Sunday, January 15, 2006

Towards a Hegelian Dialectical Education Theory

The purpose of this paper is to describe and explain the conflicting goals, pedagogical methods, and student problems within US schools. Since the US has a highly decentralized education system in contrast to many other parts of the world, its continuation likely an attempt to avoid the political and racial struggles that would ensue with a nationalized curriculum or set of textbooks, we are left with a school system largely undefined. Instead, we must rely on theory to guide us, but there are many ways to stasis, and few ways that point to progress.
I posit three types of theoretical structures of educational dialogue: Labaree’s three-point model, which represents the purposes of schooling, Friere’s one-point model, which represents pedagogical practices as they pertain to adult literacy, and a Hegelian dialectical two-point model that represents pedagogical practices as they are applied to K-12 schooling. The two-point model is arguably the dominant model in education practice, and the single model that allows for rapid progress. Theories are inextricable from practice, yet because theories of education prove difficult to directly implement in practice and are mediated, and therefore transformed in the process of interpretation, I offer snapshots of plural implementations of both Progressivist theory and “core knowledge” theory in practice.
Just as there are numerous ways for the educational system to fail, there are numerous ways for students to fail. Undoubtedly, the curricular confusion is linked to student achievement. I therefore discuss two basic types of “at-risk” students and offer the probable cause of, and some possible pedagogical solutions for, their problems. I then go on to discuss how Foucault and Bowles and Gintis might critique my theory.

Labaree’s Three-Point Model
Labaree’s model represents the purposes of schooling. In describing the conflicting goals of education, Labaree’s (1997) model delineates three goals of education: democratic efficiency, social efficiency, and social mobility. While each of these goals have been discussed by other authors previously, Labaree is unique in that he places the three goals in single a model and makes the assertion that they tend to stay in an equilibrium—where the tensions pull society in one direction, the other two goals pull society back. Where the three goals differ, the tension resulting from their conflict negates progress. Labaree’s view of education seems to reproduce the check-and-balance triangle of the three branches of US government: congress, senate, and judicial. Because the different goals check one another, this view is predominantly one of stasis. In some aspects, stasis is beneficial because it represents continuity. Education, like religion, is fundamentally conservative, in that certain traditions and bits of knowledge must be preserved and passed down to future generations. However, a static model cannot quickly adapt to a society’s rapidly changing technologies, and may have the tendency to preserve not only the gems of traditional wisdom, but the traditional biases as well.

Freire’s One-Point Model
Not all static models have three points in a check-and-balance arrangement. Freire’s model—namely as it has been applied to creating literacy groups that promote dialogue and critical literacy, by empowering the oppressed to read the world (specifically what’s going on behind the scenes) and the word— seems to be the dominant paradigm in adult literacy. Unfortunately, in the field of adult literacy, an alternative model to critical pedagogy has yet to be posed. Ideology, says Douglas Kellner (1978), has a “life cycle.” While it begins as an “-ism,” a new perspective on socio-political concerns, it later becomes “hegemonic” when its proponents become so concerned with its preservation that they become unreflexive and fail to recognize its limitations or think differently, then becoming static. Criticality presumes reflection on one’s assumptions, yet criticality requires dialogue with others since it is not often that we can see the mote in our own eye. It is ironic that “critical pedagogy” has become un-critical through rising to the hegemonic heights which the field of literacy enshrines it in, leaving it unquestioned (and thus no longer critical). I believe that there must be at least two models posed, in order to dialogue with one another, and balance and develop the perspectives. To have a single model (as well as to have a check-and-balance model) is to stem development.

Hegelian Dialogical (Two-Point) Model
I believe that although a field may have a dominant paradigm, there also needs to be a minority voice to propel the field forward. To stem progress is to close the door on hope itself. To have two contrasting viewpoints—two opposing points, both true, on a wider circle—is part of a Hegelian dialectic that is necessary for progress. Each argument in dialogue both checks the opposite viewpoint and informs or enriches it. By arguing with a critic, a stronger position is developed. Hegel’s dialectic is postmodernism in the truest sense of the term, in that it allows for multiple hermeneutics on the world of the circle. While the two-point model also has the potential for stasis, by two opposing points negating progress if the distance each point travels in an opposite direction is equal; or by the distance traveled in the “wrong” direction being greater than that traveled in the “right” direction, thus causing regression rather than progress, I believe the dialectical model is the only model that has the potential for progress at all.

Certainly, the two-point system has its drawbacks in practice. I have come to imagine it as a person with two hands, each of them pointing in an opposite direction, while the person instructs us to “go this way,” much like the mad logic found in Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As a teacher, I was frustrated by being told to simultaneously “keep the class in order,” but not to discipline any students, and “make sure the students learn,” but not to assign any homework. I found it difficult to find a balance between the two extremes and impossible to fully follow both paths at once. As Deborah Meier has written, “They [the public schools] are under heavy attack not only for failing to teach basic skills and “higher-order” thinking, but also for failing to teach any specific social or moral values and for teaching too many of them” (Meier, 1995, p. 67).
But as frustrating as the fingers pointing both ways are, at least it is a dialogical system, open to possibilities for progress. To have the hope for progress is freedom.
Deeply intertwined with the two-point system is the argument between pedagogical practices in K-12 schooling—an argument between Progressivism versus “Core Knowledge.”
Around the 1920s, Dewey propounded a method of hands-on, project-based, child-centered learning, focusing on individualized rather than whole-class instruction whereby lessons are built off of students’ interests and content is made “relevant.” Influenced by Romantic notions of the child, Progressivism concentrates on self-esteem, creativity, happiness, and other intangibles rather than more empirical outcomes. Central to Progressivism is the notion that “study skills” and “higher-order thinking skills” can be acquired in the absence of direct instruction in content knowledge, since learning is a “natural” process. The process of learning, rather than the content, is therefore emphasized. This rosy picture must be complicated, however, by the fact that there are two types of Progressivism: Dewey-an Progressivism and Administrative Progressivism.
Dewey-an Progressivism is heavily theoretical, and therefore difficult to implement, since it needs to be interpreted before being practiced. As a result, even Dewey-an schools take many different forms. Indeed, “building serious classroom work around the interest and experience of students and teachers was difficult and demanding. Few of the reformers explained how to do it. John Dewey confessed, after a try at running a school, that he knew much less about it than he had thought” (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985, p. 269).
On the other hand, Administrative Progressivism came about as an application of principles of scientific management of the workplace, which were first introduced in the field of engineering by Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1895 (Tozer, Violas, & Senese, 1995). As a response to the huge influx of the “new wave” of immigrants from Italy, Greece, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and rural America, whose children now filled the crowded big city schools, measures of cost-cutting, efficiency, and management were introduced. The purpose of scientific management was not just to manage the schools, but to manage the students who would become workers—and to fit them for their jobs.
For a long time, Progressivism seemed the answer to our pedagogical problems because it struck a balance between social efficiency goals and academics. Those espousing rugged individualism such as H.D. Thoreau, Emerson, and Mark Twain (a.k.a., Samuel Langhorne Clemens) who had been influenced by the previous generation that witnessed the Revolutionary War, would have embraced Progressivism for its adaptation of school to the individual, its focus on the process of learning rather than the content, and its Romantic view of the child. Thoreau would have appreciated the fact that Progressive educators did not beat children for discipline, while Twain would have appreciated the emphasis on individuality. Arguably, anti-intellectualism is also a strong strand within our culture (for instance, with the frontiersmen) which probably found its way into some of the Progressivist schools (which emphasized process over content), if unintentionally.
Capitalists loved Progressivism because it helped train their workers not only in the tasks they would need to carry out, but in the attitudes they needed to hold in order to be “good workers.” Capitalists also hoped that if their workers were trained in obedience from an early age, many of the strikes that rocked the era might be avoided. Perhaps influenced by the capitalists, some schools even began to advertise education as a technical preparation for economic success, a notion that flourished during the 1890s (Cohen & Neufeld, 1981, p. 71). Administrative Progressivism directly contrasted Dewey-an Progressivism insofar as Dewey noted in Democracy and Education that Plato defined the slave as one who accepts the purposes which control his conduct from another (Dewey, 1916, p.85). Administrative Progressivism set out to control the conduct of its students in order to “train” them. Such training, conversely, could be viewed as benefiting society in that workers contribute to the productivity of the national economy.
Just as there are many interpretations of Progressivism, there are many forms that Progressivist schools can take. Under the leadership of William Wirt, Gary, Indiana (a city founded in 1906 by the US Steel Corporation to house its workers), became a flagship Progressivist school district while teaching about farm animals and industrial job tasks. For the first time, students even changed classes at the bell, rotating between academic instruction and play periods—an innovation that allowed the school to house more students, since no space was wasted (Rury, 2005). The Gary plan was praised by both Dewey (who had been a teacher of Wirt’s) and the Administrative Progressives.
The Progressivism that was practiced at the magnet school I attended for elementary in the late 1980s and early 90s was far different. As Progressivism was practiced at Lincoln at Mann, students were treated as equals and called teachers by their first names, were allowed to choose which of Gardner’s multiple intelligences they had or which ones they wanted to develop during the year (i.e., logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, etc.). Classes were grade combined (i.e., 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, although some students stayed through 8th grade spending time with an individual tutor at the school) and which teacher we received was determined by which multiple intelligence we wanted to develop; all of the students within a particular classroom opted to learn through or develop the same specific intelligence. We were encouraged at conferences to set goals for the quarter, semester, and year marks. These goals later had to be translated into projects; because it was my goal to be an astronaut when I grew up, I made the mistake in kindergarten of saying I would build an airplane that I would fly to school in by the end of the year. Since the school’s motto was “self-esteem, we’ve got it,” no one told me that it might not be possible. Students graded themselves on mastery of different skills on an M* (mastery plus), M (mastered), P (partial), N/A scale prior to the teacher’s grading us on those same skills on the same report card. Since we were treated as equals, we were allowed to “opt out” of “learning activities” we were not interested in; I “opted out” of multiplication in the third grade even though I did not know what I did not know. Conversely, we were also allowed to take skills as high as we wanted to, so I ended up reading Macbeth in third grade. While the program worked out for me (despite my problem with multiplication), self-motivation was a problem for some, and many students had trouble adjusting once outside of the school. Several members of the Lincoln at Mann parental board (which was instrumental in deciding who would be accepted into the school, which students would be removed, and what curricular materials would be used), wanted to extend the school beyond K-8 to include high school, but were unsuccessful in their bid. While Central Park East did not implement Progressivism in quite the same way that Lincoln at Mann did, it seems to me that Meier’s Central Park East Elementary school probably extended into the secondary level because their students weren’t adjusting well to school outside of Central Park East. Nevertheless, the solution of extending a student’s years in the same environment only delays the problem rather than eliminating it.
Every type of pedagogy works for some students, and it continues to be practiced on the basis of citing individual cases where it has worked. I believe that in the cases where Progressivism has worked, the individual students have had a strong basis in factual knowledge to build off of before they ever got to school. I suspect that the students who Progressivism works for would learn just as easily, and maybe learn more, in a different setting than Progressive pedagogy provides. For the majority of other students, to try and implement “higher order” thinking skills without implementing (in some way or another) the basic skills is like trying to build a house starting with the roof rather than the foundation; you never do end up with the result you want to get.
While Progressivists have long insisted that, “everything’s changing so quickly,” that they “can’t possibly know what skills will be needed in the future,” and believe they must teach “higher order” thinking skills to provide students with the basis of “learning how to learn,” I see this assertion as a cop-out. Anyone can read the news, given that they have a few basic skills, and a conceptual framework built in their mind to place the new ideas in context. One does not automatically have that framework—it gets built up by learning facts and putting them together. No matter how fast things change, the core essentials of knowledge do not; it’s only the frontiers of any field are changing. The facts are the same established ones which have been tested again and again for generations and have not been disproved despite rigorous testing; these essentials are the same things one’s great-great-granddaddy might have learned in school, and they are just as relevant today. These basic facts are the bricks that lay the foundation for whatever fantastic roofing the world may invent later.
Hirsch takes a similar position. Like Freire, Hirsch’s pedagogical method is based off of the field of literacy. But instead of asserting that you need to read the word in order to be able to read the world [and what’s going on behind the scenes]—namely to break free of it, Hirsch inverts Freire and says that in order to read the word, you need to be able to read the [world] culture and understand the allusions—namely by being immersed in the culture. In Cultural Literacy (1988), Hirsch says that in order for a student to be prepared to live within the world, he or she must learn the basic bits of information that others allude to. These bits of information are “core knowledge”—the building blocks that serve as a foundation and conceptual framework.
In Hirsch’s Core Knowledge schools, the curriculum includes many “traditional” pre-Progressive elements such as reading Greco-Roman mythology in the elementary years and memorizing facts. Hirsch believes that through having a coherent, standard, and sequenced curriculum, learning gaps caused by student mobility can be decreased. Further, he believes a sense of community (such as the one Meier touts in her book, claiming it to be the sole province of Progressivism) can be built through parents working with their children. In his What Your __ Grader Needs to Know series, Hirsch includes traditional tales, songs, and lessons in art, history, geography, math, and science for parents to do with their children.
Hirsch’s “core knowledge” method is very similar to the method of teaching I settled into. Teaching in my own school in Indiana—a “one-room style” school in Indianapolis —covering a course subject that was supposed to be algebra, I soon found that not only my 6th grader could not understand why “3x=18” by any method shown, but my 11th graders could not understand it either. It was not a problem with the variable; they understood that “x” substituted for some number. The problem was multiplication itself. They sometimes guessed, sometimes tried to count out the answer on their fingers, and sometimes used rhymes they learned or methods they created for multiplication which did not usually work. I ended up taking them back to revisit multiplication—attempting to make it interesting through games (whole class tic-tac-toe, since it was initially very difficult for the entire class to get three or more answers right; multiplication bingo), projects (making Napier’s bones, illustrating booklets for younger siblings), and tricks with fingers (with the 9’s, you can spread your two hands out, and count from the left; for 9x3, you count down 3 fingers, and you can see that 2_7 or 27 is left). I introduced these activities at the beginning of class; once the students were interested in multiplication, we launched into memorizing the tables through group recitation out loud (I used whole class instruction), drawing multiplication tables, practicing flash cards in pairs, and working out multiplication problems in their notebooks. While it took several weeks before the students learned how to multiply (I suspect it took them longer because they now had wrong methods to un-learn), building off of the basis of multiplication, and division—which they practically breezed through after learning how to multiply, I was able to bring them back up to algebra by the quarter mark.
If I had claimed to teach the students “higher order” thinking skills, I doubt I would have bothered to teach the multiplication tables, least of all through such shockingly traditional methods—like memorization, recitation, and whole group instruction. But if I had not done so, my students would have been completely lost in algebra. Traditional methods are often caricatured as “dull,” but in the shouting hours of multiplication recitation that took place in my classroom nothing could have been further from the truth. The students were not only engaged, but excited to be learning a skill that had eluded them for so long.
Like those who use terminological polarization in the culture war, Progressivists typically use rhetorical pairings like “traditional vs. modern,” “merely verbal vs. hands on,” “premature vs. developmentally appropriate,” “fragmented vs. integrated,” “boring vs. interesting,” “lockstep vs. individualized” (Hirsch, 1996, p. 8). I believe that the delineation is artificial. Just as there can’t be a plant without a seed to start from, the process of learning cannot begin sans content but needs something to build from.
There may be nothing “natural” about certain subjects, like learning how to read; the alphabet is arbitrary and imposed. It differs from culture to culture (if it were natural, it would be the same, and we would all speak the same language). Ancient castes of scribes in Jewish, Hindu, and Egyptian cultures were revered for their knowledge of writing, since few could read or write. The process of learning something as arbitrary as the alphabet or multiplication tables is not natural because the content itself is not natural. That is not to say that learning must be dull where it can be made “fun,” but learning the content must take precedent over the entertainment value that embellishes the topic. As Gramsci wrote, “The new concept of schooling is in its romantic phase, in which the replacement of “mechanical” by “natural” methods has become unhealthily exaggerated… Previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order” (Hirsch, 1996, p. 6).
This argument between Progressivism and Traditionalism is not new; it has been going on a long time in education. The argument between the two may be exemplified by the dissonance between the Committee of Ten report and the Cardinal Principles report.
In 1893, Harvard President Charles Eliot headed an NEA panel called the Committee of Ten, which argued for both greater quality and greater flexibility in high school education. While the panel supported offering physics, chemistry, and French (in addition to more classical subjects), it disapproved of bookkeeping and clerical studies. Those on the panel argued (much like Hirsch) for a standardized national curriculum (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985, p. 240-41). Both those in favor of classical studies and those advocating “practical” studies were outraged; in the end, the panel’s reasonable via media failed.
In 1918, the NEA released a new report: the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education which insisted that education was democratic, and should help every individual “find his place in society” by teaching him/her the skills a citizen should know. These skills included worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, good health, and various academic processes including reading, writing, math computations, and oral and written expression (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985, p. 256). Both Administrative Progressives, who implemented vocational training, and Dewey-an Progressives, who stressed the processes of learning (versus the content) and who later implemented extracurricular activities were pleased. This report was widely heralded and even considered the “Bible” of school reformers.
Although the argument is ongoing, the way I see it, we have given Progressivism a long enough “test drive” to know that this educational vehicle does not work. Indeed, we have been trying to make Progressivism work since the 1900’s. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By Einstein’s definition, then, to continue trying to make Progressivism work, is insane.

Many Paths to Student Failure
Just as there are many theoretical paths to stasis, there are many actions that lead to student failure. The way to succeed in school, or to have school succeed the student in its role of educating one for future productivity, success, and happiness (in whatever terms it may be defined) is a very narrow one; the ways for school and student to fail are numerous. “At-risk” students may have been exposed to risk factors such as poverty, young, single, or low-educational status parents, abuse and neglect, dangerous neighborhoods, or homelessness, alienation, or inadequate educational experiences. Of course, students may have been exposed to several of these risk factors, creating a cumulative risk.
“At-risk” students tend to fall into two types: first, those who are “at-risk” due low achievement and second, those who have been exposed to inadequate educational experiences (Pellino, K.M., 2005).
“At-risk” Students, Type One
At-risk students who have “low achievement” or “inadequate skill level” are the students we typically picture when the term “at-risk” is used. It is highly likely that these “at-risk” students originate from a lower-class background.
In Bourdieu’s parsimonious view, schooling is an exercise in stratification of society, whereby wealthy parents pass down “cultural capital” to their children. The topics that teachers teach in schools are those that wealthy parents have passed down to their children through osmosis, by exposure to the middle class environment; for instance, the skill of “sequencing” is a product of orderliness, whereas children from a lower class environment filled with chaos may be confused by the concept of “sequencing.”
The way that I see it, both wealthy and lower class people have skills; the skills that they have just happen to be different sets of skills, and the skills that the wealthy hold happen to be more highly valued because the wealthy are in a hegemonic position (as Gramsci termed it).
For instance, say Pat Johnson comes from a lower-class home. He does not do very well in school, but he knows how to improvise with recipes, cooking dinner using government food which varies from month to month, how to revise leftovers, how to handle money and use coupons, how to navigate a drug-infested area and not get hurt, how to sew his own clothes or cut used clothes down to size, how to entertain himself by storytelling or singing, how to avoid getting hit by an abusive parent, how to decorate a home with thrift store findings, how to use a bucket as a dustpan, how to flatten a penny on the train tracks as a toy, and how to keep from getting beaten up by one’s peers by acting “cool” and using different linguistics.
In contrast, Susan Smith comes from a wealthy background and knows how to read and negotiate dense contracts, invest money (in cd’s, banks, the stock market, and venture capitalism), and she knows which name brands are “trendy.” She knows how to golf, play tennis, and ski, is versed in speaking French, and plays the piano, harp, and flute. She knows how to direct a caterer or a housekeeper to do work, and she knows how to keep a household neat and orderly using special containers, such as from the Container Store. Since she has manners, she knows the etiquette for parties, soirees, and other occasions. Because the upper middle class are in a hegemonic position, her skills are valued more than Pat’s, and are tested in document reading on exams, sequencing, math problems on investments and interest, French quizzes, and her use of what Delpit terms “edited” English. Pat may be labeled “at-risk” because his “skills” [namely the skills that the school values] are not up to par, while Susan, who is really no “smarter” than Pat may receive accolades.
Students like Pat may benefit from direct instruction. Lisa Delpit says that students who do not come to school with “cultural capital” need the hidden rules made explicit through direct instruction, since schools are based on the culture of the upper and middle classes.
In contrast to Freire, who called for a change of both methods and content—new content to celebrate the culture of the oppressed and new methods to ensure resistance and intellectual independence, Delpit (similar to Hirsch and Gramsci before her) argues that in order for the oppressed classes and races to succeed, the oppressed class should master the traditional tools of power and authority (Hirsch, 1996, p. 7).

“At-Risk” Students, Type Two
“At-risk” students who have received inadequate or inappropriate educational experiences are not the students who are usually thought of when the term “at-risk” is used. These students may have been gifted and talented students who became “at-risk” due to tuning out in class, being “turned off” to educational studies, and becoming alienated from lack of challenge. These students may also have been bullied by classmates or peers for being “different.”
If gifted and talented students are placed within a regular classroom, they may be exposed to an inappropriate level of instruction as the result of a teacher’s use of whole-class instruction (such as Hirsch propounds) after the 1975 IDEA act, which stretched the variety of student levels within an individual classroom. In this case, “core knowledge” pedagogy may not be the best solution for a student; on the other hand, Progressivism tends to advocate for the wide variety of students to be broadened even further. Because social promotion often does not encourage the “skipping” of grades, gifted and talented students who are bored have more time to get into trouble, and may end up being labeled “at-risk.” Compounding these problems, bright students from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds may be more likely to get tracked into lower skill level classes than non-minorities.
Both students at the low end and high end of the spectrum seem to have problems and wear the “at-risk” label much more frequently than middle-level students. By failing to meet the needs of students at the lower end and at the higher end, aiming only for the middle, instructional practices actually produce “at-risk” students.
While the student who becomes “at-risk” suffers because of lost educational opportunities, society suffers as well since society is made up of individuals, and the loss to one is a loss to all. Other countries, ironically, have done better both in terms of equality and achievement. I believe that America can do better.

Foucault’s View of My Theory
Foucault would disagree with my assessment of things. First, he would find fault with basing a theory on Hegelian dialectic. In an interview, he said that “ ‘Dialectic’ is a way of evading the always open and hazardous reality of conflict by reducing it to a Hegelian skeleton.” (Rabinow, 1984, p. 57). For him, history is a matter of struggle, represented by the image of war, and change can only come through a break with tradition (Rabinow, 1984, p.54, 65). Truth does not stand in opposition to “un-truth,” or reason in contrast to “non-reason,” but is created within discourses which are themselves neither true nor false (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. 210). Truth is created by a regime, and there are therefore many versions of truth. Foucault might argue that my assessment is merely a version of truth (or “regime”), and attack my assertion that the circle of Hegel’s dialectic could include as authoritative a point as Hirsch’s, given that postmodernism rejects authoritative “experts” such as Hirsch might be deemed (assuming, of course, that Foucault believes Hegelian dialectic to be postmodern, as Clive Beck posits, although Hegel wrote and lived within the modern era).
Pedagogies likewise operate as regimes of truth. For Foucault, power is exercised rather than possessed, so there are neither any inherently liberating or repressive pedagogical practices (Gore, 1994, p. 233). While Hirsch’s “core knowledge” would be no more liberating than Dewey’s Progressivism in theory, Foucault might assert that the Progressivist regime was once liberating because it represented a paradigmatic shift, and that “core knowledge” is currently liberating insofar as it represents a break with the dominant paradigm of Progressivism. In essence, Foucault would say that no liberation is permanent, and as soon as something becomes dominant, the struggle for liberation must begin again.
Bowles and Gintis’ Critique
Bowles and Gintis, using their social reproduction theory, would claim that the education system—both in Progressivism (particularly as manifested in Administrative Progressivism) and “core knowledge” pedagogies—legitimates economic inequality by providing a pseudo-meritocratic mechanism for assigning individuals to economic positions. The poor are concentrated in schools with repressive, chaotic, and arbitrary internal order mirroring the characteristics of their inferior job situations (Bowles & Gintis, 1976, p.132). Education is a mere tool of the economic order; the purpose of education being to initiate students into the economic system; whereas some eras have been better at that indoctrination than others, some pedagogies have been more effective in that indoctrination than others. Because those in a hegemonic position set curricular standards, any “meritocracy” is illusory. Similarly, race and social distinctions are merely a part of the upper class’ ploy to divide and conquer the subordinate classes. Because the elites control the economic order, and therefore also control its handmaiden, education, as soon as economically disadvantaged students began to learn the same curriculum as the elites, the way that elites measure “merit” would shift. Since meritocracy is just a construct of the elites, there is no way to beat them at their own game—the rules would be rewritten. Bowles and Gintis would argue that Hirsch, Delpit, and I are under a delusion that we could change the social order permanently—especially in thinking that we could change it from the outside.


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Teaching’s Position within Social Structures

Realizing the stratification and specialization that society needs to function as a body according to structuralist theory, schools act as a mechanism for transforming individual stem cells [uneducated elementary students] into cells serving specialized functions [i.e., leader, professor, laborer]—heart cells, brain cells, and muscle tissue. In Social Class and School Knowledge, Anyon (1981) describes four socioeconomic classes of students—working class, middle class, affluent professional class (or “educated” class), and the executive elite class—and the differing types of education that students received in order to transform them from stem cell into specialized cell. The types of education students received differed dramatically—especially for a nation that claims to offer equal opportunity to all.
It should be no surprise, given that students receive dramatically different educations, that there is a special “type” of person who becomes a teacher. In our society, occupations are picked by ascriptive qualities (social characteristics visible at birth) and personal choice from among the paths one is allowed to take (Lortie, 1975, p. 25). Teaching tends to be a conservative profession in that it values tradition and continuity. “One might, of course, enter teaching to change it; but as we shall see later, it is difficult to find members of the occupation who so describe their entry” (Lortie, 1975, p. 29).
Combining Lortie’s observation that few radicals enter the profession of teaching to change it and Anyon’s observation that people from certain backgrounds—through the process of specialization via education—end up with certain attributes, I am led to believe that the majority of teachers come from the middle class. Arguably, students are drawn to the profession of teaching in proportion to the degree with which they are able to identify with the background of their teachers.
While some teachers may derive from a working class background, teaching has a tendency to appeal to those who had a good experience in school; this fact alone may discourage many from the working class to enter the profession—given the baggage they carry from inadequate or poor educational experiences and bad memories from school days. Even out of those who have fonder memories of school, many are prevented from entering the occupation due to lack of skills, college education, or credentials that few from a working class background are able to attain. By allowing a token number of working class individuals to become teachers, the Horatio Alger myth of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” is allowed to continue, while encouraging other members of the working class to “toe the line,” in hopes that their good behavior might have its reward. It is no mistake that one of the professions promising the working class upward mobility is a conservative one—for society needs the working class to be obedient and rule-abiding—using the reward of an individual with a conservative job as symbolic encouragement for the obedience of others. Those who loved school and feel that entering the profession is a “reward” or a step up the social ladder are unlikely to want to change the system that provided them with their position, leading to its continuity.
In the working class schools Anyon observed, teachers were predominantly young, single, male, and from the state teachers college. It is important to note that “a significant proportion of men who teach come from homes marked by economic insecurity and low social status” (Lortie, 1975, p. 30). In other words, students attending working class schools are trained to be working class people by individuals originating from the working class—although most of the working class teachers originally came from a better neighborhood than those which they eventually taught in.
In the middle class schools Anyon observed, approximately 1/3 of the teachers grew up in the neighborhood, most graduated from a local state teachers college, and the majority were females married to men with middle-class careers. Since these teachers came from such similar backgrounds as their students, perhaps it made it easier for students to identify with their teachers, imagining themselves in the role teachers—thus perpetuating the middle class dominance of this profession.
In the affluent professional school Anyon observed, the majority of teachers were female and married to professionals, had originally derived from middle-class or upper-middle class backgrounds, and grew up throughout the state. These students were apparently less likely to see themselves as teachers, due to there being less of an alignment between their backgrounds and those of their teachers—especially when compared to the match between middle class students’ and teachers’ backgrounds. It also seems unlikely that individuals receiving an education that emphasizes questioning, creativity, and independent thinking would be attracted to a profession that values tradition, continuity, and routine work. Teaching is not only unlikely to attract those who want to taste new experiences and tackle novel challenges, but is likely to drive out any individual who enters the profession standing against the strong community pressures that perpetuate “norms” and “standards.”
In the executive elite school that Anyon observed, most teachers were females married to professionals, residing in the professional section of town. Many came from middle- and upper-middle class backgrounds, but considered themselves of a lower social status then their students. It should be no surprise, given that such teachers are of a lower social status, that they bring a very different political perspective to class discussions, making it unlikely for students to closely identify with them—instead viewing them as “other.” Teaching is therefore unlikely to appeal to those of an executive elite background, who have been trained to plan, order, and organize society. An individual of executive elite origins attracted to the field of education might instead opt to become an administrator rather than a teacher.

The Field of Literacy

A concern for literacy has been widely heralded. Statistics proclaim dire warnings: “Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension. About 13% of all 17-year-olds in the US can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40%” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 2). Seeing such statistics and headlines, one assumes that our methods of instruction are failing, and that teachers today are doing a worse job educating students than teachers in the past. In truth, there was no “golden age” of education. “In 1951, the Los Angeles Public schools’ associate superintendent tested the basic skills and fundamental knowledge of the district’s children. According to Time Magazine (“Failure in Los Angeles, 1951), when the teachers and parents got to look at the results, they ‘yelped with pained surprise.’ Among the 11th graders, 3 percent could not tell time, 4 percent did not know what letter preceded “M” in the alphabet, and 14 percent could not calculate 50 percent of 36” (Sedlak, Wheeler, Pullin, & Cusick, 1986, p. 18).
Nevertheless, such concern for literacy is of relatively recent origin. In ancient times, castes of scribes in Egypt, Israel, and India were highly respected since only a few people knew how to read and write. St. Augustine in his Confessions depicts people reading out loud; this was a common practice so that those who were illiterate could receive the information by “listening in” or “eavesdropping” if they wanted to. It was not until the late 19th century that the ability to read silently and understand an unfamiliar text became the goal of mass education. Prior to this time, literate individuals were those who could declaim familiar texts aloud. Getting new meaning from texts—in fact, getting any meaning from texts—was not the goal of reading instruction even throughout much of the 19th century (Cohen & Neufeld, 1981, p.81). While universities began offering reading improvement courses around the late 19th century—the most notable being the University of Michigan (1852), Iowa State (1870), Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (1902), enrollment in such courses did not expand until the 1970s when colleges began granting academic credit for these courses. Nevertheless, despite granting credit, as late as 1982, the effectiveness of college-level reading programs had not been systematically evaluated (Anderson, 1982).
Even though the field of literacy is a relatively recent development, the battle lines have already been drawn. Polemics and battles abound: phonics versus whole language, decoding versus comprehension, reading to comprehend versus reading to do, schema theory versus Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, approaches to reading based on behaviorism as versus constructivism, pedagogical approaches based on “core knowledge” (affiliated with schema theory, as described by Hirsch (1985)) versus progressivism (which is affiliated with constructivism). Yet “as psycholinguist Frank Smith wisely notes, ‘In the two-thousand-year recorded history of reading instruction, as far as I have been able to discover, no one has devised a method of teaching reading that has not proved a success with some children.” (Meier, 2002, p. 27).
The battle between schema theory and socioculturalist theory is an intriguing development. Schema theory assumes that the human mind mediates information taken in through the senses, and integrates it into a structure made up of other information bits in order to contextualize and comprehend it. Socioculturalism says that meaning-making is essentially dialogic in nature, and highlights the role of mediational tools such as language, texts, and conversations.
In the past, schema theory was appropriated both by Progressivists such as Dewey and conservative educationists such as Hirsch. That the left and right once agreed on a topic might seem startling, but the polarization between right and left in literacy did not always exist. Instead, the polarization within the field of literacy seems to mirror the polarization of the culture wars and retribalization within our society. But while the polarization continues in society at large, within the field of literacy a truce has been declared as dialogue has recently emerged between socioculturalist (those opposing schema theory) and New Literacies scholars (who seek to expand schema theory).

History of Schemas

While the concept of schema theory can be traced to Plato and Aristotle, Kant is generally considered the first to speak of schemas as organizing structures that mediate how we see and interpret the world. For Bartlett, schemas highlighted the reciprocity between culture and memory. Dewey, a contemporary of Bartlett, later developed theories on the concept of transactionalism, the relationship between individual knowledge and cultural practice. For Piaget (1952), development was interpreted as an ongoing dialectic in which the individual assimilates new experience consistent with existing schemas or changes the schemas to fit his or her experience (McVee, Dunsmore & Gavelek, 2005). Schemas were originally meant to help researchers understand what processes were happening within the individual, but were transactionally linked to culturally organized experience. The transactional connection between the individual and the cultural experience was lost in relation to schema regarding the reading process as the concept was applied to cognitive science and psychological theory. As the link between individual and culture that was embedded in the original concept of transactional schemas broke, I suspect the field of literacy became polarized.
During the 1970s, schema became defined through cognitive psychology, which began to explore knowledge construction through computer metaphors, implying a dualism whereby the individual-as-knower stands apart from the world-as-known. Between 1978-88 research in schema theory was prevalent in journals (McVee, Dunsmore & Gavelek, 2005). This is far different than the transactionalist perspective which mediates between the two. As a remedy to the cognitivist approach, the socioculturalist perspective (as propounded by Florio-Ruane & McVee, 2000)—that thought has its genesis in social interaction—emerged. Socioculturalism says that meaning-making is essentially dialogic in nature, and highlights the role of language and texts.
Debating with the socioculturalists, New Literacies scholars point to the need to count diverse digital contexts, such as hypertexts, as forms of literacy, extending the schema construct. However, discussions of schema theory necessarily raise debates of cultural knowledge since even relatively subtle differences in people’s schemas can have dramatic differences on their interpretations. Unfortunately, research has not focused on schema construction, but only tested pre-made schemas.
While I think that it is a mistake to constantly break with continuity and drastically shift paradigms—since there has yet to be a heliocentric shift in the universe of literacy—I do not believe in creating syntheses that artificially unify the field. Rather, I believe that the field of literacy might be enriched through dialogue between two parties (rather than polemical discrediting of the opposing faction or hegemonic dominance of one party to the point of excluding the opposing viewpoint). As Pressley suggests in reference to teaching reading by phonics or whole language, it should not be an either/or, but both/and; I believe that this statement should be extended to the field of literacy as a whole.
Balanced Literacy Polemics

In “Balanced Literacy in an Urban School District,” Frey, Lee, Tollefson, Pass, and Massengill (2005) entered their study with the philosophy of “balanced literacy”—an approach that balances phonics and whole language, reading and writing, teacher-directed and student-directed activities—a sort of via media of education. This theory was supposed to bridge the educational religio-political divide between supporters of phonics and supporters of whole-language—an issue to literacy as divisive as the wars between Catholics and Protestants prior to the Elizabethan era. These two views of literacy were set out in the mid-1960s by the US Office of Education in publications regarding comparative research on reading instruction models for first graders, and later became solidified into the protracted battle that has continued into today.
To see if “balanced literacy” worked, the researchers collected data from 156 students in grades K-5 in 32 elementary schools in a high-poverty urban metropolitan area. These students had 72 teachers, whose classrooms were chosen for observation. The “balanced literacy” program had been implemented in all schools by district mandate; students were therefore subjected to a 90- to 120-minute “literacy” block every morning. No one asked if a “literacy” block were the most effective use of time; whether the time might be more effectively spent by breaking it down into smaller literacy intervals throughout the day, or whether students as young as five years old can even sit still for that long. The researchers had neither a “control group” to compare the “balanced literacy” approach to, nor a “before and after” study of the same schools, making their “research” more an exercise of polemics.
To indicate “literacy,” the researchers used classroom observations of students reading or being read to, classroom physical environment checklists of literacy components, physical building environment checklists of literacy components, teacher surveys, and student group interviews. The fact that the study was mixed method to help eliminate bias does not help much, considering that the researchers went into the study with a model they were trying to “prove.”
The researchers observed each classroom twice , and filled out a survey using the partial-interval recording format, summing up the data for each one-minute observational interval. In addition, they filled out a classroom physical environment checklist, indicating the presence of literacy centers, classroom libraries, reading nooks, examples of student work, and literacy posters or displays.
A third indicant was a school building environment checklist, searching for “physical features in the office, the hallways, and the library that reflected the school’s literacy activities” (Frey et al, 2005, p. 275).
The fourth indicant was self-reporting. Teachers filled out surveys on how often, or for how long they involved students in literacy activities each day. Self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, yet when you factor in that these teachers were under some duress, given that “balanced literacy” had just been mandated, it is unlikely that they would admit that they were not engaging students in a literacy activity for the requisite number of minutes, even if they were not.
The last indicant, student group interviews, might have been the strongest indicant in the study, considering that students had the least vested interest in the program, and were interviewed in a group, which is a more reliable method than self-reporting. Yet questions like, “Do you have time during the day when you can learn about reading and writing?” and “So, what do you guys like to read?” (Frey et al, 2005, p.276) were too vague to be of much help. The fact that students indicated that they enjoyed going to the public library and that their parents read to them at home seems to indicate that the interviews got off-base. To use triangulation with five weak indicants doesn’t help much, when the indicants used make little sense as stand-ins for “literacy.”
At the conclusion, while 98% of classrooms had classroom libraries, 97% had “literacy displays,” and 97% had a large group area for read-alouds and other activities, just over half the students said that they could find books at school—while almost all of the students agreed that there were adults at home who helped them read and write and find books at home or in the community (Frey et al, 2005, p. 278). This suggests that the posters were not an effective indicant for literacy. Although the researchers did not emphasize this gap, it seems striking that the students actually seemed to learn more about literacy at home than at school, based on their reporting.
I suspect that because the “balanced literacy” method is really a via media, that phonics proponents will continue to emphasize phonics more than whole-language, and that whole-language proponents will continue to emphasize whole-language over phonics, under the guise of promoting “balanced literacy.” However, based on this study, one cannot know whether “balanced literacy” is a “better” approach than any other method, or if, in implementation, it even exists.
What is known is that literacy is important not just for enjoyment but for everyday life. Reading signs, maps, bus schedules, directions on how to assemble a product, or directions for how to administer a medication: these are things literate individuals do every day without thinking about, and take for granted. Yet millions of illiterate individuals are locked out of this world because they are unable to decode or comprehend texts.
Document Reading

Document reading plays an important part in literacy, especially for adults, since documents are prevalent in modern society and the most common reading task on the job is document reading. Fifty to eighty percent of occupational reading tasks require workers to complete a specific task (Mosenthal & Kirsch, 1998, p. 639). Documents are complex in that they have many different organizational patterns such as tables, charts, schedules, maps, graphs, and forms, and have no universal grammar. Many literacy assessments include a document scale as well as a prose scale; these include the NAEP Young Adult Literacy Survey, the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), the International Education Assessment (Reading), the International Adult Literacy Survey, ETS’s Tests of Applied Literacy Skills, and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.
Since document readability is difficult to assess, Mosenthal and Kirsch suggested a readability formula to help evaluate such texts. The formula is based on two main components: organizational pattern and density. The researchers posited that all types of organization (i.e., including table, chart, schedule, map, graph, and form) stem from four types of lists: the simple list (of which there are two types: simple object lists, and simple modifying lists), combined list, intersected list, and nested list. They then assigned each of these types of lists a score: a simple list has a document structure score of 1, a combined list a score of 2, an intersected list a score of 3, and nested lists a score of 4. By working backwards with tables, charts, and schedules and figuring out which list type the form is based off of, a document score can be assigned.
Individuals who can read and comprehend the most complex documents tend to receive the highest scores on assessments of document literacy. While an individual’s high scores on assessments of document literacy may be seen as indicators of workplace success, literacy scores unfortunately differ between different ethnic groups. A major issue in literacy research is how to bridge the gap between ethnic groups, or if it can even be done.

Literacy Practices Among Different Ethnic Groups

Holt and Smith (2005) investigated the differences between the literacy scores of different socioeconomic and racial groups and the reading habits of these different groups. In entering their study, the researchers presumed the existence of two types of minorities: “voluntary” minorities (predominantly Asian-Americans) who immigrated to the US, and “involuntary” minorities (such as African-, Hispanic-, and Native- Americans). The researchers posited that “involuntary” minorities are less successful in educational endeavors and literacy scores because they do not want to identify with the “oppressor.” This explanation seemed a little too convenient for me, a bit like a “just-so” story explaining why Asian-Americans get higher scores than European-Americans even though they’re minorities. By grouping all “Asian-Americans” into one group, it does not take into consideration the diversity of circumstances under which Asian-Americans may have immigrated. For instance, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Hmongs may have immigrated under circumstances of considerable duress, compared to Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, or Chinese who may have come for greater educational or career opportunities. The situations of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Hmong may be more “involuntary” than voluntary, depending on personal circumstances and whether or not their migration was a result of the Vietnam War. In addition, the researchers assumed that voters were more knowledgeable than non-voters, although the study did not consider whether lack of transportation might have been an issue, or whether non-voters were as informed as the voters about the issues at hand but knowingly made a political statement by their abstention (i.e., “I don’t like either of the two candidates”). Gender was not accounted for, although it may have made a significant difference in the findings.
The question of the study was whether there were differences in literacy levels between different socio-economic and racial groups, and/or differences between socio-economic and racial groups’ reading habits. While the hypothesis was unstated, it was implied that African-Americans as a group would score lower on reading tests than any other ethnic group because they didn’t read as widely or as frequently as European-Americans (the majority social group) because African-Americans probably didn’t have equal access to good schools and libraries.
The group studied was large, insofar as the researchers used data from the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), the largest adult literacy survey conducted in the US—numbering 24,944 adult (16 years +) respondents with complete data—and was representative of the US population. The NALS study asked respondents about their reading of personal documents (letters, memos, magazines, and journals), quantitative documents (bills, invoices, spreadsheets, budget tables), documents (manuals, reference books, directions, and instructions), books, TV viewing for information (hours per day), and reliance on friends or relatives for information. Additional indicants were average annual family income, average annual family income of all the families surveyed in the neighborhood, parents’ educational attainment, home language, and whether the individual had a disability or illness. Essentially, the researchers took data collected from the respondents, set them in balance according to socioeconomic factors then divided the data into two groups—one group with 1/3 of respondents, the other group with 2/3 of respondents. They then used the second group as a check to the first group to see whether the data was valid, using hierarchical linear modeling, eigenvalues, promax rotation, and varimax rotation.
The study concluded that when family income (FI) and income of neighborhood (MIN) were controlled, African-Americans reported reading more sections of the newspaper than European-Americans. For both those above and below the poverty level, African-American adults received more information from TV, books, and magazines than did European-Americans. In addition, African-Americans read more types of books than did European-Americans.
However, African-Americans engaged in lower levels of work document reading than European-Americans, possibly attributable to their holding lower-level jobs.
On standardized tests, African-Americans’ literacy proficiency ended up being lower than European-Americans’, which the researchers believed to be due to a linguistic bias in the language used on standardized tests; I did not find this argument especially compelling considering that the African-Americans studied were apparently widely-read and were likely to have large working vocabularies acquired from reading. I however, began to think that perhaps African-Americans scored a lower proficiency on standardized literacy tests than European-Americans due to their lack of document reading. This question would be very interesting to explore; lining up groups of people matched for socioeconomic status, race, gender, and time spent on reading various personal documents, quantitative documents, and books, and merely comparing the number of work documents that the people read, and seeing if the scores differ. Overall, this study was compelling, insofar as the group studied was so large, but I disagreed with the researchers’ interpretation. Following Bourdieu, I think that perhaps document literacy scores reflect the skills of the hegemonic group who writes the test in their own interest.
Since document reading tests are not only distributed within the U.S., but globally, there is likely to be a cultural bias embedded within such tests. Nevertheless, since most of the world population does not live within the US, it is important to study these other countries as well. While no one has yet declared the fall of the nation-state, the world is “flattening out,” with the rise of technology, the internet, and outsourcing as Thomas Friedman wrote in The World is Flat (2005). With new forms of cooperation and collaboration increasing daily, we cannot afford to have large populations of illiterate people (in whatever way we decide to define the term “literacy”). As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, perhaps we are seeing the guiding force of the “invisible hand” leading us to do what’s right, as the economist/philosopher Adam Smith described so long ago. Who knows? Nevertheless, another nation’s concern for literacy must be our own as well.

Moroccan Literacy

In Lavy and Spratt’s (1997) study of patterns of incidence and change in Moroccan literacy, the topics under investigation were adult literacy skills and literacy levels and how they have changed over the years. However, it is necessary to note that the term “adult” in Morocco, like in Somalia, in statistical reports includes people aged 10-15 years. The authors’ goal was to “take a temperature” of Morocco’s literacy rate, and to see whether the number was going up (since a growing number of people worldwide are believed to be illiterate) or down. In addition, the authors examined the geographic distribution of literacy in Morocco to see if there were differences between the literacy rate in urban versus rural areas.
The literacy survey was designed with the help of World Bank and was conducted in connection with the 1990-91 Living Standards Measurement Survey (LSMS). 2/3 of those participating in the LSMS were given the literacy module. Those completing the literacy module included 2,240 households nationally. When a target household could not or did not participate, a similar replacement household was selected. The final sample of those completing the literacy module included 2,240 households and 8,050 people, of whom 47% were male and 49% lived in rural areas.
Since this survey ran concurrent with a government adult literacy campaign that reached 600,000 people during 1990-91, the results might be questionable, given that literacy instruction was widely distributed during this time, and the level of some skills might have superficially increased for a temporary period (if the skills were not truly absorbed, say in the case of an individual memorizing answers for a test). Scores may have therefore been inflated to higher rates than they otherwise would have been.
The Morocco Literacy Survey directly tested Arabic reading, including single letter and word decoding, comprehension of connected text, writing letters, words, and complete sentences, document reading of an identity card, letter envelope, electricity bill, medicine box, and newspaper; French reading and writing; and mental and written arithmetic. Vocabulary words and text tasks were selected from primary school books in Morocco.
In addition to direct testing, information was also collected through a traditional self-report survey. The self-report survey was completed by all people in a household between the ages of 9-69 years. The self-report section was given to participants first, and was used to screen people to see whether a higher or lower form of the literacy direct test should be given. Average time for a single administration [presumably of the self-report, although it was unclear] was 20 minutes.
Psychometric analyses of instrument reliability were conducted on pilot tests and on results of the first month of survey administration. Both direct tests and self-reports were graded in terms of competence scales between 0-3. Level 0 indicated that no competence was demonstrated—in other words, the individual was unable to decode or comprehend simple written words or to correctly write a simple dictated word. Level 1 indicated a rudimentary ability: the individual was able to demonstrate decoding and comprehension of single words and/or was able to correctly write single dictated words, but was unable to comprehend or write sentences or connected text. Level 2 indicated minimal competence, demonstrating the ability to comprehend simple texts—
although with some errors—and to write single dictated words without difficulty, completing sentences with some errors. Level 3 indicated complete fundamental competence; demonstrating the ability to comprehend a variety of texts, including a newspaper article, without error, and to write complete sentences without error.
Direct assessment of participants was cross-checked with the participants’ self-evaluation. They found that while underestimation of literacy skills was just over 1%, overestimation of skills was a more serious problem; roughly 5% of the population said that they were literate although they could show no literacy skills. Overall, 13.5% of the sample either overestimated or underestimated their literacy skills. Self-assessment differed by gender; while just 39% of males reported being illiterate, 44% actually were by direct test method. On the other hand, 68.2% of females reported being illiterate, while 70% tested out being so via the direct test method; in other words, females were more accurate in their self-reporting than males were. People who had 6 years of schooling in the Q’uranic (traditional Islamic) school also tended to overestimate their literacy level based on their years of schooling. Those who studied in secular schools had a lower incidence of illiteracy than those who studied for the same length of time at a Q’uranic school. Self-report data by kids aged 9-14 was again likely to have serious underestimations of illiteracy—self-report data resulted in an illiteracy rate that was more than 12% lower than the rate estimated using direct assessment. This discrepancy was even wider for subgroups such as boys of that age (16%) or for those living in rural areas (15%). Researchers stated that the rural-urban divide seemed to have an even greater impact on literacy than the gender gap, since the gender gap was even more pronounced in rural areas. The difference between direct-assessment-based illiteracy rates between urban (37.5%) and rural areas (76.9%) was dramatic.
Since in 71% of households, there was a perfect match between the skills of the head of the household and those of their spouse, the researchers proposed that skills be measured in terms of household rather than individual, where the group is the principal functioning unit (i.e., in tribal societies). In other words, based on this data, one could estimate adult illiteracy accurately simply by identifying illiterate households.
The authors also conducted a multivariate regression analysis to identify the relative importance of the correlates of literacy. The indicants (which they referred to as “potential explanatory variables”) included age, gender, residence milieu, parents’ literacy level, quintile of household per capita expenditures, years and type of schooling, and selected interaction terms. Age was strongly and negatively associated with literacy, as was female gender. The urban milieu had a strong positive influence on literacy level, as did literacy levels of mother and father. However, a mother’s literacy level was more highly correlated with a child’s literacy level than the father’s literacy level was.
While literacy levels are improving (doubling over the past three decades), creating a dramatic difference between the skill levels of older (55 years of age and up) and younger generations (15-24 years old), and even between age cohorts, the gender gap between skill levels also increased over time, due to the rate of improvement among men being greater than that among women, although both groups did improve. The urban population improved at a rate approximately three times greater than the rural population. While the rural-to-urban migration must be taken into account, the lack of development in rural areas is startling. Literacy levels obtained by direct assessment correlated highly with per capita household income, yet the richest rural quintile has a higher illiteracy rate (66.7%) than the poorest urban quintile (54.3%).
Surprisingly, within the labor force, the unemployed were endowed with more skills and an illiteracy rate under 14% while the rate among the employed is almost five times higher (62%). Similarly, mean years of schooling among the unemployed reached 11.3 years, much higher than the employed (3.7 years). In other words, those who were literate were much more likely to be unemployed, making literacy and education a ticket to nowhere for most people. The researchers suggested that jobs need to be more strongly connected to educational level before people will want to pursue an education.
Given that quantitative analysis can help delineate long-term trends, and that use of quantitative analysis implies that one can find general truths in numbers, the method does have its limitations; quantitative method cannot detail the impact that the unemployment of a literate person has on a single family; this would make an interesting follow-up study.
Using a method that the researchers in Morocco suggest, researchers in the Women and Literacy in India study used a survey method that includes one representative per household. In this case, because the researchers were interested in studying a literacy campaign’s effect on women, women were selected as the representative head of household, even though the culture might be more patriarchal.

Women and Literacy in India

Dighe (1997) investigated women’s literacy the urban setting of a re-settlement colony in Delhi, more specifically, whether women were empowered by the Total Literacy Campaign (TLC) program or not. It was unclear whether the author was involved in the campaign, or how she found out about the program in order to study it.
Dighe wanted to explore the effects of literacy groups on women’s reading ability, hypothesizing that female literacy learners probably took longer to become literate, just as it took female literacy learners longer to become literate in an African study. She also hypothesized that women were more prone to relapse into illiteracy than men, due to lack of opportunities to practice their newly learned skills.
Although there are several literacy groups in India—National Adult Education Program, Mahila Samkhya, Total Literacy Campaign (TLC), among others—the researcher selected the TLC group which operates in 250 districts because most of its attendees are women. To test women’s reading ability or “achievement,” she selected the standard National Literacy Mission’s literacy test, designed by the Directorate of Adult Education in 1992. The researchers chose to use the test as a standard measure in order to compare their study to others’ findings more readily, even though the researchers criticized some of the test questions that did not directly apply to the respondents’ daily lives—such as the question “do you know how to wire money?” when poor women infrequently do this. Following with the test’s tradition, if a respondent scored 70% or above, they were deemed “literate.”
The researchers selected a sample of women by dividing Ambedkernagar, a neighborhood of South Delhi, India, which has about 200,000 residents living in a 159-block area, into four geographically representative zones. They then randomly selected five blocks from each zone. For each of these selected blocks, a list of women who had completed the three TLC primers was obtained. Five respondents from each block were randomly selected—making the sample total 100 respondents. Although the sample was relatively small, it appears reasonable, insofar as its selection appears to have been unbiased, although it might have been better to have a control group to compare the TLC participants to.
The researchers then interviewed the 100 respondents about each member of their household. Information about sex, age, educational and occupational background was obtained. The researchers found an average of five members in a nuclear family household, and an average of six members in a joint household, of the households which they interviewed. 28.8% of the family members overall were illiterate, according to this method. Nearly 46% of females (aged 7+) were illiterate as compared to 14% of males.
Researchers looked around the respondents’ flats, and evaluated the respondents’ socioeconomic background based on examining the acquisition of certain household items, and ranking people as belonging to a high, medium, or low socioeconomic background. Yet, the authors did not name what items were used for this evaluation, or how the items were evaluated in a standardized way, considering that there were apparently multiple researchers in the field.
As a next step, the researchers provided the respondents with an open-ended questionnaire in order to gain some more qualitative insights. Apparently, the questionnaire was read aloud to respondents (although the researchers did not make this explicit). The interview included topics such as “place of origin and reason for migration,” “age and marital status,” “socioeconomic status,” “previous level of education,” “awareness of the literacy campaign,” “family support for literacy,” “interest in literacy,” “opinion about literacy volunteers and teaching/learning methods used,” “satisfaction of attending literacy classes,” and “frequency of watching/listening to TV and radio.”
Following the completion of the questionnaire, respondents sat down to take the National Literacy Mission exam. Some respondents were apparently eager to complete the test by this time, and such a fact might have skewed some of the results. Under these circumstances, only 16% of all respondents (those who completed all three TLC primers in the program) were able to reach the NLM norm for “literate.” The authors attributed this to an atrophy of literacy skills resulting from disuse (and a lack of provision of post-literacy reading materials) rather than the intrusive nature and length of the study.
In the study, several methodological errors were made. For instance, the questionnaire seems to have been far too long considering that it was only one part of a long process. As a general rule, the longer or more complicated the survey, the higher the non-completion rates. While it is probably easier for respondents to leave off a phone interview than to push a researcher out the door, I imagine that rushing through the exam may have been one way for respondents to get the researchers out of their home sooner. I am also curious as to how conspicuous the researchers’ “search” of the respondents’ apartments was, because it may have added to a participant’s feeling of discomfort in participating. It may also have contributed to participants’ rushing through the exam. This step may have been better eliminated, especially considering that the researchers do not appear to have had a steady scale for measuring the objects.
Because the author was concerned with empowering women, writing that “Literacy has to be perceived as a tool for empowering women in the wider struggle against inequality and injustice in society” (Dighe, 1992, p. 7)—confusing the role of the researcher with the role of the policy-maker—she seemed to imply a Freire-ian paradigm of empowering illiterates through discussions of politics and the world by literacy groups composed of volunteers (who were neighbors of the illiterate) and illiterates conversing on a level playing field about things that mattered to them. Freire suggested creating literacy groups that promote both dialogue and critical literacy, empowering the oppressed to read the word in order to read the world (namely what’s going on behind the scenes). When Freire’s standard of leading the illiterate adults in discussion towards a higher consciousness was not lived up to, because the discussions between the literacy learners and literacy volunteers were not as interesting or as connected to the world (rather than just learning the text) as Dighe thought they “should have been,” the volunteers were faulted. This suggests the Dighe based her study on sociocultural theory that avoids blaming the illiterate for his/her illiteracy, but did not extend the benefit of the doubt to volunteers who were equally impoverished or “oppressed” and had little training in literacy instruction.
Freire’s model—namely of creating literacy groups that promote dialogue and critical literacy— is apparently the dominant theory practiced in literacy campaigns. Since criticality, such as espoused by Freire’s critical pedagogy, presumes reflection on one’s assumptions, it requires dialogue with opposing view points. It is ironic that “critical pedagogy” has become un-critical through rising to the hegemonic heights which the field of literacy has enshrined it in. Since its proponents have become concerned with its preservation, they have become unreflexive and failed to recognize its limitations or think differently. If Freire’s model is to continue to be “critical,” and develop, it needs to dialogue with a counter-posed model.
In addition, I find Freire’s model to be internally inconsistent in that because it presumes the world can be read (assuming a dualistic worldview often associated with cognitivism that implies that the individual is not a part of the world as it is created and needs to uncover a reality which he/she is not a part of ) even though he claims truth is uncovered through dialogue with others (a position in line with socioculturalism which states that meaning-making is essentially dialogic in nature, and highlights the role of mediational tools such as language, texts, and conversations). I find it doubtful that Freire is presenting a new form of transactionalism. Instead, the fact that Freire’s model is internally inconsistent highlights the need for a counter-posed model to dialogue with it in order to work out the kinks, and create a new synthesis, or a better theory.


Since the field of literacy is relatively young, there is definitely room for improvement. To begin with, we need to more clearly define the term “literacy” and what is implied by it—whether we mean decoding or comprehension or numeracy or reading to do.
In addition, I believe that the field of literacy might be enriched through dialogue between those holding opposing viewpoints (rather than polemical discrediting of the opposing faction or hegemonic dominance of one party to the point of excluding the opposing viewpoint). Resurrecting the concept of transactionalism might help. While it is apparently standard for literacy tests to include both a direct-measure and survey portion, ideally, quantitative studies might also be augmented by creating qualitiative studies to accompany them.
Because research has not focused on schema construction, and only tested pre-made schemas, experiments on schema construction should be undertaken. We know little about the role of schema in regards to literacy and cultural knowledge even though so much of our research is based on this sketchy concept.
Since few studies exploring race and literacy have been done, it would be interesting to explore whether African-Americans score a lower proficiency on standardized literacy tests than European-Americans due to their lack of document reading by lining up groups of people matched for socioeconomic status, race, gender, and time spent on reading various personal documents, quantitative documents, and books, and merely comparing the number of work documents that the people read, and seeing if the scores differ. It would be even more interesting to see if this pattern holds in other countries by examining minority scores versus the scores of the hegemonic group.
It would also be interesting to extend Stoodley, Talcott, and Carter’s study (2000) about dyslexics’ weaker vibrotacticle sensitivity and see whether dyslexia affects phonetic learning. I suspect that the phonics method of teaching reading does not work for dyslexic students, considering that they perceive tones and sounds differently. I do not believe that such a test has been undertaken.
Since 1990, interest in international studies of literacy has grown, following the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand (Lavy & Spratt, 1997, p. 120). Despite a growing interest in literacy, the most commonly referenced source of information on national literacy levels remain census-based statistics of individual countries. Censuses contain problems of definition, measurement, and interpretation. Based on educational attainment information, self-report, or third-person report, censuses depend on some questionable assumptions. International studies have been difficult to draw conclusions from since literacy assessments do not have standards which are comparable. Even after 1990, we have continued to compare apples to oranges. I believe that there is a strong need for a set of agreed-upon indicants; for instance, it would be helpful if everyone agreed to define “adults” as those aged 18 years and up, versus 7 or 9 or 16 years of age, for ease of comparison. In addition, it would help if researchers set test-tasks at an agreed-upon level (i.e., primary or secondary) and style (academic tasks versus tasks based on daily life skills) or set of skills tested (i.e., wiring money, comprehending a college-level text, decoding letters or sentences), and agreed on a scale with which to compare the resultant scores. There are currently a multitude of measures, scores, and scales representing this undefined term “literacy” (i.e., 70% or above on the NLM exam in India, versus scores of 0-3 on a scale in Morocco) rendering comparison meaningless. A standard scale of comparison for use in international studies would prove invaluable to the field.


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