Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has dubbed 2012 the “Year of Education Reform” and various interest groups are already lining up with ideas on the best way to go.

ConnCAN which advocates for more charter school funding, just weighed in with its annual report card. The recently formed Connecticut Council for Education Reform has a list of laudable goals, (with the Board of Ed soap opera ongoing here in Greenwich, I’m particularly fond of the requirement that BOE members undergo training) but while I’m all for rewarding good teachers, I am very wary of linking this too heavily to test scores, for several reasons, not least the temptation for unethical behavior for adults to cheat to benefit themselves rather than the kids, as exemplified by several recent large and high profile scandals.

But we need to take a more holistic view of education. I’ve argued with members of my own party here in Greenwich about the single-minded focus on test scores, because it permeates right down to our kids, who waste time when they could actually be learning either being prepared for testing or being subjected to yet another of the endless battery of tests. But worse than that is the insane pressure. My daughter came home asking for test prep for the pre-PSAT because some of her friends were getting it. Seriously, is this what we’ve come to? If you want to know why the gap between high- income and low-income students in Greenwich is so big, well, there’s a pretty good example of the kinds of advantages wealthy kids have vs. others.

I explained to my daughter that the whole point of taking the PSAT is to get an idea of your strengths and weaknesses before you take the SAT & bought her a book for self-study. I’m sure she’ll blame me if she doesn’t get into Harvard, but so be it.

But viewing the problems we have with education are even more fundamental than this kind of mishegas.  We know from multiple, peer-reviewed studies that having books in the home, access to libraries and adult role models who encourage reading are critical to the development of literacy, particularly for children in low-income families. Yet what have the policies of the “let’s not touch military spending or raise taxes but we have to cut the deficit” crowd been? To cut library funding on the federal, state and local levels, thus reducing access and programming for those who need it most, and cutting school media specialist positions, despite multiple  studies that show that having a trained school librarian improves test scores and helps students develop the media literacy skills critical to the 21st century learning environment.  Furthermore, Congress, in its infinite wisdom, cut 100% of the funding for Reading is Fundamental in the FY11 budget. RIF has provided over 380 million books for disadvantaged kids who might never otherwise experienced owning a book in their home since it was founded in 1966.

We are cutting off our noses to spite our face, and then, curiously, wondering why the test scores reflect that. Poverty matters, as so eloquently expressed by elementary school principal Peter DeWitt in Education Week.

The solutions proposed by groups like the CT Council of Education Reform are going to cost money. Implementing the Common Core Curriculum, and ensuring materials are available for use in lower income schools, for example, looks like it won’t come cheap, if Massachusetts and California are anything to go by.  It’s no use looking at education in isolation. Both a country and as a state, we have to decide if we are going to make education a priority, or if we’re going to let an obsession with ideology increase further the wealth divide and reduce our competitiveness going forward.

Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

Sarah Darer Littman is a critically-acclaimed author of books for young people. Her latest novel, Some Kind of Hate, comes out Nov. 1 from Scholastic Press.

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