Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A bailout for NIFL: Will Gabriel Blow His/Her Horn?

“Have we truly counted the cost of the annihilation of NIFL?” -Demetrion. No. 6.5.2009. 83.
Posted at the National Literacy Advocacy (AAACE-NLA) online discussion list on June 5, 2009.

From: George Demetrion.
A bailout for NIFL: Will Gabriel Blow His/Her Horn?


I’m wondering to the full extent is the Obama administration a truly
informed supporter of adult literacy education. On the surface, and then some, the answer may be given in the affirmative. One of our constant refrains is to show us the money. And in principle that is the case. The money has been shown in terms of proposed increased in AE funding.

Moreover, and without the need for commentary here, in principle, the overarching social policy of the administration is supportive of the broad goals of adult literacy education, particularly when tied to workplace investment—though that in itself is part of the rub. For those of us who have been in the field for any length of time, know full well that there are many tangible and intangible benefits that speak to the public value of adult literacy education through a broader vision of social and cultural impact.

See: “Student Goals and Public Outcomes: The Contribution of Adult Literacy Education by George Demetrion.” ADULT BASIC EDUCATION.Volume 7, Number 3, Fall 1997, 145-164.

On this, I am concerned about two matters:
The conflation of adult education with workforce investment, which as a main preoccupation is a stultifying reductionism that enticed the
Clinton-Gore administration.

The equation of evaluation with the metaphor of “efficiency” narrowly construed as reflected in the “rationale” for recommending the closing of the National Institute For Literacy.

In terms of my own sifting through this issue (and with my other posts on this matter in mind), in the scheme of things I do not believe the intended closing of NIFL as a distinct entity from the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) is a good indicator given the many resource that that agency accomplished over the
last almost 20 years. The additional money for adult education in the
Obama budget is may be construed as a constructive sign as is an OVAE based on an enlightened administration, though as we know, administrations come and go and elections have consequence. My concern remains that in the name of “efficiency” the proposed NIFL elimination was based on faulty and superficial reasoning, which I attribute to benign neglect rather than to any conscious intent as a reflection of a lack of understanding due to lack of focus on our marginal, yet highly important field.

On our collective end, perhaps there had not been a sufficient effort (or imagination) to advocate not simply for more money in support of existing programs. What may have been missing on our part is the construction of some broader narratives that more fully laid out not simply a rationale, but an inspiring public vision of adult literacy education through which to construct our story. For whatever its limitations, Equipped for the Future [EFF] holds some of the most compelling seed-beds for constructing such a narrative in linking personal student goals to the valued public good in which active citizenship rather than “efficiency” could be the driving metaphor. For it is that central value that holds the EFF model together amidst the specific Role Maps and Content Standards.

In any event, the current administration’s position demonstrates an utter lack of understanding of the historical developments which unfolded over the past 20 years in the political culture of adult literacy education without which it is impossible to grasp the history and significance of NIFL. As stated, I believe it was a benign neglect based on some macro statistically driven methodology that prevented close examination from taking place. The result is that the more significant issues related to that field within the last 20 years about the value of an independent agency intentionally set up in 1990 were simply ignored.

The superficial evaluative criteria drawn upon in making the policy recommendation apparently did not take into account the reality that NIFL never received anything closely resembling the funding needed to realize its further end rhetorical vision as well as the importance of the great deal of work the agency has done I helping to empower the field through links, support of the regional literacy centers, the listservs, EFF and in other critical ways than those closer to the front lines know about in a much more detailed way than I. I have attempted to spell some of this out as well as to articulate some of the constraints in other messages.

The real issue is not whether NIFL has served as the unifying center for the field–an absurd proposition for an agency funded at $6 million per year, but, given its history, especially in the 1990s when it was not so influenced from repressive right wing control (104th Congress notwithstanding, which cast a mighty chill). The real issue is what the future could be in a revamped NIFL, if it can be freed from political interference, have some real authority and leadership capacity, and be more tightly mission focused on adult and family literacy when compared to what would be the consequences of shutting down the shop.

On this it is critical to keep in mind that the last 8 years of NIFL were in many ways lost and even in that climate, the agency did a great deal of sustaining work. This was due not only as a consequence of a political educational ideology reinforcing a vision of literacy as anything but empowering. The closely related factor was the intensive focus on children’s reading, especially when children’s learning activities have all sorts of representation well beyond the purview of NIFL.

To put it straight out, it is the “adult” in NIFL that needs to be restored along with the pioneering energies of that pivotal time period from 1990-1995 where NIFL was freest to act out of its foremost visionary impulses.

And it was that vision of adult literacy that lost much of its sharp focus during the last 8 years, and what do we make, too, of the decision to remove EFF from the NIFL agenda. I do not believe any of this was taken into account in the Obama decision to close NIFL as the policy recommendation was made at a too macro level.

Could all of the functions of NIFL be subsumed under OVAE? Perhaps and certainly the increased funds would, in principle, be helpful. Yet I issue a cautionary note on whether the spirit of NIFL (that bold experiment implemented under the administration of George H.W. Bush, empowered by Barbara Bush’s passion for family literacy and Forrest Chisman’s penetrating policy insights that gave shape to his pivotal book, Jump Start) would be lost in the accounting process. Perhaps not, but we don’t really know.

What makes consummately more sense to me is a bail out for NIFL and a structural revamping in an annual budget of perhaps $10 million and play it out for a few years. Why not give such a bold opportunity for a revamped NIFL experiment to more fully play itself out in a highly intelligent supportive political environment and see what emerges in 3-5 year. If it’s still problematic after that, there will be a more research-based framework to call the noble experiment a failure, a proposition that has far from been proven up to this point.

Based on the hypothesis that the experiment is still worth pursuing, if
the result is that such a reconstructed agency becomes a critical
instrument of field revitalization (in which results will be assessed in
part based on dollar allocation), much will have been gained. It is
state-based anarchy, I argue, to pull the plug in a precipitous manner for an agency that was intentionally developed based on a great deal of policy and program-based acumen.

Clearly, the Obama administration has the capacity to make a more intelligent decision based on a broader and deeper understanding of the issues. The non-rhetorical question I have for the field is whether we have the collective will to sound out the clarion call of concerted action to change the course set out. I believe the capacity is amongst us is if the collective will is ready to act. I’m not sure there’s any viable consensus on this among our policy leadership without which any concerted campaign would be futile.

To all, and especially the policy leadership community (cause you got the power of serious mobilization), have we truly counted the cost of the annihilation of NIFL, and, to put it frankly, what a superficial policy rationale the administration gave for the proposal to eliminate NIFL?

Finally, esteemed colleagues, are we going to be satisfied simply with the prospect of enhanced dollars for the field when one of the most innovative experiments in our field is under the severest of jeopardy? The issue is not money, but putting it in the right places.

I’m not the one to organize a national advocacy campaign on this pivotal issue; we have policy specialists who have the capacity and credibility to take that on. To be sure, the support of the National Literacy Council is duly noted and appreciated, but the clarion call awaits our trumpeters and Gabriel has not yet blown his horn. I’ve done my part in raising the issues related to the preserving and redesigning NIFL as cogently as I possibly could within the confines of pressing time commitments.

The rest, dear readers is up to the collective us.

Gabriel, the time is now or never to blow your mighty horn! And for the Gabriel’s who are listening, you know who you are.

George Demetrion
Adult literacy intellectual, visionary, and social entrepreneur

Update 12-22-10 With the demise of NIFL in the Fall of 2010 the apprehensive future has no become prologue to an "inevitable" past, though it need not have turned out that way. The cumulative results remain to be seen, but the lack of historical consciousness that engulfs the adult literacy field never ceases to underwhelm me.

This entry was posted on Friday, June 5th, 2009 at 8:00 pm and is filed under Barack Obama, George W. Bush, adult education, adult literacy, reading. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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