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."