International Literacy Day 2016

ILD 2016 Poster

ILD 2016 Poster – Click for full size

Today is the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day (ILD), an annual observance promoted by UNESCO to “actively mobilize the international community and to promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities and societies.”

UNESCO is celebrating ILD’s 50th anniversary under the banner “Reading the Past, Writing the Future,” in recognition of the past five decades of national and “international engagement, efforts and progress made to increase literacy rates around the world.”

The main global celebration of the day takes place at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, in the form of a two-day conference and the awarding of UNESCO’s International Literacy Prizes for 2016. In addition, a new program, the Global Alliance for Literacy (GAL) will be launched. UNESCO calls GAL a “new and ambitious initiative to make all major stakeholders pull together to promote literacy as a foundation for lifelong learning.”

There are events, articles, and statements from government officials around the globe today to mark the occasion. ILD celebrations are generally more prominent outside of the Unites States, although many U.S. adult literacy programs mark the day as well. This UNESCO page has links to some of the more prominent ILD 2016 events.

I find that ILD provides a good opportunity to explore literacy efforts outside the U.S., and so I always take some time out on September 8 to explore ILD-related activities in other countries. If I have time today, I will post a few links.

For those of you who are fans of infographics, here is the official UNESCO ILD 2016 infographic (click on it to see the entire thing):

ILD 2016 - Link to Infographic

Rebranding Family Literacy

Two articles in the National Journal last week provide further hope that the rebranding/refashioning of family literacy, a once powerful and influential approach to adult education that fell out of fashion for some reason over the last decade or so, is gaining traction.

The first piece, by Fawn Johnson, examines the “two-generation” approach to literacy practiced by the Briya Public Charter School here in Washington, D.C., a program that provides a preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds while their parents are offered English-language instruction, basic computer skills, and parenting classes—as well as skills that will help them nurture their child’s developing literacy skills. What’s interesting, though not mentioned specifically in the piece, is that Briya’s roots are as a federally funded Even Start program, a federal initiative that not so long ago provided upwards of 150,000 families (that’s from memory—I can’t locate the exact figures at the moment) with such services in programs across the country. This “two-gen” approach certainly had fallen out of favor among federal policymakers by the end of the last decade, as Even Start funding was cut several times by Congress, continually proposed for elimination by President Obama in his budgets, and finally eliminated for good in 2012.

Thankfully, Mary’s Center, which started the program, developed strategies that made their program less dependent on federal funds, beginning with going after charter school funding back in 2006 and forming the Even Start/ESF Public Charter School, which later evolved into Briya. While it’s good news that Briya survived and even grew despite the cut, many (most?) Even Start programs have shut their doors. If the family-focused approach is indeed back in fashion, it’s important to understand that we let a lot of other programs like Briya wither and die over the last several years. Maybe its time to work together to revive federal support for such initiatives.

The second article, by Alana Semuels of The Atlantic, examines the two-generation model championed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, focusing on a program in Mechanicsville, Georgia where they are piloting this approach. Here again, as Semuels’ points out, the general concept is not new (the paper cited twice in the article is actually from 1995), and this model appears to focus less on education services for the parents as much on other services and assistance. But the basic idea appears similar to the Briya approach.

The term “family literacy” started to go out of fashion around the same time that Even Start was under attack (the National Center for Family Literacy actually changed their name to the National Center for Families Learning a few years ago). Sadly, the phrases “family literacy” and “Even Start” don’t appear once in either article. But I doubt there are many substantial differences between the approach they are taking at Briya today and the approach they took when it was an Even Start program.

Whatever it’s called, and however much of the approach is actually “new,” the embrace (or re-embrace)  of family-focused, dual adult/child literacy approaches by policy and media influencers is long overdue. It’s especially heartening to read a quote like this one from Anne Mosle, the executive director of Ascend, at the Aspen Institute, in the Johnson piece: “For all the strides we’ve made in investing in early education, we can’t put all of the weight on the back of the child.”

If you scroll back through this blog you’ll find no shortage of posts lamenting what appeared to me to be a frustrating lack of understanding—most notably, in the pre-K movement of recent years—of the critical role of parents in childhood literacy development (I even wrote an op-ed about it, many, many years ago), and this renewed interest in linking the two again may present some interesting new opportunities to advance the adult education cause in the coming years. (Although there is still a lot of work to do to connect the dots—neither article conveys any sense that an adult education system actually exists, let alone the role it has played and continues to play in these efforts.)

Adult Literacy Programs at the Library of Congress Literacy Awards

LOC  Literacy Awards BookletI had the good luck to be in attendance at the presentation of the 2014 Library of Congress Literacy (LOC) Awards on October 8th. Now in its second year, this program, supported by philanthropist David Rubenstein, honors organizations that have made “outstanding contributions to increasing literacy in the United States or abroad.” This year’s top honors went to Room to Read, which was awarded the David M. Rubenstein Prize ($150,000); Start Making a Reader Today (SMART), winner of the American Prize ($50,000); and the Mother Child Education Foundation (AÇEV), winner of the International Prize ($50,000).

None of these organizations are adult-focused, although the AÇEV program provides adult literacy services for low-income mothers of the children they serve. (AÇEV also employs technology extensively in their program, using a mix of television and online materials. If you are at all interested in technology and adult education,  I suggest you check them out, although I should note that their Web site is in Turkish.)

I bring all of this to your attention because this year there was an increased emphasis on the other purpose of the program, which is the dissemination of effective practices, culled from not only the three prize-winners, but also a subset of the organizations that applied for an award this year but did not win. The LOC has published a Best Practices booklet summarizing those practices, and additional resources, such as symposia and webcasts, are in the works. Here, several adult education organizations are featured, including ProLiteracy, the Literacy Assistance Center of New York City, Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford, and California Library Literacy Services (CLLS).


Mr. Cranky’s Post of the Day

Earlier this week, when I was reviewing International Literacy Day blog posts and news items, a sentence from this post on the Global Partnership for Education’s Education for All Blog, by Aaron Benavot, caught my eye:

“One reason for slow progress in enabling adults to acquire basic literacy skills is inadequate education in their childhood.”

It says something, I think, about the degree to which early childhood education is seen as a silver bullet in conventional policy circles that a perfectly well-meaning person can make such a statement without noticing that it contains a fundamentally illogical premise. Until we gain the power of time travel, helping adults acquire basic literacy skills by going back in time and improving the education they received as children is not a realistic policy strategy.

Improving childhood literacy is a worthy and important goal, but it can only have an impact on adult literacy rates in the future, and only the relatively distant future, when those children are actually adults (15-20 years in the future). I think that is what Benavot is trying to say. But, to be clear, it does nothing to improve current adult literacy rates. Nothing. Assuming we also want to improve adult literacy right now, or in the relatively near future—and we should be—we need to invest resources in efforts that actually address adult education. Right now. Otherwise we are punting on the current generation of low-skilled adults in favor of a strategy that is solely focused on investing in future generations. Not, I think, what this post is actually suggesting, but I think it’s fair to point out that this sentence futzes up this point, and that many early childhood education advocates seem to do so as well.