Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Assessment of Literacy Programs

I am passing on a question from Taylor Bolz, a student in a class at George Washington University titled "UNESCO: Agenda for the 21st Century" and the response by Frank Method, a member of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO who has been lecturing to the class and advising students.

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.

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.
I hope this helps. A suggestion: Rather than trying to find the solution to the complex issue of how to develop standardized assessment instruments and protocols for literacy programs, you might address how UNESCO tries to create forums, clearinghouses, monitoring systems, portals and other mechanisms to facilitate exchange and professional support among the many entities work on literacy.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

In terms of the political sensitivity, just think of the madrasas that are teaching kids in Pakistan and Indonesia to read Arabic so that they can read the Koran in the original language. That education I think has obvious political ramifications, orienting the kids to an international Islamic culture rather than to the Indonesian nation state as presumably would a government school.

When you expand the definition of "literacy" from "learning to read" to other kinds of literacy, such as information literacy (which includes the ability to evaluate the credibility of sources) or scientific literacy (creationism versus evolution) there are other obvious and important political implications.