Q. I'm researching literacy programs and the ways in which they are assessed. I am trying to figure out how UNESCO can assess contextual programs and convince donors to fund them if assessment cannot be fully explained through standardized, "scientific" testing. I've been reading the work of Phillip W. Jones on the political nature of literacy planning and funding... I really wasn't expecting to find out that literacy was so political within UNESCO. Maybe I was being naive but nevertheless, it's fascinating stuff. I was hoping that you could give me some direction in the way of websites, authors, publications, articles or anything of that nature.
A. This is a great question. Literacy programs are notoriously poorly assessed, in part because there are so many different types of literacy programs, with differing objectives, and the vast majority of literacy programs are provided by non-government entities, international and national (including religious groups) using funds they raise independently, making it difficult for public authorities and external funders to collect information and assess the programs. Further, externally funded programs increasingly bundle literacy programs as components of multi-functional projects for adult education, rural education, health education, maternal education, workforce development etc etc. Often, the literacy component assessment is not much more than a measure of the numbers of learners participating in or completing the program, with either no objective measure of competency or such project-specific measures that comparisons are not possible.
- You might look at the LAMP (Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Program) of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. This program is much needed, but it has been slow in developing due to a variety of technical difficulties with such measurement and reporting, and due to budget constraints. Development of the LAMP activities depends on funding from other international agencies and is beyond what UNESCO can carry on its regular budget, forcing a variety of compromises and delays.
- A good regional example is the Assessment, Information Systems, Monitoring and Statistics (AIMS) program of the UNESCO Regional Office in Bangkok.As
- The UNESCO Institute for Education in Hamburg has been renamed/reinvented as the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.
- You can find a listing of major international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and research groups concerned with literacy and adult education on the members page of ALADIN (the Adult Learning and Documentation Information Network).
- See notes on major follow-up activities from Dakar on literacy and adult education, including contact people at this UNESCO Hamburg website.
- The Global Monitoring Report on EFA for 2006 focused on literacy and adult education. It is widely available in hard copy as well.
- In the US, the main center is the National Center for Adult Literacy, which also functions as the UNESCO International Literacy Institute, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. On the Institute's projects page you can find links to other research centers, clearinghouses and working groups concerned with literacy and adult education.
A couple things to keep in mind in discussion literacy programs.
- There is more progress on adult literacy than is apparent from the aggregate statistics. Basically, the older generations change very slowly and literacy is improving most for younger cohorts; since longevity is improving, the rate of illiteracy in the total population is not decreasing as quickly as that among young adults. The least progress is being made in the countries with failing governments, mired in conflict and with conditions which preclude large scale NGO-based programs.
- Large scale national literacy programs generally do not work. In some cases they have become political movements, and often have turned repressive, reinforcing correct thinking and official ideology and religious and political orthodoxy. The most effective and sustained large scale programs generally have involved large numbers of small programs each pursuing literacy in its own way. However, the composite result from all literacy programs is generally positive. Thus, there are serious public policy issues about whether it is even desirable to have standardized measures and criteria for literacy programs. Direct measures of literacy competencies are more possible and desirable.
- It is arguable that the major function of literacy programs is not just the actual achievement of literacy improvements but the deepening of civil society involvement generally in a variety of community activities. In fact, I have argued that the conventional relationship, assuming that NGOs are major agents for fostering literacy improvement, is backwards. Cultures which value and foster literacy, meaning access to information and political space for giving voice to opinion and exchange of information, are best evidenced by the emergence of complex and overlapping networks of civil society organizations. See Larry Diamond writing on the cultural foundations of democracy, or The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by by Fareed Zakaria.