We believe we can do it. We believe you can help. It starts with a simple investment in children. It starts with all of us.


Laura Thrall
President and CEO
United Way of Metropolitan Chicago