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.
From today’s edition of POLITICO’s Morning Education:
HILLARY CLINTON REVISITS EARLY ED: Hillary Clinton told the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters last night that she would like to see the number of families the program serves “grow exponentially” in the coming years. Clinton spoke at the organization’s annual awards dinner. She touted the benefits of early education and the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative, which encourages parents to read and talk to their children. A mother told Clinton recently that she couldn’t read very well. “I said ‘You’re talking to a 6-month-old. Just hold the book, tell a story, point to pictures,'” Clinton said. “You don’t have to be some great reader.’ (my emphasis)
I understand the well-intentioned point here: all parents, whatever their literacy level, can and should talk with their kids and introduce them to books and other printed materials. Which is fine, but the fact is, a parent’s poor literacy really can have a huge negative impact on the literacy development of their children.(See here, here, and especially here, for example). We should encourage individual parents with poor literacy skills to introduce books to their kids as best they can, but that doesn’t mean that parents with low literacy skills isn’t a problem. Suggesting otherwise will lead to unwise policy choices.
An editorial in the San Antonio Express-News last week claims that there is just one “formal” adult literacy program for the entire city of San Antonio—stunning, if true—and calls on the local community to come together to address the need for adult literacy services the same way it has come together to support early childhood education and homelessness:
The city of San Antonio has shown great initiative in addressing early childhood education. The creation of Haven for Hope was a bold attempt to provide one-stop services for the homeless population.
There is no reason the community can’t rally around improving adult literacy, as well. It is in the best interest of our families, economy, present and future.
According to Pakistan’s English-language newspaper The Nation, Imran Khan, the leader of a rising political party in Pakistan, plans to treat the country’s dismal literacy rates as “a national emergency” if his party comes to power.
Kahn is proposing “a twin track approach” that will expand primary education to universal access while simultaneously “tackl[ing] the adult illiteracy problem with all available resources.”
In a blog post published by The News Tribune, Kahn calls literacy “a fundamental human right” that is “essential to social and human development.” and explains why it is necessary to address both adult and children’s literacy in order to raise Pakistan’s overall literacy rate:
Tackling illiteracy starts with achieving universal primary education so that Pakistan’s 25 million children, who at present do not go to school, will have an opportunity for free, accessible, excellent primary education in a system that is uniform throughout the country. Educational institutions will be devolved to the town level with management at district and sub-district levels. Curriculums will be improved, teacher training radically increased and a new school building program will be initiated nationwide.
At the same time, I will create a special task force to pursue reaching full literacy in Pakistan by 2025, with a state sponsored mass literacy campaign for adults, making the best use of available resources. This will be an organised campaign using private and public sector resources, with major public media input and with programmes planned with relevance to poor and rural communities.
Kahn also outlines the economic case for improving his country’s literacy rate:
I have vowed to increase the education budget from 2.1% to 5% of the GDP. Illiteracy in Pakistan is costing an estimated $5.86 billion or 1.2% of GDP. The one-off investment in a successful literacy campaign will have diminishing costs and increasing returns over ten years, increasing the country’s GDP and lifting the country out of its current cycle of poverty, discord and violence.