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 Skills Message Washington Will Ignore

There hasn’t been a formal announcement yet, but multiple sources inform me that Senator Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) will be unveiling their long-anticipated preschool education bill, based on President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal, on November 13th  or 14th—with, in all likelihood, a really big Capitol Hill event to go along with it.

I mention this because the next big PIAAC report release—the OECD’s in-depth analysis of the U.S. data—is set for release on November 12th (see: It’s a near certainty that the hoopla over the preschool bill—a major priority of both the President and Sen. Harkin—will completely preoccupy the administration that week, and dominate the attention span of both lawmakers and pundits.

I also wonder if the introduction of this legislation also makes the prospects for Workforce Investment Act (WIA – the source of most federal adult education funding) reauthorization a little shakier, although there is a going to be a major push this month by advocates to get the Senate bill that was passed late last summer to the Senate floor for a vote this fall. But the preschool bill makes the already overstuffed House and Senate education agenda even more crowded, as almost every major piece of federal education legislation is overdue for reauthorization. Higher education is getting a lot of attention at the moment, for example.

And that’s on top of all the wrangling on the budget, and other high-profile items, like immigration reform. (At a conference I attended yesterday at Georgetown Law School, while it was made pretty clear that the prospects for an immigration reform bill getting through this Congress still aren’t all that great, work continues on immigration bills in the House—and clearly some Republicans want to keep this issue in the spotlight.)

So, if you’re an adult education advocate, be prepared for a frustrating week mid-November. You’ll be hearing a lot from pre-K proponents about the economic benefits of investing in preschool. Meanwhile, the new evidence showing that the basic skills of the current American workforce significantly lag behind much of the rest of the industrialized world will largely be ignored. If you believe that the American economy can’t wait another 15 or 20 years for pre-K to provide us with a more highly skilled workforce, you are going to have to make your voices  louder than ever over the next few weeks and months.

Finally, I mentioned this the other day, but it bears repeating: the countries that get this right don’t make it an either/or proposition: they invest in early education and provide meaningful lifelong learning opportunities for adults too. From OECD’s initial summary analysis of the findings (page 13):

The impressive progress that some countries have made in improving the skills of their population over successive generations shows what can be achieved. These countries have established systems that combine high-quality initial education with opportunities and incentives for the entire population to continue to develop proficiency in reading and numeracy skills, whether outside work or at the workplace, after initial education and training are completed.  (my emphasis)