Opinion

Who will help teachers rescue the 800 million people who can’t read or write?

The kind of leadership that can end the world’s stubborn illiteracy crisis

Marcie Craig Post

The statistics on worldwide illiteracy are overwhelming — nearly 800 million people (or roughly one in five worldwide) are considered illiterate, according to UNESCO.

In the United States alone, 45 million people are functionally illiterate and read below a fifth grade level, with 32 million of those unable to read at all.

The world is facing a literacy crisis.

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What can we do to advance literacy to every corner of the globe, and within our local neighborhoods and communities?

Countless individuals, organizations, and companies are working to address this issue.

Yet statistics on illiteracy have remained relatively unchanged for nearly a decade.

We believe that moving the needle on literacy begins with empowering literacy leaders who can act as catalysts for change. Who are our literacy leaders?

They are educators, practitioners, school district leaders and principals, nonprofit and government leaders and others who believe in the power of literacy to change lives and who are committed to closing the literacy gap.

A study commissioned by The Wallace Foundation notes that when it comes to high levels of student achievement, school leadership is second only to classroom instruction. (The Wallace Foundation is a funder of The Hechinger Report).

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The role of school principals as instructional leaders has intensified as Federal and state legislation has resulted in an increased scrutiny on literacy.

Yet research by Dr. William Teale and Dr. Steven Tozer at the University of Illinois Chicago reveals that that most school principals and school directors feel underprepared to provide quality literacy leadership.

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Most troubling is that there is little research that clearly points to or identifies essential knowledge and skills needed to be a leader of literacy.

Teachers and policy makers, too, are literacy leaders. Teachers are the everyday heroes advancing literacy in schools and classrooms around the world, while policymakers work to secure funding for these literacy programs. Without strong literacy leaders at every level, making meaningful change will continue to elude us.

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To further explore the role of literacy leaders, understand the issues and identify the opportunities in advancing literacy for all, the International Literacy Association (ILA) convened its second annual Leaders for Literacy Day to further explore the role of literacy leaders in advancing literacy for all.

Leaders for Literacy Day brought together a cross-sector of literacy experts to engage in a thought-provoking conversation aimed at identifying solutions to develop and empower leaders in literacy education.

Through a series of conversations, we addressed literacy’s role in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, closing the knowledge poverty gap, technology and the literacy leadership challenge and collective approaches to literacy leadership education. Within each of these areas, the discussion repeatedly emphasized the urgency in turning our attention and efforts towards developing and promoting literacy leadership.

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So what are the solutions? What can we do to advance literacy leadership?

What do literacy leaders need to advance literacy faster and more effectively?

First, we need a greater focus on cross-sector collaborative action. We, as a literacy community, have been siloed for too long. It’s time to work collaboratively with partners in academia, philanthropy and the public and private sectors to move the literacy needle forward. By working together, we can collectively implement strategies and programs that prepare and empower literacy leaders.

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Second, we need to equip school leaders and educators with the right tools, evidence-based research, and data to effectively teach literacy at all levels. In addition to providing the instructional resources, it is also important to provide the right leadership development and training, especially as it relates to technology. (In a recent Hechinger Report article, Jackie Mader wrote about the districts that are training top officials to better coach and support school leaders in all areas).

By setting standards for effective literacy leaders — as ILA does for literacy education—we can truly define what literacy looks like and help leaders understand how to support the classroom teacher.

Third, we need to pool collective resources—funds, knowledge, and people—to drive a steady stream of information to continuously inform the public and influence policy makers.

When we combine what we know about effective literacy instruction with what we know about effective leadership, we can develop strong literacy leaders.

Creating strong literacy leaders provides a better shot of influencing policy and how it is developed. Of changing how resources are allocated and altering public perception.

When we put strong literacy leaders in place, we can make significant strides at advancing literacy for all.

Marcie Craig Post is the executive director of the International Literacy Association (ILA).

She previously served as chief program and education officer for Global Partnership Schools and as the chief executive officer of Education Enterprises of New York.

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Marcie Craig Post

Marcie Craig Post is the executive director of the International Literacy Association (ILA). She previously served as chief program and education officer for Global Partnership… See Archive

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