Yay for Ontario!



I got an email alert about a pair of opinion pieces (link and link) in the Toronto Star by columnist Carol Goar. She has been writing about Canada and Ontario's "literacy" problem - you know the one I mean.

I was interested in the take offered on these columns by the literacies café. I was also interested in the comments Ms. Goar drew. I didn't comment myself, for three reasons.

One was that this read like a conversation between Ontarians about Ontario, and I'm from away. Another was that I'm not eager to create content for the Star when I have my own blogs to fill. But, mostly, I was put off because commenters were required to create an account and give a bunch of information to the Star.

But, if I had commented, there are a couple of things I might have said to my fellow commenters.

First, there is that constant confusion about what Stats Can and IALS reports mean by appropriate adult literacy levels. As I've have written elsewhere, to say a percentage of Canadians have inadequate literacy skills, is not to say they are illiterate or even "low-literate." Commonly, it means they could not pass a Grade 9 or 10 writing assignment, and/or they have trouble reading charts and graphs. And that could be a lot of us.

Imagine, you get your new DVD player home. You open the manual. Your try making sense of it. Then, you give up and just start plugging things in. Some people say that's a problem, and I guess it is. But its not necessarily a literacy problem.

This may explain why many Canadians can't believe that 50-odd percent of the population suffers from low literacy. They look around and say, "Where are these people?" Well, nobody means 50% of Canadians can't read. They mean a lot of us don't do well with written instructions and complex forms. We also have difficulty expressing complicated ideas. Anyone who works in customer relations or on a technical helpline knows this all too well. But, again, this isn't what most of us think about when we think about literacy.

Second, the commenters (and Ms. Goar) went a bit astray when they talked about the public school system. The public school system does not support adult literacy learning in the course of its regular duties. It supports the learning of children and youth - well or poorly as may be. Adult literacy, as with family literacy (which must always and also be parental literacy), is about helping adults. That's not what public schools are for. Blame the teachers, praise the teachers - doesn't matter. It has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

As for the piece itself, while I appreciate her interest and concern, I found myself disagreeing with three of Ms. Goar's paragraphs. She writes:

That is not to say Ontario is doing nothing. The province does have educators, school board officials and consultants who design and deliver literacy programs. But their efforts are fragmented and underfunded.

Nor is it any criticism of advocacy groups such as the ABC Canada Literacy Foundation, the Movement for Canadian Literacy and Frontier College, which work tirelessly to promote their cause. But they can't compete with university presidents and prominent economic theorists.

To complicate matters, literacy is an area of split jurisdiction. Ottawa (which has chopped literacy funding by $17.7 million) pays for adult learning. Queen's Park handles literacy up to age 16.

In reverse order: there is no split jurisdiction; advocacy groups can be criticized; fragmentation is not a problem.

First, it is my understanding that education of their citizens is exactly a provincial responsibility. Let me repeat that. Education is a provincial responsibility. The fact that New Brunswick's Minister of Education has washed his hands of adult literacy (fobbing it off onto the Department of Training and Employment in a transparent attempt to fund literacy with federal employment enhancement dollars) doesn't in any way remove his constitutional obligations. We also have a Minister of Natural Resources who acts like he's the Minister of Clear-Cutting, but that doesn't excuse him from his legal responsibilities.

On the other hand, the federal government has no jurisdiction over education. The feds do have influence. For example, they redistribute funds across the provinces, and they may choose to tie that redistribution to education. They have a role in seeing that all Canadians have appropriate access to those rights and freedoms accorded them by the constitution, even when this involves provincially delivered services. And, the federal government has accepted a responsibility for promoting employment within Canada, something which has an educatory/literacy dimension. But, education, including adult literacy, is a provincial responsibility. We may bemoan federal cuts to the field, but we ought never forget that our dependence on those federal funds has derived from a lack of funding and commitment at the provincial level. Moreover, a return to NLS style federal funding would only put us back at the constant pilot and short-term project work we were all doing in the early and mid-90s. In this province, at least, the feds never provided sustained funding.

Second, though it's rarely talked about, the Movement for Canadian Literacy has blocked the development of alternative adult literacy supports within Canada. ABC Canada, which hardly touches upon core adult literacy, is a boon to the printing industry, but it does little to support or even encourage useful fieldwork. Frontier College, to the best of my knowledge, is a stand-up organization; not because of their advocacy work, but because of their literacy work. But for the other two big name advocacy groups... I'd have called them "promotional groups." Or maybe "self-promotional groups" since National Family Literacy Day, for example, has been copyrighted by ABC Canada - meaning, I suppose, that the Day is answerable to them, and not the other way around. In any case, these yahoos don't help me very much. They may hinder me, unintentionally, by diverting funds, efforts and attention from practical, day-to-day literacy work with and for adult Canadians. Sometimes, when their status is threatened, they act intentionally.

Finally, anyone who thinks the problem with literacy is a fragmented field has just not been paying attention to literacy workers; though I suspect they have been listening to lots and lots of "university presidents and prominent economic theorists." All the research-in-practice tells us that the best literacy work is local, community oriented, learner-centered and individualized or tailored. "Fragmentation" - if we must use this value laden word - is a product of good literacy work. De-fragmenting, which appears to mean creating large, standardized systems, meets the interests of bureaucrats and commercial curriculum marketeers, but not those of me and my learners.

Still, I want to thank you, Carol Goar. Seriously. It's nice to read someone talking about literacy in the mainstream press. I don't doubt your interest or your concern and affection for your fellow citizens. I think it's great that Ontario can have this conversation.

I'm equally pleased that Tom Sticht is giving some talks in Ontario in March and April (see this news piece on NALD). I know that misinterpretation of the IALS, the value of local, functional literacy support, the value of adult/parent literacy over early childhood schemes, and the social justice dimensions of adult literacy are all themes he likes to build on. Hopefully, that will help cotinue to move the conversation along.

Well, that's what I might have written. But, like I said above, this is an Ontario discussion. Good for them for having it. Sounds like an exciting - if challenging - time.

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By the way, I don't think there will be a New Brunswick discussion like this because all our English language newspapers are owned by the same family, and they've got their own literacy plans for the province, if only they could find somebody from the field to agree with them.

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