Addressing Adult Literacy Can “Create a Legacy of Inter-Generational Achievement”

A New Zealand Literacy group is citing research from Australia, of all places, as further evidence that “addressing adult literacy needs has the potential to create a legacy of inter-generational achievement.”

Research published last week in Australia on the effects of positive parental engagement on children’s learning has serious and urgent implications for New Zealand. Literacy Aotearoa is calling for the government to recognise that adult literacy issues affect not just the current generation of adults, but also the educational performance of their children(my emphasis)

The study, ‘Parental engagement in learning and schooling: Lessons from research,’ which was commissioned by the Australian Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau, notes that parental engagement has a positive impact on many indicators of student achievement. These include higher grades and test scores, enrolment in higher level programmes and advanced classes, higher successful completion of classes, lower drop-out rates, higher graduation rates, and a greater likelihood of commencing postsecondary education.

The study references academic research, using economic modelling to examine the impact of parental engagement. The research showed that parental effort has a large effect on student achievement, compared with school resources such as per pupil spending on teaching. That effort improved students’ academic outcomes to levels equivalent to those of students whose parents had received an additional four to six years of education.

The study also references a 2003 report into community and family influences on the education of New Zealand children prepared by the Ministry of Education.

“There are three lessons New Zealand can learn from this research conducted by our near neighbour,” says Te Tumuaki (Chief Executive) of Literacy Aotearoa, Bronwyn Yates. “The first is to confirm just how important parental engagement is. The second is to note the implications for children whose parents, despite their desire to see their children succeed educationally, are less able to positively engage in assisting them because of their own difficulties with literacy, language and numeracy. The third is to recognise the opportunity offered by this pre-Christmas report for government and communities to take urgent steps to address the high literacy needs of adult New Zealanders, as a genuinely change-making investment in families for generations to come.” (my emphasis)

What Does Governor Romney’s Pledge Not to Cut Education Spending Really Mean?

During last week’s debate, Mitt Romney made what sounded like, to many, a straightforward promise not to cut federal education spending if elected: “I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and—and grants that go to people going to college… I’m not planning on making changes there.”

How seriously you take this pledge seems to depend a lot on which candidate you support. But it’s fair to argue that there’s some wiggle room in Romney’s statement. For one thing, we know that presidents can propose what are ultimately going to be de facto program cuts to some programs but call them something else. Over the last several budgets, for example, the Obama administration has proposed what are essentially cuts to certain federal education programs by proposing to “consolidate” them under broader program titles. While that doesn’t necessarily mean that overall education spending gets cut, it can lead to certain funding streams being reduced under the new consolidated programs, whatever they may be. (Thus the administration was able to say that they proposed an overall increase to education in FY11, even while creating conditions that essentially resulted in the elimination of federal funding for family literacy when it consolidated away the Even Start program.)

There are also programs outside the Department of Education budget, such as the Corporation for National and Community Service (to pick one example) that provide educational programs. This you could eliminate CNCS while still claiming you are technically not cutting education, even though elimination of this program would effectively reduce federal education resources. (By this logic, some would argue that eliminating funding for PBS, as Romney did say he would do, would also effectively be an education cut.)

And while the automatic, across-the-board sequestration cuts that are currently set to occur on January 2nd can’t by any stretch be considered Romney policy, if he is elected and those cuts go into effect, he will in fact be presiding over a significant cut to education spending, and/or be working with Congress on legislation to eliminate sequestration with another plan.  His pledge to not cut education spending would be more significant, I think, if he would make it explicit that his sequester replacement plan would leave education spending untouched.

Most importantly, as we’ve seen over the last several years, Congress and the administration often must compromise in order to get a budget passed, and in that compromise the administration may be forced to cut programs it would rather not cut in order to preserve funding for programs it believes are more important. If Romney is elected, we can assume that Republicans will retain control of the House, and possibly gain control of the Senate (where Paul Ryan would have the tiebreaker vote). Doesn’t it seem likely that Congressional Republicans would craft a budget with significant education cuts whether Romney likes it or not? And then what would he do? Would Romney actually pick a fight with his own party over these cuts?

I think it’s safe to assume that the Obama administration did not intend to reduce education spending when it took office in 2009. But that hasn’t prevented federal education spending from declining significantly. Is it reasonable to expect that a Romney administration would make the same effort—and with better success—at fighting off Congressional spending cuts to education than the Obama administration has?

A good followup question to Romney about his debate statement would be: Does your pledge not to cut education spending include a promise to veto any legislation passed by Congress that includes education cuts? I hope this comes up again in a future debate.

P.S. For adult education advocates, it’s also worth thinking about what other areas of the budget Romney might propose going after in order to preserve K-12 and higher education funding. Is adult education part of the education funding Romney is pledging to protect? (Doubtful.) If not, would adult education be even more vulnerable to cuts as Romney struggles to find other areas of discretionary spending to eliminate in order to offset the K-12/higher education spending holds?

The Common Core’s Influence on Adult Literacy Goes Beyond the GED

Aside from it’s influence on the redesign of the GED, the debate over the Common Core for K-12 can also serve as a window into the views of K-12 teachers on what constitutes adequate adult literacy in the 21st century. This recent Education Week piece by Paul Barnwell is a good example:

Adult literacy in 2012 means being able to synthesize information from multiple online sources to write a blog post or substantive email. It means analyzing which online tools will best serve your communications purpose. It means making smart decisions about what information is useful online, and how to curate and filter the endless stream of data coming in. It means reviewing your digital footprint and learning how to take some control over what information you broadcast to the world, from your tweets, profile pictures, and recommended links.

Barnwell adds “This is not to say that traditional reading and writing skills don’t have their place,” (specifically, he thinks that “[w]e still need to continue to teach students to sustain their attention and thought on longer texts), but he calls for a “greater balance between traditional literacy skills and interactive competencies.”

School Librarians and Literacy

According to this article published in The Huffington Post last week, 58 of 124 D.C. pubic schools are losing their librarians this school year—up from 34 last year. The article begins by describing the accomplishments of one of the school librarians who will not be back:

When Marla McGuire was hired as a librarian at Cleveland Elementary School in the District of Columbia some four years ago, she was first librarian at the school in eight years. McGuire worked to raise $50,000 for new materials, collaborated with other teachers to create an outdoor classroom and encouraged parents to read with their children.

“I really tried to embed myself in the school community,” McGuire told The Huffington Post. “I wanted to focus on a love of learning and really get a spark going.”

Soon, children who came to her knowing nothing about libraries — a student once asked her timidly how much it might cost to “rent” a book from the school’s collection — got excited about reading, she says.

I particularly want to draw your attention to the last sentence in the first paragraph, where we learn that one of Ms McGuire’s accomplishments was that she “encouraged parents to read with their children.”

I think this story demonstrates that as a city, (and it’s not just this city that has this problem) we aren’t really thinking through what resources need to be in place in order to improve literacy rates. I don’t know how many kids developed a reading habit as a result of Ms McGuire’s efforts, or how many parents started reading to their children as a result of her encouragement, (and maybe we need to figure out how to document this better), but even if we’re talking about just a handful of families, it seems to me that as a matter of policy her position was probably a good investment.