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.
Interesting comment to this Walt Gardner column in Education Week on the role of parents in literacy development:
The solution is to immerse children from low literacy households in literacy rich environments from as early an age as possible.
Unless you are planning to remove children from their homes entirely, children from low literacy households are still going to spend the majority of their time outside of those literacy rich environments.
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.
Education leaders in Biddeford, Maine have come up with a great idea (reported in the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Courier): let’s take our early childhood education leaders and put them in charge of adult education as well.
If the people accountable for early childhood education were also in charge of our adult education system, I think we’d start to see adult literacy more thoughtfully integrated into school readiness strategies, as well as a stronger push for adult literacy outcomes that are more closely tied to the role that parents and other caregivers play in the literacy development of their children. (And the evidence continues to build that this is one of the key strategies we should be taking to address early literacy development.)
There are, of course, many great family literacy program models that do the kinds of things described here, but what appears to be unique and encouraging about this is that it’s a district-wide strategy.