Showing posts with label Ireland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ireland. Show all posts

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Literacy in Northern Ireland

Happy Easter (and Passover).

Sorry about my absence these past few weeks. I've missed writing here, but it couldn't be helped. We were off to work in Belfast, Northern Ireland for our friends at Barnardos (which is an amazing social service, educational charity/provider agency). And Cyndie and I have been fighting strep throats and bad colds ever since (I might be related to the folks who live in that part of the world, but my immunities are American).

In any event, I am happy to be back to share what I have learned. On my first day in Belfast, I was asked to talk about improving literacy. I know a lot about that, but most of my knowledge is like my immunities: strictly American!). It is presumptuous to go to anyone else's country, no matter how connected ancestrally one might be, and to start spouting off about what they ought to do. Imagine how you'd feel if a distant cousin you'd never met showed up at your house to tell you how to manage your marriage or raise your kids?

To avoid being that cousin, I read and listened carefully (despite jet lag). In many regards, looking at literacy in Northern Ireland is like looking in the mirror for an American. Their adult literacy data are derived from an instrument based on our own National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), and their NALS data are surprisingly similar to our own. Our adults read ever so slightly better than do the adults in Northern Ireland (the difference is probably not statistically significant).

Then I compared the PISA data on school literacy. Those data showed a similar, but opposite pattern. That is, the kids in Northern Ireland are reading better than the kids in the U.S., but by such a small amount that there is no real difference. One thing that the Northern Irish are concerned about is the degree of heterogeneity in those results. Their kids differ greatly in outcomes; more than is typical of other European countries. It is enough of an issue there that their policy experts were surprised that the U.S. had even more heterogeneous results (slightly more, but, again, very similar).

Of course, there are many other similarities. They are dealing with second language learners (e.g., Irish, Polish, Lithuanian) in bigger numbers than in the past, and they are particularly concerned about the literacy levels of their boys. Of course, we are both trying to teach literacy in our alphabetic English language, and we are doing so while trying to transition from an industrial national economy to an information-based global one (we are ahead of them there--thirty years of sectarian violence has slowed their modernization--I often felt like I was looking at the U.S. in about 1970).

Given all of that, I felt pretty comfortable talking about how to improve literacy levels. And yet, there are important differences that need to be attended to as well; differences that we can learn something from.

The Northern Irish education system seems more a prisoner of its sectarian history than is true of our system. Sectarianism and racism are similarly ugly problems, but our country reaches its own uneasy truce over race in the 1970s (the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and tons of social legislation and court-ordered desegregation were largely digested by 1980). On the other hand, the Good Friday Agreement is only 12-years-old; the cuts and abrasions have barely scabbed over.

However, a process akin to desegregation is beginning in Northern Ireland, but they have a long way to go and they are unlikely to take this problem head on. Of course, they've got a lot to do given their five separate systems of education (Protestant boys; Protestant girls; Catholic boys; Catholic girls; Irish Language schools). It will be difficult to reach equal learning outcomes with a "separate but equal system," though combining things certainly won't ensure equality (look at Chicago). I suspect dealing with these separation problems is probably a generation away.

Another striking difference, and one I am puzzling over, is the peculiar patterns of failure evident in their system. In the U.S., a heritage of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow segregation has left American blacks in the back of the bus when it comes to learning to read (fewer than 10% of black eighth-grade boys read at the proficient or advanced levels on NAEP). I assumed the put-upon Catholics were faring like U.S. blacks. Man, was I wrong.

Protestant boys, whose employment was always assured in factories and shipyards, never worried much about reading, writing, and arithmetic. Those frills just weren't economically necessary. The Catholics who were unlikely to land such lucrative positions had a history of literacy learning that allowed them into the lower tier clerkships and that satisfied certain ideological cravings. Now, the factory jobs are drying up (as in the U.S.), but the Protestant boys still have their eyes fixed on the lives their fathers and grandfathers lived. So they lag in literacy. (Being shut out of 21st century jobs makes them angry--and guess who they want to blame for their plight?)

The reading problems or Northern Irish Protestant boys and African American boys are horribly tangled social problems that need to be addressed, despite how intractable they seem. Perhaps we should be heartened by the fact that the Catholic boys in Belfast did relatively well despite the histories they have experienced. Perhaps making reading an issue of identity and pride in those now-struggling communities would work. It has before.

Here is the talk I gave in Belfast that day:>/"

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Irish Literacy

What a great week... I just got back from a very pleasing visit to Dublin, Ireland. My Irish friends invited me over to see if I could provide any help to their wonderful "youngballymun" project. Ballymun is an area of Dublin that is economically challenged. Ireland has one of the world's best education systems and among the highest literacy levels, but everything isn't what it should be in Ballymun.

As in major cities all over the U.S., the kids who live in economically-challenged neighborhoods (with the worst housing, the most serious health problems including drug abuse, etc.) do worst in school. Some Irish areas manage remarkably to avoid this unfortunate pattern, but not Ballymun.

Consequently, Atlantic Philanthropies has teamed up with the Irish government to provide support to make things go better in such neighborhoods. The team in Ballymun is working closely with the schools to get improvements there, but they are also expanding preschool, afterschool, and health care opportunities, and doing everything they can to try to make it possible for more kids to do well in this changing neighborhood.

The current environment there reminds me of Chicago when they were tearing down the Robert Taylor homes--the high rise public housing projects that didn't work well for the residents in Chicago. Right now in Ballymun the ever-changing landscape is punctuated by abandoned high rises, piles of rubble from the demolition, and hopeful new housing. But while changing the physical environment is a good idea, that alone will not likely lead to improved achievement without real changes in these children's educational lives.

That was why they brought me over. I visited all the schools, attended a plethora of meetings, shared my framework with everybody who would listen, and kept up the mantra that it is the children's experience that matters: amount of teaching, curriculum focus, and quality of delivery are what improve literacy--everything else is just commentary. I look forward to continuing to work with this vibrant and commited group, and will keep you posted on their progress. For more on the youngballymun project go to