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So, you want to reform education?

Do Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and members of the Legislature really want to reform education, or do they just want to make a lot of noise?

If they want to do more than pick fights with teachers and give the illusion of doing something, they will tackle the biggest problem kids face -- poverty.

Sounds impossible, doesn't it? After all these years, the poor are still with us.

But there are proven solutions that make a real difference in people's lives. There certainly are tax strategies, job programs and handouts that help prevent poverty or help families to better support themselves. I'm not even talking about those today.

I'm talking about activities that mitigate the effects of poverty on children living in it right now, today:

• Home visitor programs. Repeatedly, efforts that send a knowledgeable, helpful professional to the homes of babies and small children have been shown to make a difference in the health and education of young people.

Whether the program employed nurses, trained parents, preschool specialists or social workers, decades of research shows the same thing. Parents learn from helpful visitors and apply the lessons to their children -- increasing time spent using books and language, improving disciplinary techniques and catching problems early. The effort leads to better school attendance, better school performance and accomplishments later. Whether the programs are called Parents as Teachers, Birth to Three, Truancy Diversion or something else, they all share one thing -- they help parents to be the sort of good parents they aspire to be.

• Good preschool. West Virginia has made progress here, in a way. The state vastly expanded access to preschool for 4-year-olds. That is a great start, but research shows that the real benefit comes from high-quality full-day programs, says Pat Kusimo, executive director of the Education Alliance. Many of West Virginia's programs are half-day. Also, access to preschool for 3-year-olds needs work. This is especially important for low-income and poor kids. Parents who are working need good, reliable child care, and children need that care to be stimulating and appropriate for their developmental stage. It pays off in many ways, including better school performance later.

Neither of these efforts take place at school. They don't have anything to do with the length of the school year, the number of computers in the classroom or what kind of degree teachers have. But they affect student and school performance mightily.

For the past year, we've heard a lot of talk about insisting that schools do better, test scores rise and more students graduate, all great goals. Most of the discussion has been about what's going to happen during school hours, with little regard to the condition of children as they arrive at the door.

No doubt there are some great improvements to make at school. But won't they be clearer and more effective when a greater majority of students arrive at school nourished, both in body and mind, from birth, ready to learn?

No change at school will have as much effect, or even any effect at all, if the root of the problem is not addressed -- that more than 25 percent of West Virginia children live in poverty. A still greater percentage live close enough to the official poverty line to face the same difficulties. Still more deal with nutrition, violence and drug problems at home.

Who doesn't want better outcomes in education?

The question is who is really serious about improving conditions for children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade? They wash out of high school and then have a higher likelihood of unemployment, unwanted pregnancy and even jail, all of which perpetuates the cycle for another generation. But their problems start way back at birth, or sooner.

We should know the answer in a few weeks. If Gov. Tomblin and lawmakers support and fund efforts that mitigate the effects of poverty, that help parents and children grow up healthy, mature and ready for school, then we'll know they are serious about seeing kids do better in school.

If they spend 60 days trying to prove who is more concerned or tougher or enamored with the trendiest fad, then we'll know they're interested only in a lot of sound and fury.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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