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Literacy Leaders Key to Moving the Needle in Global Education

By April Hall
 | Apr 15, 2016

IMG_1589Cross-sector education leaders from around the world came together on Thursday in New York City for the International Literacy Association’s second annual Leaders for Literacy Day hosted at the Institute of International Education.  The discussion, featuring government, foundations, nonprofit and private sector stakeholders, furthered the conversation on how to advance literacy leadership around the world. At the event and through an online dialogue, advocates shared their successes, failures and actionable goals for how to create a more literate world.

“Can we make literacy more relevant by relating to learners’ lives and contexts?” asked Lily Valtchanova, Liaison Officer for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “Learners all live in different situations… We should adapt and tailor our efforts.”

She also noted key areas, including the international empowerment of women, the end of hunger and reliable health and hygiene that must be addressed in order to improve literacy rates worldwide.

Diane Barone, president of the Board of Directors for the International Literacy Association (ILA), spoke about the importance of research in the progress of literacy.

“We equip literacy champions who are leading classrooms and schools by using research to provide effective instruction,” Barone said. She encouraged everyone to join ILA efforts to develop leaders in our schools and communities.

“Teachers are committed. Teachers value students,” Barone said. “And literacy is a fundamental right of every person.”

Marcie Craig Post, executive director of ILA, said the definition of leadership can be wide, bringing everyone to the table, which is vital to finally making a push against a stubborn literacy statistic.

Fourteen percent of adults in the United States cannot read and that number hasn’t moved for a decade, she said. “By this point in time, we would think we would have a better solution.”

Rebecca McDonald—one of two Spotlight speakers Thursday—is trying new ways to tackle the challenges of bringing literacy opportunities to the developing world. Along with her husband, McDonald founded Library for All, a non-profit that brings digital libraries to developing economies around the world.

They started in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010. “I thought, how are these kids ever supposed to get an education of any kind when the teachers average a sixth grade education themselves and they have access to zero books? I thought it was because of the earthquake,” McDonald said. “But that’s what Haiti looked like before the earthquake.”

After tons of research and creating a cloud system of digital books, Library for All was born. Haiti had its first access to books, not just that, but those with characters that looked like them, written in their own language.

“Often the books (sent to Haiti and other developing countries) are completely irrelevant and without context,” McDonald said. “Kids in Haiti don’t want to read about kids playing in snow.” She said when a class of students first saw a culturally appropriate books, they all squealed with delight.

McDonald continues to grow Library for All around the world. She said she partners with other organizations, publishers, and now even corporations to expand to countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Mongolia.

In his Spotlight address, Steven Duggan, Director of Worldwide Education Strategy for Microsoft, echoed McDonald’s statements about the difficulty so many people have finding books in their native tongues and how technology companies can partner with non-profit groups to spread literacy.

“Ninety-five percent of languages on the planet are spoken by 100,000 people or less.” Further, Duggan asked, “How useful is it to have a printed book at home, where no one can read?”

Duggan’s team at Microsoft realized no one had yet cracked the code of how to bring kids appropriate books that could be effectively used in their homes, so they would have to innovate a solution.

And in the process of innovation, the team would have to be willing to fail.

Their first trial gave nearly 300 teachers the technology to author any book in minority languages and upload it so it could be read aloud through a handheld device. Not a single teacher used the program.

“There was not a single learner who learned from what we’d done,” Duggan said. So the Microsoft team tweaked the program after learning the teachers didn’t have access to Internet-connected computers. They made the technology functional offline, a change that made all the difference. Now they are able to put the software on handheld PCs that cost about $99 and reach learners in developing countries where minority languages are prevalent.

“That [risk of failure] is hard for public organizations, for non-profits, and NGOs,” he said. “They don’t want to move forward without a guarantee of success. Because they’re using public money, money people donated. Maybe money donated by children.”

Duggan said this is where these organizations can use industry, particularly the tech industry. “Don’t ask for money. It’s the least valuable thing a technology company can give you,” he said. “What they can give you is their expertise.”

The morning continued with a panel moderated by Liz Willen, editor-in-chief of The Hechinger Report. The discussion featured a diverse group of literacy advocates from the philanthropic, non-profit, public and private sectors and ranged in topics from how to empower educators and principals to be literacy leaders to making technology most useful and accessible, to getting culturally-relevant and age-appropriate books in the hands of children in developing countries.

Leslie Engle Young, Director of Impact for Pencils of Promise, agreed technology is a useful tool in the fight against illiteracy, but said she doesn’t believe it is the answer to advancing literacy for all.

“Technology is not the answer,” Engle Young said, noting there are countries where technology is simply unavailable, whether through hardware or infrastructure. “It is a tool, but the teachers are the answer.”

Jody Spiro, Director of Education Leadership at The Wallace Foundation, took the sentiment a step further, stressing the need for leadership.

“Of course the key is the teacher and the number one factor for achieving this audacious goal is the teacher in the classroom,” Spiro said. “But the number two factor is the principal and the other school leaders. And, increasingly, teacher leaders—those who may not ever want the official title of principal.”

She said the sign of a great principal is the art of collaboration in the school and bringing all leaders to the table to create strategies for literacy education success.

Craig Post said educators may need to take another look at what leadership looks like in the classroom, school, and administration.

“Maybe when we see good leadership, we don’t stop long enough to see what components make that happen,” she said. “It’s the conditions, technology, teacher quality—we tend to segment these things, like we do teachers, administrators, policy makers, and parents.

“A lot of our teachers are parents, too. In leadership I believe it’s the same. Most of our school leaders come up from some other part of the school, most often the classroom.”

Engle Young agreed and said when you work with under-educated or under-trained teachers, it’s about guiding them to empowerment with curriculum, knowledge, and strategies.

Christie Vilsack, Senior Advisor for International Education at USAID, added that once we go into these developing countries, it’s important to train local organizations and non-profits to be the education leaders.

“We deliver service, but we want them to graduate from us,” she said. “Eventually, we’re going to leave and they’re going to be the leaders. You have to work to empower people.” She used Korea as an example. The first country USAID helped, it is now a donor country to others around the world.

The panelists all named localized efforts as victories they’ve seen in the effort to bring literacy opportunities to as many people as possible. Local families and schools coming together to share leadership, books, meals, and oral history have furthered literacy and education buy-in in communities.

Raising awareness among those not connected to the literacy community is a critical strategy to raise awareness of today’s literacy leadership gaps and develop advocates for the cause.

“We have a way to begin the conversation and talk over dinner and not in a technical way,” Vilsack said. “If (people) understand what we’re talking about, they’ll reach out. Talk to your local leaders about how important it is for children to learn to read so they can read to learn.”

Craig Post summed up the urgency of solving the problem of illiteracy simply.

“Time,” Craig Post said. “We need more time for professional development, more time to develop leaders, to develop technologies. And we have no time.

“We need to move now. Every second that ticks by for us we need to think, ‘how do we improve literacy rates, how do we move that needle?’”

April Hall is editor of Literacy Daily. A journalist for 20 years, she has specialized in education, writing and editing for newspapers, websites, and magazines.


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