Thursday, October 25, 2007

why this state of things?

Thanks to everyone who shared their stories about how they got into literacy work, and what keeps them in the field. Several people wrote about how literacy work allows them to make a real difference in people's lives.

They also mentioned the other side of the coin. As Linda Wentzel writes, "It's hard to accept that what you do is so undervalued that you are dispensable on a regular basis."

For many years now, people have been lobbying for better program funding and for policy that recognizes that literacy programs can help make society more equitable and inclusive. But perhaps the reason that literacy work is not supported has nothing to do with the value placed on this work.

Here is what Maria Moriarty discovered when she tried to find information about adult literacy as a job category:

A search of Canada's National Occupational Classification (NOC) site failed to turn up a description of the job duties or requirements for adult literacy instructor or adult basic education instructor. However, I did find interesting “official” descriptions of literacy work and job prospects for literacy workers in the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, in the US, the Occupational Outlook Handbook provides this telling description of job prospects in adult literacy:

"The demand for literacy and basic education often fluctuates with the economy. When the economy is good and workers are hard to find, employers relax their standards and hire workers without a degree or GED. As the economy softens, more students find they need additional education to get a job. However, adult education classes are often subject to funding level changes, which can cause the number of teaching jobs to fluctuate from year to year. When this happens, volunteers may take the place of paid teachers."

According to this view, literacy policy is driven by economic demands rather than what people, and communities, need.

If this is so, will adult literacy ever be entrenched in solid programs run by stable staff?

Does it explain why volunteerism is such a large part of our legacy?

To share your thoughts, click on the comment link below this post.

To read past posts and comments, click on the links listed on the right-hand side of this page.


  1. Why this state of things? Simple political choice.

    In March of 2000, a report written by by federal Audits and Evaluation Parliamentary Committee titled Adult Literacy Policies, Programs and Practices: Lessons Learned Final Report summed up its findings in seven "lessons learned". Here are the first two lessons:

    Lesson 1
    Adult literacy programs benefit both individuals and society, but these benefits have not been fully realized due to insufficient levels of public interest and political support.

    Lesson 2
    Experience suggests how to design and deliver quality adult literacy programs, but conditions do not always exist to allow that to happen consistently or systematically.

    I believe there's a clear message here, made clearer if you change the order. Lesson 2: we know what we need to do to help people build their literacy skills. Lesson 1: we aren't doing it, for political reasons.

    It's not lack of research or knowledge or talent that gives Canada its embarrassing adult literacy rates. Its choice.

    Sure, Lesson 7 says more research is needed. But by the time you get there you realize there's nothing else the authors could say. It was that or something biblical like "the low literate will always be with us".

    Ironically, I think the situation gets worse with increased promotion and funding. With more awareness come more opportunity for politicians or businesses to highjack literacy for their PR purposes. With more dollars come more opportunity for the private sector to make a buck. Yes, that sounds paranoid - but I've seen both.

    The "barriers" aren't always what you might think.

  2. To be quite truthful, I belief the topic has been researched to death. We who are in this field are all too knowledgable about 'how to do' 'what needs to be done'. The most recent IALS Report tells the story of present literacy in Canada and within regions.

    We will only ever have solid programs if HRSDC buys into it and if a government will 'bite the bullet' addressing the issue of the lack of a viable middle class of taxpayers. Our 'lower class' (which includes most literacy workers) is growing physically upward and economically downward. When the number of taxpayers is outnumbered by those who are recipients of 'social supports', there will be a public outcry.

    Those of us on this site understand the critical issue of all Canadians being capable of functioning adequately within their communities to be contributing citizens. In a haphazard way, we have been building skills, supporting positive self-esteem, encouraging good health, and so on, making negligible differences on a large scale but major differences on an individual scale. At the job entry level we are struggling because agencies are not working collaboratively with literacy in the areas of justice, health, and social services.

    Until government agencies relinquish 'territiory' and the federal government does more than give 'lip service' to the escalating problems associated with literacy, we will forever be 'part-time', 'low-salaried' but rewarded workers!!

  3. Wendell says: The "barriers" aren't always what you might think.

    The Patterns of Participation ( report talked about 3 types of barriers: Program/Policy-Related Factors; Socioeconomic-Circumstantial factors; and Cognitive-Emotive Factors.

    In programs we work on breaking down as many barriers as we can but what can program workers do about the barriers created by policy and how policies are implemented? Many of us have tried demonstrating how policy creates barriers through with learner stories, practitioner stories, research, surveys, panels, roundtables, consultations ... but as long as literacy policy reflects the view that literacy is mostly an employment readiness skill rather than mostly a culture-based community and personal development activity - a social practice - I fear we have little impact.

    I keep thinking about adult ESOL programming. It is publicly funded and volunteers are a support, not the backbone of the system. I have been thinking that this might be partly because of the ESOL system of instructor accreditation but am now wondering if it is because ESOL policy is developed inside departments of immigration and culture as well as employment? Is this true? And if it is, does this mean that ESOL learning is seen as a social practice as well as skill attainment? And does this view lead to policy that is driven as much by what people and communities need as by economic demands?

    Just wondering.

  4. I have a few thoughts on why this state of things. As I consider my thoughts, I wonder if I am being defeatist in the face of things - or maybe just realistic. Naive? Crazy? You decide.

    I have to start by saying that at this time, as a single person living alone in an expensive city, a renter not a home owner, what I earn is enough to meet my needs. I work in literacy at a provincial level in a unionized environment with very good benefits (probably soon to be eroded to some degree).

    I know that if I was working frontline at my previous literacy job which was 4 days a week at $10,000 less a year, I couldn't afford to live as I do now and perhaps couldn't afford to work in literacy.

    So I state that upfront in terms of my current reality.

    I recently learned that two of my cousins, both considerably younger than I, earn $40,000 a year more than I do. My youngest sister earns $50,000 a year more than I do. They all work in the for-profit sector - one peddling drugs to doctors for Pfizer, one selling plastics, and one managing pensions at an insurance company.

    I know that with my skills and education I could be earning a whole lot more if I too worked in the for profit sector. I choose not to.

    When I consider who I am most comfortable working with, and where I find meaning and value in the hours of my life that I "sell to others", it is with people who are struggling for their rights, people who have been marginalized and cast aside, adults at the lowest end of the education spectrum, people who are struggling to survive and navigate the incredibly complicated systems we live within.

    I choose to work in the not-for-profit sector. Why? Because I think for me not-for-profit works counter to the capitalist, money-driven, claw your way to the top, inhuman and globalist reality that controls the world. Although in so many ways I profit from and am part of that whole caplitalist reality - I have RRSP dollars in equity funds I admit and I use a bank, etc. - working in the not-for-profit sector for me makes a statement that I can stand behind. I sell my time and skills to a system that benefits me financially but doesn't push products that are harmful and doesn't line the pockets of people who just invest in literacy.

    I trade-off things like the $100,000 salaries, pensions, bonuses, perks, etc. and to some degree the sense of security that volumes of money can give (falsely or not).

    I think that if literacy and other non-profit activities, like social housing work for example, expect to be valued and compensated on par with peddling drugs to doctors for a multinational corporation of greed, then non-profits would have to become for-profits. I wouldn't want to see that.

    I often reflect on how I would really want to live - to have enough but not more than enough, to live for today not worry about tomorrow, etc. But that isn't really possible if I choose to live in Toronto, or Canada, or North America in fact. I live in a capitalist pseudo-democratic place. Therefore I need to accept some of the realities of where I choose to live - like save for my old age if I can.

    Most of the world lives in poverty. Being poor in a rich country isn't fun. Getting poorer in a rich country is less fun. In fact it is downright scary.

    Being poor in a poor country isn't fun either, but I think it means living closer to reality. Living more collectively, helping each other for free, etc. Perhaps I am being idealistic here.

    Literacy workers are poor in Canada. It's a fact. If we aren't seen to be generating profit, then we can't expect under capitalism to get richer. We work in and with the underclass. We know from history revolutions come from the underclass. The Liberals and Conservatives continue to rule. I don't expect to see much change in the near future to be honest. I don't see any revolutions on the horizon.

    So call me defeatist. Or naive. Or crazy. But I really can't see this society valuing our work any more in 10 years than it is valued now. Why? Because we serve and form part of the underclass of capitalism.

    I am Nancy, signing off.

  5. I don't know if a UK perspective helps. Here in the UK we have had a massive amount of money pumped in, especially in the last ten years, both into literacy at school and post school literacy. Literacy workers have been professionalised and are correctly paid, though still generally for post school in the lowest strata of education.

    However professionalism has not brought much success. We are so target driven that in may ways teaching has become thoroughly institutionalised. What felt twenty years ago like a radical approach to changing people's lives now feels like a factory churning out certificates.

    With money, politicians want results. Those results can be defined in terms of learning opportunities or achievements, but never in terms of changes to people's lives. I'd also love to see some evidence that the adult literacy rate is improving.

  6. @ Nancy F: I agree, absolutely. Maybe what vexes me most isn't the poverty, but the interference.

    Right now, a member of one of the 5 richest families in Canada is working with my provincial gov't to redirect funding into program-types he approves of, and end funding to all others.

    Civil servants in another city determine a curriculum I'm mandated to deliver in one program I contract with. This curriculum includes "connect the dots" and "count how many tricycles" exercises for adults with very low numeracy skills. (Yes, I serious - Grade One math books proudly passed on to us for use with adults. I don't use this stuff, of course... but the pressure and implied job security threats are ever-present.)

    @ Chris J.: I agree. The UK experience is instructive (as is the experience of community literacy workers in Quebec). "Professionalizing" the field may bring more dollars, but also more control. And more dollars is an ambiguous thing. In each of the past two years the major funders of one contract I work under have increased our hourly wage, and then reduced our paid hours.

    And don't even get me started about credentialism! LOL

  7. By the way, based on another work experience, I do know it is possible to do really effective work, evaluate and publish/promote, and secure (short-term) funding on the strength of those results. It's exhausting and requires volunteer hours, but its do-able.

    Yet, even then, enough success can attract unwanted attention from groups or individuals who decide to co-opt your work (and your funds) and and then start imposing "improvements" that threaten your success.

    Being local, responsive, flexible and individualized seems to mean being small. Does it have to mean being under-funded as well? Maybe.

  8. Many years ago I made the decision to work in a community-based adult literacy program because I had a passion for helping adults to access the written word. Never did I imagine that almost 20 years later I would still be here. Very little has changed in those years. The literacy rate in Northern Ontario remains virtually the same. As a program coordinator I am well aware of what other services we could provide our learners that would enhance their ability to learn, materials, technology, new research,supports....unfortunately in 20 years our funding has also not changed. In fact with the increase in operating costs, our funding has decreased substantially. Until we see the government increase our core funding we are not likely to see any great changes in Canada's literacy rates. My program does not need more research, project dollars or one time only grants. PLEASE!! Spare me the token help. I need dollars to adequately compensate staff, pay the rent and keeep the lights on. I am tired of going cap in hand to landlords, community service organizations and private citizens to ask for money to meet the costs of running a literacy program.

    We all know that what we do benefits individuals and society as a whole, but until government and Canadians recognize the importance of adult education and lifelong learning I don't anticipate any changes.

    Fortunately, my passion for literacy and the pleasure I take in a learner's success has not changed either. I worry though about what will happen over the next few years when many dedicated individuals will be retiring. I wonder what the job posting will look like: Wanted: An individual willing to work many unpaid hours with no benefits or raises. Layoff in the summers while volunteering for same organization. Ironically, the individuals putting in the most volunteer hours in these organizations are the paid staff. In the meantime while I wait for adequate funding dollars, I will continue to fundraise and write proposals while staff eagerly await their cost of living raises.

  9. Me again,

    I read macleans magazine every week - for me its a digest that saves me having to wade through all the ads in newspapers and I am not allergic to the ink in macleans while I am to the ink in newspapers.

    The October 29th issue has some interesting articles which resonate for me in light of this discussion.

    There's an article about the Caldwell family here in Toronto. They, father and two sons, buy up seats in stock exchanges before those exchanges go public and as a result they are gazillionaires.

    The article about them is written by Peter C. Newman as part of a monthly series called the "New Masters of the Universe, under-40 Canadian entrepreneurs who are revolutionizing our once-sleepy business ethic." (oh paleeeeeeeese!!!)

    Check out a comment that 37-year old Brendan Caldwell makes:

    "Entrepreneurs provide the impetus for everything that happens in the capitalist system because they see how things are done, then conceive and implement change. They are indispensible catalysts and implementers. Some of the best ideas you'll hear while seated on a bar stool, but it's the doing of the thing that makes the difference. When you're looking to be an agent of change it's not as though you're setting out to join the Missionaries of Charity, you're looking to make money from what you're doing, there's no question. For a lot of people in business, the challenge of changing 'what is' gets a person going; it's the economics that both drives it and attracts the people you need to make change happen."

    Later in the same article Peter Munk, chairman of Barrick Gold and a friend (of course!!!) of the Caldwells, had an inordinate impact on their thinking when he recently told them: "Money must be the result of what it is that you do, but not the reason for what you do."

    The Caldwells are philanthropists, to the causes that are dear to them - over 20 of them - many connected to the Anglican Church and planting trees.

    In the same issue of Macleans Andrew Potter analyses and contrasts the aproach to activism by Naomi Klein and Bono. He sides with Bono and makes an interesting comment:

    "Even though he's clearly a narcissist and a poseur, Bono at least understands how the world works. He spends his time and energy cozying up to politicians because he appreciates that the instruments of real change are things like legislation, regulation, taxation, and redistribution - that is, the business of government and politicians. For all his faults, he has figured out how to leverage the currency of his celebrity into genuine political capital."

    So what does this all say to me? Well, I have often said that literacy needs a sugar daddy - someone who will fund what we do without putting lots of strings on us. Now I think that we need to get into the world of the Caldwells perhaps - and buy one seat at a stock exchange - in the late 1990s one of the 120 seats on the Toronto Stock Exchange sold for $50,000 and not long afterwards when the TSE went public that same seat sold for $4.5 million! One transaction like that - one step in and out of the beast - and we could have had our "learn anything you want anytime" literacy movement.

    Andrew Potter's comment directs my thoughts back to Linda and Tracey's thoughts posted here about the responsibility of governments and our elected (and not elected backroomers) politician's roles in policy making.

    Having worked in Ontario literacy for many years and seeing that funding for programs hasn't increased for over 10 years, I have become cynical and really don't have a lot of faith in the politicians.

    I know that the Movement for Literacy and other national literacy organizations worked very, very hard on the political front and that perhaps has kept literacy alive for all these years. But we are still just treading water with just our noses above the surface.

    Solutions for us? Penetrate the capitalist beast (a huge risk for anyone of course) and get a piece of the pie for literacy and then withdraw with the money. Or cozy up to the politicians (or become one - I think of Arthur Bull running for office in Digby not long ago) and put our energy and passion there for survival and respect and decent wages.

    There is a third alternative which I leave for my colleague Maria to post - unionization of literacy workers.

    Those are my thoughts for a Saturday afternoon in cloudy and grey Toronto.


  10. I want to get in another perspective here, that of a literacy instructor who works in a university-college (don’t ask!) in BC.
    I started working here about 18 years ago. Before I started, the college (it was a community college then) had a volunteer tutor program for basic literacy, and a classroom, instructor-led program for Adult Basic Education. In addition, they had a literacy class that met two hours a week with a paid instructor. The person who had been teaching the two-hours-a-week class resigned, and they offered the job to me. I suggested that, if they only had money for 80 hours of class a year, they put all the hours into a class that met for 15 hours a week for 5 weeks, because I couldn’t see how two hours a week was doing much good for anybody. They agreed, and I started and taught the course for five weeks at the end of the school year. The next fall they found some “soft” money to run the course for a year, and at the end of the year, the students made a presentation to the College Board, requesting that the literacy program be put into the base budget. The Board agreed. (You know how effective literacy students can be when speaking about their own learning experiences.) So my program is still in the base budget, and I am a regular full time employee of the college, unionized, and I earn $78,000 a year, a matter of public record.
    In BC there are many not-for-profit literacy groups and societies that provide volunteer tutoring and some instruction by paid instructors, but nearly all community colleges have basic literacy as part of their ABE programs, and instructors in those colleges are unionized. Many colleges have a unionized person who co-ordinates volunteer tutors. I have been unsuccessful in finding out what proportion of literacy learners in this province are served by community groups and what proportion are served by colleges. Furthermore, many school districts have adult learning programs, with instructors on a similar salary grid to K-12 teachers.
    What does this mean? a fragmented system, with the tensions you might expect between people who earn generous salaries in secure jobs and others who volunteer many hours, get paid 1/3 to ½ as much per hour; a fragmented system where people who work in one system often do not meet with people who work in the other system, even when they exist side-by-side in the same community; yet the content and even the shape of the program offerings is often similar, and there are people of good will and people working for social justice in each of the strands; equally, there are people of ill will and people with a warped sense of social justice working in each of the strands, and many people who do excellent work and many who do shoddy work.
    Kate Nonesuch, Victoria, BC

  11. @ Kate N.

    Hi Kate! I always enjoy your perspective on things - kind of a "inside academia but not exactly of academia" perspective(?).

    When the NB decided to enter/manage adult literacy they located it within the Community College system. (And boldly demanded non-profits hand over their waiting lists.)

    The College baulked at running classes for adults with very low skills, and designated these as "Laubuch learners"; i.e., adults who would have to have to depend on volunteer tutors. The college actually assessed people's reading level, and then told anyone at an instruction R.L. of 4 or less that they couldn't read well enough to join a literacy class. Shortly after that, the College found even learners at a R.L. 5-8 to be too problematic. They chose to offer a GED program open to anyone who assessed at a high enough reading level.

    Of course, the volunteer and non-profit groups cried out for funding that would match the money going into the College program. Out of that came the CASP (Community Academic Services Program) which nonprofits could deliver under contract. At first, the contract maintained the philosophy that adult reading below a R.L. of 5 weren't eligible. The gov't backed off of that, although as recently as two years ago I was with a group of facilitators instructed to not register "too many of those people" because they would "take up a lot of your time and energy".

    CASP was funded through Federal-Provincial agreements. When the Federal focus changed to employment readiness, CASP became CALP (Community Adult Learning Program), and we were told to do silly things like ensure each learner met with an employment counselor before admitting them to the program. (No literacy help for stay-at-home parents, apparently.)

    The result is a kind of hybrid where gov't and non-profits "partner" to deliver literacy support, with a greater emphasis on employment readiness and upgrading (GED) than functional, "learn-to-read" programming. Tremendous tensions remain, in part because it is unclear whether the gov't is supporting community literacy work, or non-profits are subsidizing gov't managed schooling ofr adults.

    @ Chris J. Chris, is there a similar community / gov't split in the UK? Is it all run through... gee, I don't even know the word... the UK's version of community colleges? Are there community groups doing literacy work on their own? Can they access public (tax generated) funds of do they depend on private charity?

  12. Replying to Wendell... I believe there is still a very small amount of independent literacy work going on. Post 16, non HE, education is all funded through one body which can insist on standard procedures. There used to be a voluntary sector when I started, with different approaches, which influenced the public sector, but this has largely been standardised out since the early nineties. Given that there is a lot of literacy (and numeracy) work going on in different settings, the ability to take radical approaches is very limited.

  13. I am truly getting a fuller perspective of what 'literacy' looks like, especially here in Canada, from the comments and insights you have all contributed. I am aware that the UK is far ahead of us in that the government there has taken the bull by the horns and admitted the crtitical need of literacy of a large percentage of the population.

    I believe, Tracey, that you are 'right on' when you suggest that the reason for the influx of funds for ESOL is due largely to the connection to the Department of Immigration. God bless them for seeing the need, BUT what about the lowly folk (us) who don't have that kind of support? In Canada, education is provincially funded; therein lies the initial hurdle. The priority there is K-12. The attitude of many is, "You had one chance to get a kick at the can. If you didn't get it then, too sad."

    So...until there is national recognition that 'adult literacy' is simply something that we, as citizens involved in the well-being of the 'whole' person, need to attend to, we, as instructors, won't get much more than token recognition for a 'job well done'.

    Wendall may be correct in his assumption that we need an 'Irving' or a McCain' who is not functionally literate to fight for us.... Sorry I can't help; my lowly income does not give me access to that segment of society! I have no doubt that such an advocate would help. But really, none of us should need to go that route.

    Therefore, remain stoic, passionate and commited (is that a good word to use?) as you work with one individual at a time knowing you are making a difference. But, just in case of sudden lay-off, check out where the local food banks and soup kitchens are in your community!

  14. "Wendall may be correct in his assumption that we need an 'Irving' or a 'McCain'... to fight for us.... But really, none of us should need to go that route."

    Acck! Wendell assumed no such thing! I know some people who do think that, but I disagree with them.

    I think business leaders who get rich by maximizing profits and minimizing costs (and competition) are particularly ill-suited to support literacy. Unfortunately, in my region some of them are trying to do more than support literacy work - they are trying to direct literacy work according to their own values and assumptions.

    If business groups really want to help me, they can 1) pay full taxes so there is gov't revenue to redistribute into a variety of literacy supports and 2) create meaningful, well-paid employment for my learners and their families within a healthy, sustainable local economy.