President Bush is right to put an emphasis on reading in his education budget. No skill is more important for children to master early, and none is more central to today's information-driven economy.
And yet less than a third of the country's fourth-graders read at grade level, according to Education Secretary Rod Paige. His department's analysis of last year's National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams, which are the closest thing we have to a national report card, also showed widening gaps between the best readers and the worst.
The immediate debate in budget-minded Washington is how much it will cost to close those gaps. In its budget plan, the administration is boosting money to Education more than any other department - an 11.5 percent increase. That will likely fall short of what Democrats would like to see.
But more money is only one part of the picture when it comes to reading. Equally important are teaching methods and holding schools responsible for reading progress.
Secretary Paige, the president's point man for reading, built his career on a belief that all children, regardless of background, could be reading by first grade.
He didn't quite attain that goal during seven years as superintendent of schools in Houston. But Paige did succeed in significantly raising test scores for reading at some previously struggling elementary schools in the city. His approach: a highly structured reading program with a strong emphasis on phonics - relating letter sounds to words.
But far from everyone in education endorses that approach to reading instruction. A debate over how best to teach reading has raged for years. But a consensus may be emerging, as seen in last year's findings by the National Reading Panel. The panel, set up by Congress, concluded that a combination of methods resulted in the best teaching. A grasp of letter sounds as related to words is important; so is oral reading and vocabulary building.
Another point of contention is just when formal reading instruction should begin. Mr. Bush has called for its inclusion in Head Start preschool programs. Yale psychologist Edward Zigler, who helped create Head Start in the 1960s, has argued against a phonics-based reading program at that early age. Three- and 4-year-olds, he writes, should be taught, above all, to listen, take turns, and get along with others - all of which lay a foundation for tasks like learning to read.
The administration, with its belief in preserving local control of schools, shouldn't dictate teaching methods. It should, however, help disseminate the best thinking about combining teaching methods to develop good readers. And it should show a sensitivity to the need to prepare young children for academic work.
With those basics in mind, and the added push from the NAEP tests, the Bush-Paige reading project should find needed fervor and funding.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor