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.
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.
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.