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.)

The Problem With Defining Adult Education Outcomes Too Narrowly

Nice article in the Stamford Advocate on an ESL program based at a Stamford, CT elementary school that includes a weekly family literacy night:

“Its wonderful,” said Stark Principal Mark Bonasera who stopped by to attend the event. He said the program has really helped the school, kids and families. It brings the parents into the school and really makes them part of the community, he said, and it also helps parents help their children with work.

Elsa Martinez, 47, said this is the first time she’s really had a chance to learn the language. She and her husband came to America from Peru 18 years ago and started a family. Both had jobs and she didn’t have time to learn to write the language. She said as a house cleaner, she didn’t have to speak the language very well, but did know it well enough to understand people.

Shortly after her daughter Emily Soruluz was born about five years ago, Martinez, who is married but kept her maiden name, said she stopped working. And when Emily entered kindergarten this year, Martinez entered school, too.

Neither spoke English, but on Wednesday they were both doing well. “Absolutely,” Martinez said, when asked if the program was also a help to her daughter. “I’m available to help her.

“She said she wasn’t able to do that for her son, who is 17.

And Emily is doing well, she entered kindergarten unable to read or speak English, but on Wednesday she was reading her part with a strong voice and eagerly answering questions, much like the other students. (my emphasis)

You’ll note that Elsa Martinez appears to no longer the in the workforce. But surely no one would argue that the outcomes here—a parent fully engaged and able to assist in their child’s education, improved reading and classroom engagement on the part of the child—aren’t desirable public policy goals. Yet, in my experience, many policymakers (and funders) continue to insist that the goal of adult education should be exclusively measured in terms of occupational outcomes.

Thankfully, such narrow framing is not embedded in the law that governs most federal adult education spending (Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA), but if you think siloing off adult education from children’s education is a bad idea, you’ll want to monitor current WIA reauthorization efforts for changes that would force communities to break off the connections they are building between federally funded adult literacy education and (especially) early childhood education, and encourage them to seek ways to better leverage WIA Title II with other federal education investments and goals. Washington’s current infatuation with pre-K education is a good place to start. If the goal for pre-K is to ensure that more kids are ready for K-12, then why wouldn’t you want to look at the primary source of federal support for programs that help low-skilled parents improve their literacy for ways to leverage those efforts? I’ve never understood why you can’t do that kind of cross-generational leveraging while at the same time strengthening the linkages between WIA Title II programs and workforce development for those adult learners in the workforce.*

Granted, I have no idea if the program in the story above received any federal support, but the point is still the same, from a broad public policy perspective—why shouldn’t it?

*An alternative would be to find another place in federal legislation for adult literacy funding that is not directly related to occupational outcomes, but I’m not sure how that would work—either politically or in practice.

Letter to the Editor: “Adult Education Overlooked”

Letter to the editor published in the November 21st edition of The Bangor Daily News:

I write to expand on John Rohman’s Nov. 12 letter about Early Childhood education funding and the education-economy connection, specifically on behalf of another often-overlooked part of that picture: adult education.

Adult education’s impact is clear when we read about adult diplomas and equivalencies. And thanks to the foresight of state government, we are seeing the positive impact of adult education’s state-funded Maine College Transitions Program, reducing the need for developmental-level college classes.

Perhaps less obvious is the impact of our adult literacy work and the benefits that improving adults’ basic skills has on those around them, particularly adults parenting young children. A bottom line is that well-prepared parents can actively support their children’s development, including school-readiness during the critical 0-5 years. (my emphasis)

Literate parents are not only essential but may eventually reduce the need for ongoing increased funding addressing educational deficiencies. However, it is critical to note that funding for adult education begins at home. Statewide, 42 percent of funding for programs comes from locally raised taxes. State subsidy reimburses certain expenses, providing 22 percent of adult education funding.

Local support provides direct student services and indirect benefits to the community. A recent study by Franklin County Adult Education and University of Maine at Farmington calculated that $1 invested in GED programming returned $7 through increased earning ability and participation in the economy. So to use Rohman’s words in a different way: Even though our political and fiscal climate makes additional spending unattractive, investing in [adult education] will benefit our communities and our businesses both today and in the future.

Bonnie Fortini
Roque Bluffs

More on San Antonio’s Foolish Decision to Cut Its Adult Education Investment

The San Antonio Express-News has been doing a good job covering San Antonio’s shortsighted decision to close the city’s Community Learning Centers. Here’s the latest, from columnist Josh Brodesky:

The city that has made national news for its investment in pre-K education is getting out of the adult-ed biz.

“The city does not place a priority on adult literacy,” Carolyn Heath said. “Kids are cute. Adults have baggage. Adults are complicated. Its ugly. Its messy.”

For years, the city has operated adult learning centers. It would handle building operations and education providers would provide the teaching. The centers serve about 8,000 students a year.

But at the end of the year, the city is calling it quits. The move will save millions of dollars over the next two years, and potentially send thousands of students scrambling.

Of course, that two-year savings will end up costing the city much, much more in the long run, while simultaneously sabotaging it’s investment in early learning. It isn’t a question of priority—you have to do both.