America's democracy and economic strength is grounded in learning to read
Helping students learn to read and ensuring affordable access to higher education share the same pathway to strengthening America's economic future. We all have a role.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Two disparate moments started me thinking about the nation's need and ability to broaden access to education, and our capacity to respond to the challenge.
An evening forum with a senior Obama administration official at the University of Washington, and an evening dog walk in Portland both provided insights.
Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter sees her mission as working to protect democracy, national security and economic prosperity. She is focused on postsecondary education, adult, career-technical education and federal student aid.
Kanter's work to corral the cost of higher education and stop the erosion of state support for higher education across the country was not lost on the students and educators at Kane Hall.
The challenge laid out by Kanter is twofold. For starters, how to retrain and essentially retool 93 million low-skilled adults to move, in her words, from the assembly line to the robotics plant.
For young Americans, Kanter sees the need to make them better consumers of education. They need to make better choices about money and college selection. One of her goals is to provide information on costs, loans and the value of education.
Quoting a line from President Obama's State of the Union address in January, "building an America that lasts" means at least one year of training beyond high school, Kanter said. The point is to look ahead.
Kanter and others on the UW panel emphasized the elements of success are crystal clear: keeping college affordable, focusing on access and completion, paring down the need for and expense of remedial courses, and aligning community-college classes and transfer requirements.
Many Americans with postsecondary education are suspended between degree requirements. An article in a spring 2012 publication of the Office of Community College Research & Leadership explores ways to rethink degree completion.
Authors Stacy Bennett and Julia Panke Makela explain many people who stopped short of a bachelor's degree often meet requirements for a lower degree or certification. They suggest three pathways to think about recognizing that work.
Kanter wants to provide better information for more informed choices. Yet education remains grounded in the basics, and reading is fundamental.
Reading skills are vital, and Kanter reports a third of children are not ready for kindergarten. The window of opportunity is narrow before frustration sets in, and it has consequences. Sixty-nine percent of Washington students graduate from high school. That means 31 percent are lost along the way.
Where to start? Kanter and others say it all gets back to reading.
On a recent trip to Portland, we invaded the home of old friends for three nights lodging. Tagging along with host John as he walked the family dog, I was reminded he has been a volunteer for 17 years with an Oregon program, Start Making A Reader Today (SMART).
He and his wife are two Phi Beta Kappa Society members who raised a physicist and a bilingual guidance counselor. John turned his math degree into a career in computers and systems management. He has volunteered an hour a week since 1995 at a North Portland elementary school. He is assigned two K-3 students and meets with each for a half-hour during the school year.
The point is to make reading fun. John's school has two dozen volunteer readers. Their interest and stable presence gets noticed. It's about reading, John repeats, not a lesson plan. Each student gets to pick and keep two books a month.
SMART reports that "an independent study by the Eugene Research Institute reveals that fifth-graders who participated in SMART are 60 percent more likely to reach state reading benchmarks than are similar students who did not participate."
America fails to invest in higher education at its peril. Failure to ensure our youngest citizens are ready for that journey is another grievous, expensive mistake.
The government's role is apparent, but we can all make a difference.
Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is email@example.com.