Summit Speech – Sharon Darling of NCFL

Below is the transcript of a speech by Sharon Darling, the President of the National Center for Family Literacy, at the Verizon Literacy Summit at Georgetown University.

This resulting podcast was originally broadcast on October 11, 2007 from 1:50pm – 2:15pm on the Verizon Foundation website.

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Family – it provides the foundation for who we are and the inspiration for who we can be.

Parents pass along more than just eye color and other genetic traits to their children. They instill values and attitudes toward learning and education. Stronger literacy skills – across multiple generations – will benefit families, communities and the economy.

Family is the most fundamental unit in the world. Not only is it a reliable organizer in neighborhoods, communities, countries and cultures—it’s simply the most powerful force in the world. A family will make changes and tackle even the most daunting challenges because of the instinctual commitment family members have for the unit to survive and thrive.

We’re here today to talk about the drivers of literacy in our community. Using that analogy, the family is the pace car. It determines how fast and how far we go – and it has the power to unleash the possibilities that education provides.

Education begins with literacy. So to improve, refine and transform education, we must first begin with literacy – and the challenges low literacy presents. I believe that [the] barriers to literacy are a multigenerational problem that need a multigenerational solution.

Today, I will focus on three principles:

First, family is a fundamental driver of education. Consider these statistics:

•    Students spend five times as much time in communities and with their families as they do at school;
•    The greatest predictors of a child’s future success in school are the parents’ income and education – two factors that are inextricably linked;
•    Children from professional families will hear 32 million more words by age four than children in welfare families; and
•    Studies have found that during the school year, advantaged and disadvantaged children learn at about the same rate. But during the summer months when schools are closed, home and peer influences reassert themselves. At the end of the summer, advantaged children actually score higher on a standardized test than they did when the summer started, while disadvantaged children fall further behind.

Those statistics show it is clear that parents are not only a child’s first teacher, but also his or her most effective one.  Yet that teaching relationship is threatened by the fact that 34 million U.S. adults struggle with reading and have such low literacy levels that reading a newspaper or filling out a job application is nearly impossible.

The cycle is then repeated in the next generation because parents who are not literate tend to have children who struggle academically and don’t achieve literacy proficiency in adulthood.  Those adults aren’t prepared for a 20th century economy, much less ready to keep pace with the global competition of the 21st century or provide important guidance to their children.

Secondly, global forces are causing the composition of the American family and that of our world competitors to change.  Many global populations are expanding while the American population is contracting — except for the immigrant population. We must educate all immigrant families to ensure the U.S. continues to be a player on a global basis.

In addition to the changing composition of the American family, we are impacted by our relationship with families across the world.  For every 120 babies born in the U.S., almost 500 will be born in China and more than 700 will be born in India.

And it isn’t just the contrast in quantity that’s startling. In terms of brain power, the top 25 percent of China’s population in terms of I.Q. is greater than the total population of North America.  In terms of output, the number of American 18- to 24-year-olds who receive science degrees has fallen to 17th in the world. The U.S. ranked 3rd three decades ago.

We must find a way not just to compete by today’s standards but to envision tomorrow’s possibilities so we can anticipate and prepare for them. That means equipping our new American family to compete with large and smart global families.

Third, we must recognize that addressing literacy cannot be a stagnant process.  To effectively increase literacy levels in this country, our approach must reflect new innovations, the changing demographics of families and the priorities of a globally competitive nation.  Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

By the year 2010, the top 10 jobs that will be in demand didn’t even exist just three years ago.  Tomorrow’s worker will have had 10 to 14 jobs by age 38.  To prepare tomorrow’s workforce, we truly must institute lifelong learning.  Success simply can’t be measured by what we know, but how quickly and easily we are able to learn.

To reverse the stubborn challenge of underachievement and low literacy in our families and communities, we must utilize the tenets and tactics of the new economy — research, innovation and technology.

Today, there is a second layer of skills that our daily routines depend on — whether we’re stopping at the ATM, using the U-Scan at the grocery store, pausing a program with our TiVo or leaving a voicemail.  Just as we all need to be able to find information in the newspaper, we also need to be able to locate it online.  Just as we need to be able to compose a letter, we need to be able to set up an e-mail account.  Just as we need to be able to communicate, we need to be able to process enormous amounts of information.

Once again, the family will be our pace car.  The nation cannot speed down the information highway if it is leaving families behind.  We simply won’t get where we want to be -if we don’t place families out in the lead.
It’s easy to think that technology literacy starts with the generations of tomorrow.  But today’s so-called digital natives are being prepared for the future by their parents, their teachers and their community leaders — many of whom are digital immigrants.

This is why [the] NCFL and Verizon have created the first national award to recognize programs that demystify technology for parents and bridge multigenerational learning through technology. The Tech Savvy Award is showcasing how technology applications can span both socio-economic gaps and age gaps.  Because of this award, I can personally attest to the fact that there are many exciting examples of how families, schools and literacy programs are employing technology in our pace car.

But these pioneering approaches are not enough.

Today, we must all commit ourselves to approaching literacy not only in the context of — but also with a commitment to — seizing the power of new opportunities brought forth as a result of globalization and technology.  Later in this Summit, we will be unveiling a new tool that leverages the power of technology to help programs institutionalize practices that are proven to bring about literacy achievement for students.

Households have power to drive literacy and education more than ever due to technology.  The challenge before us is harnessing and tapping into the learning opportunities and styles within families and households, so they truly can compete and thrive in the global marketplace.

The American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

That has never been more true for the literacy field, as well as for those we serve.

-Sharon Darling-

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