New Orleans: A vibrant hub of jazz music, Cajun and Creole cuisine, and hundreds of international education scholars and practitioners. A city with so much to offer was a fitting choice for this year’s installment of the Comparative and International Education Society’s Annual Conference. Somehow I’ve managed to jog through the French Quarter, enjoy the views from a streetcar on St. Charles Avenue, and delight in a traditional jazz brunch at Arnaud’s all while keeping up to date on the latest trends in international educational research and practice (not an easy feat!)
This year, as last year, reading is a hot topic. This trend is shaped by USAID’s All Children Reading initiative. With the lofty goal of helping 100 million children learn to read (and read to learn) by 2015, implementing agencies and local governments are feeling real pressure, not only to meet beneficiary targets but to do so in a quality way. After all, putting books in children’s hands does not guarantee they will learn to read. Interventions must be complex while operating within intense time, resource, and political constraints. How will the international community meet these goals? Most importantly, how will we meet these goals while ensuring that children are reading and learning?
The major takeaways: (1) We know a lot about what works, (2) We know some of what we have been trying does not work, and (3) We know there is a lot to learn.
Where there’s a need for learning, there’s a need for research. And there is no shortage of research questions! Here are some of the thought-provoking questions researchers and evaluators are asking themselves in their quest to reach 100 million:
- What is the role of early childhood education in supporting school-based literacy efforts? How can we ensure all children are ready to learn by the time they enter primary school?
- What is the effect of community and parental involvement on the ability of children to learn to read? How can projects more effectively address what happens outside of school in order to achieve literacy results?
- How can projects generate real buy-in from local governments and Ministries of Education so that the projects are actually owned—and sustained—after funding ends? How much failure to achieve results can be explained by the inability to generate true collaboration?
- How can bilingual education be implemented more effectively? What is the effect of policies and projects that mandate instruction in a language that is not mature enough to be taught academically in its written form (and where teachers are not qualified to be teaching it)?
- How can we provide more long-term interventions that can create the necessary change in teacher instructional practices? How can you address issues of teacher belief systems and motivation in order to achieve student learning?
This last set of questions strikes me as the most important. 100 million children can be hard to conceptualize, so let’s think on a smaller scale. If you were charged with helping 10 students learn to read, where would you start? I suspect you might say you’d find a good reading teacher. Or do research on what makes a good reading teacher so you could do the job yourself. Regardless, it’s quite hard to turn a non-reader into a reader without a good teacher.
I’m a firm believer in the importance of quality teachers. The international development field has done a nice job of investing in tools to assess student literacy results, but there is less information about how to measure change in instructional practice. And I’m not talking about using student tests to measure teacher quality. If we want to create better teachers, let’s start thinking more critically about the types of systems that support true change in teaching practice. New materials coupled with short-term trainings are simply not enough. Intensive teacher professional development urgently needs to be funded. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that teachers come in all shapes and sizes. If less than an hour of the school day is spent on reading—and much less in many cases—we need to address the ability of other teachers—parents and community members—in helping our children learn to read.
This research agenda, of course, is a collaborative work in progress. What else would you add?