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Tip: Tie education changes to student needs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I heard something last week that is worth repeating: "Everyone is talking about this education audit as if it were a comprehensive universe of ideas. We can do everything in that audit and probably save some money, and not make any difference in third-grade reading."

That was Howard Seufer Jr., a partner at Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love and a board member at the Education Alliance.

Seufer, a former chairman of the Education Alliance board, is right to hold up third-grade reading proficiency as a worthy benchmark.

Most children who fail to master reading by the end of third grade don't manage to do it later. They struggle as school changes from learning to read to reading to learn. They fall further behind every year and many drop out of high school. This lowers their lifetime earnings and the nation's competitiveness and general productivity, the Annie E. Casey Foundation concluded in its 2010 report "EARLY WARNING! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters."

"If you read well by the end of third grade, you change the academic discussion from then on," added Pat Kusimo, executive director of the Education Alliance.

Of course, rearing children who read well by the end of third grade starts much earlier than third grade. It happens in first grade when so much basic reading instruction and practice takes place. It happens in preschool and kindergarten when children play with shapes, sounds, rhymes and stories. It goes back to the toddler years and infancy, when adults sing songs, practice new words, read aloud and talk to babies. And at any of those points, if children aren't getting what they need, it will hurt them later. That's when intervention is needed. That is where the state's attention should be focused.

While the education report done by a Pennsylvania consulting firm and the state Board of Education's response to it contain some worthwhile recommendations, members of the Education Alliance are concerned that the opportunity for real improvements could be lost. I think they are right.

"The problem we have with the audit is that it is about fiscal efficiency," Kusimo said. "It's not about educational optimization. Those are two different things."

While everyone wants to spend money more efficiently, such changes should be tied to how they are going to benefit students, the Alliance recommends.

Whatever the Legislature does with education this year, lawmakers should be sure to clearly state what outcomes are expected, what support will be given to meet those goals and how those goals will be measured.

"What gets monitored gets done," Kusimo said.

In addition to third-grade reading proficiency, the Alliance recommends making changes based on reducing the number of kids who have to repeat grades, improving test scores, enrolling more students in rigorous math and science and increasing high school completion rates.

In short, don't start with what is best for adults or anyone's pet reform project. Start with the achievements and outcomes you hope to attain, and do what has been shown to make a difference.

"I had a professor who used to say we're data rich and analysis poor," Kusimo said. "I understand now what he meant. We have so much information. But we are not analyzing it and using it in a way that informs our decision making."

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com


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