New Strategy to Fight Adult Illiteracy in New Orleans

Education, Featured — By on April 1, 2011 11:45 am
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Loyola center presents latest literacy research and introduces “Learner Web” solution

NEW ORLEANS, La. – New Orleans’ rate of adult illiteracy is almost twice the national average, and 40 percent of the city’s residents do not use the Internet. To address both illiteracy and the lack of access to solutions, Loyola University’s Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy hosted its latest event, “Engaging Literacy: Research to Policy to Practice.”

The Center’s mission is to promote literacy as a “vehicle for personal, economic, and community empowerment.” And its guest speaker for the March 23 event was Stephen Reder, professor of applied linguistics at Portland State University.

Reder explained to approximately 60 attendees the findings and implications of his “Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning” (which resulted in this book) and his experience with the National Labsite for Adult English for Speakers of Other Languages. While asserting the importance of literacy as a key driver for health and economic prosperity, he outlined how he is applying this research to a new venture.

The “Learner Web,” a project of PSU, is a national partnership that will provide 30 months of Internet access and tutoring to 24,000 individuals. That includes 5,000 individuals from New Orleans, one of two participating cities. Richmond, California, is the other, and the project also includes Central and South Texas regions and Minnesota and New York states.

Federal aid, through the Commerce Department, comprises approximately one half of the $6 million cost, with the remainder from matching contributions of local partner organizations. Additionally, the project relies on in-kind donations such as the services of unpaid tutors who assist in computer labs.

For New Orleans, Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Louisiana is overseeing implementation, and they are more than matching the $500,000 of federal funding for the city’s project. Its promotional launch is today, April 1, and next week Goodwill staff begin training the volunteer tutors.

Unfortunately, Reder noted, illiteracy has been an enduring problem for Louisiana. In 2003, for example, Louisiana and New Orleans had illiteracy rates of 17 percent and 25 percent respectively. That compared to a national rate of 14 percent. More recent data, from 2009, indicates that 16 percent of New Orleans adults lack a high school diploma and 24 percent live below the poverty line.

While the 2009 national unemployment rate averaged 9 percent, the rate in New Orleans was 14 percent. Reder believes many of these unemployed individuals are caught in a poverty cycle, and effective adult literacy education would provide a way out.

In Reder’s view, though, current practices and perspectives on adult literacy education are deeply flawed. Government literacy programs also face perverse incentives, since they are funded by the number of current enrollees and the number that pass standardized tests. That encourages retention of students or short-term results, rather than preparation for long-term independent study.

Reder’s two longitudinal studies indicate that these measures poorly reflect program success, because literacy is not significantly increased until years after a student has begun studying. Such projects would be more successful if they focused on students’ “literacy practices,” a combination of the frequency and manner of reading in daily life.

His findings call for a new approach – one that focuses on persistent, long term learning practices that can be maintained outside of the classroom. He and his colleagues have designed the Learner Web with this end in mind.

Petrice Sams-Abiodun, executive director of the Center, described the event as extremely successful, with an engaged and diverse group of attendees. She is also optimistic about the impact of the Learner Web.

“The Learner Web will assist many adults in the greater New Orleans area gain access to important computer and technology skills that are so necessary in today’s digital economy. Hopefully, with strong partnerships we will be able to continue and expand this project beyond the two year funding cycle.”

Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and editor of The Pelican Post. He can be contacted at fhodgson@pelicaninstitute.org, and one can follow him on twitter.

Charlotte McCray contributed to this article as a research assistant with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. McCray studies philosophy and economics at Loyola University in New Orleans.

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