Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy
1221 Avenue of the Americas - 44th Floor
New York, NY 10020
Phone 212-512-2362 ... Fax 212-512-2610



About CAAL

National Commission on
Adult Literacy

Get Commission Final Report


Talks & Essays

Letters & Media






E-News Issues

Contact Us

Commission Advisory Panel

Donate to CAAL





Letter from CAAL President to Senators Byrd, Stevens, Harkin, Specter, Clinton, Gregg, Kennedy, Murray, Schumer Representatives Young, Obey, Boehner, Miller, McKeon, Mink, Regula, Kennedy, Sawyer The Honorable Rod Paige (with copies to Bryan, Hansen, D'Amico, Hartman, Pugsley) White House Domestic Policy Advisor Margaret LaMontagne

Sepember 22, 2001

Dear _____________:

Despite the staggering events of last week, I firmly believe in the core strength of our nation and am confident about the future of America. In this spirit, I write to you about my concerns and hopes for adult literacy. I do so as the head of the new Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy, and as the former operating head of the Business Council for Effective Literacy (BCEL), an organization that through the mid-90s provided national leadership in adult literacy -- with the support of corporations, government, and professionals throughout the field.

My basic message is simple. Even as the President's effort to advance literacy in the schools goes forward, it is vitally important for the Administration to keep a strong, visible commitment to adult literacy -- especially at the Department of Education and the National Institute for Literacy. Dedicated professionals across this land -- including governors and Republican and Democratic members of Congress, during several administrations -- have toiled mightily for years to develop understanding about the nature of the adult literacy challenge as well as a framework and resources for delivering services on a level commensurate with the need.

In the months to come there will be many pressing demands on the federal budget. Urgent as they are, support for adult literacy is also essential to our future stability and progress.

We have made substantial gains in the adult literacy field to date. The skills and hopes of hundreds of thousands of Americans have been lifted, enhancing their job prospects and enabling their participation as citizens and family and community members. The beneficiaries of the collective effort are adult learners of every age, 16 to 80, of every racial and ethnic background. They are parents with improved skills who have become positive forces for their children's learning. They are a large population of immigrants with English-As-A-Second-Language (ESL) needs, and of Americans born to poverty, who are handicapped by some form of educational disadvantage, or whose skills are simply not adequate to meet the changing demands of jobs.

Anyone who has ever been privileged to sit in a tutoring session or workshop in any program in the country -- especially those offered by libraries and the voluntary groups, which serve persons at the lowest skills levels -- has been moved by watching the "enabling" process at work. They know that adult literacy services directly affect the way lives are lived, and they know why. Moreover, they have been touched to see enrolled adults learn tolerance for their brothers and sisters even as they gain in self-confidence and higher-level basic skills.

Despite the progress, however, our work has just begun. For lack of adequate resources, there are long waiting lists in programs across the country. And there remains a vast number of young and older adults in need of skills upgrading that we haven't reached at all or that we have reached only minimally -- many, many millions, no matter how the results of the National Adult Literacy survey are interpreted.

The modern adult literacy movement had its roots in Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years lifted the movement to new heights. But even as people across this country struggle to increase resources for adult literacy, to implement major goals from last year's National Literacy Summit, and in other ways to move adult literacy from "the margins to the mainstream," they are fearful that they will no longer get the support they need from federal and state government. This is not a time to retreat from adult literacy. It is a time to take stock of needs and to pursue and support opportunities for further development.

The case for adult literacy has come to be made in terms of family literacy and workplace/ workforce literacy, a shift that resulted from the Workforce Investment Act. Yet there is also a compelling need to expand ESL services for newly-legalized immigrants -- and issues of poverty, social equity, and participation are re-emerging as important "driving" forces for adult literacy.

For all of these reasons, I urge your support for the following federal actions:

1) Increase funding for adult literacy activities across the board, including national leadership activities and the National Institute for Literacy. If financing the current "relief effort" makes that impossible, temporarily maintain last year's funding levels while expressing intent to move toward higher levels as soon as feasible. (It is worth noting that while we are not in competition with the U.K. and Canada, it would be read as an enormous negative for the U.S. to retreat in the area of adult literacy just as those countries have dramatically increased their commitments and funding.)

2) Maintain a strong, visible focus within the Division of Adult Education & Literacy on adult literacy programming, making certain that the agenda of the Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education firmly includes adult literacy.

3) Assure that the National Institute for Literacy retains a strong and clear adult literacy focus. I would urge that NIFL's funding -- which has always been well below that originally intended by the National Literacy Act -- be increased for adult literacy programs even as new funds are made available for the new school-based activities planned. NIFL provides vital national leadership for the entire literacy field. A bipartisan Congress created it. Indeed, it was the centerpiece of the National Literacy Act and it has worked hard for adult literacy during the past decade. The field needs NIFL. If NIFL's adult literacy activities were cut back, no other organizations, not mine, not the Coalition for Literacy, could fill their unique and still-developing role. Could NIFL do its job better? Certainly, as every young organization could. But, it is extremely important that they have the tools to do so and that the decade of groundwork they have laid -- links to other government agencies, to business and industry, to the international community, and to practitioners, planners, and students -- be strengthened.

4) In appointing the NIFL board, I recommend that every effort be made to maintain bipartisan membership, as well as a balance of professionals representing both school literacy and adult literacy. I urge that the new director, whom I understand the NIFL board will recommend, be someone with broad perspective, someone able to think and plan systemically and strategically, a person with solid organizational and political skills, and dedication, vision, and flair. I believe these qualities are more important than being steeped in the specifics of literacy. For the substance, I would urge that NIFL be equipped with two deeply-experienced deputy directors, one responsible for school literacy, the other for adult literacy. This would enable the more orderly functioning of NIFL and produce a more coherent interaction with the outside world.

One question often asked of BCEL was which was more important, reform in the schools or adult literacy skills upgrading? Our answer was that it is not a matter of either/or, but of complementary educational goals that should be pursued as twin challenges, on parallel tracks, each having its own points of interventions, goals, and programs. Among the many stellar Americans who helped advance that message were two early champions of adult literacy, First Lady Barbara Bush and McGraw-Hill's Chairman Emeritus, Harold W. McGraw, Jr., who founded the BCEL.

I sincerely hope that this can be the guiding principle in federal actions taken on literacy.


Gail Spangenberg


Copyright 2013