With So Many Programs For So Many Years, You Would Think Illiteracy Would Be Gone By Now

I came across a news item recently that started me thinking about illiteracy and wondering why it has proved so stubborn a problem in Jamaica. The item reported that Digicel Foundation, the charitable arm of the mobile phone company, had donated JA$33.6 million (US$386,000) to a government initiative for teaching reading and math at schools throughout Jamaica. The gift will be used to refurbish and equip about a dozen “Literacy and Numeracy Rooms” and to train teachers for the project.

Reading about Digicel’s admirable gesture, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. How many times had I heard about similar initiatives in my lifetime? Impossible to count. I suppose Andrew Holness, the Minister of Education, must have had similar feelings (even though he is much younger than I) because he made this statement: “I am embarrassed to say that in the 21st Century, Jamaica is talking about the problem with illiteracy. We should have conquered that a long time ago. It is not rocket science, it’s not an involved process that we cannot solve.”

The minister speculated that perhaps the root cause of Jamaica’s problem is that parents don’t do their fair share in motivating children to read.

“As a parent, I know what I am talking about because the level of interest that I place to make sure that my children can learn to read and write, people in lesser circumstances may not be able to do it because it is very demanding,”  Holness said. “So, we, as the Government, we have to support parents. Help them to develop this culture of expectation that their children must learn to read and write.”

I think there’s a lot of truth in the Minister’s observation. My wife taught remedial reading in a Florida middle school, and she struggled with youngsters in their early teens. Once they had reached that stage without learning to read, she found it very difficult to undo the harm that had been done. And without reading skills, there was almost no hope for academic advancement. For one thing, some of the youngsters had lost interest in schoolwork and were only putting in the required time until they could get out and find a low-paying job.

U.S. President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of early-childhood education, and he attracted criticism during the campaign by calling on African-American parents to become more involved in their children’s schooling. In his recent economic stimulus package, a substantial allocation was made for an early-childhood education program called Headstart. If this is still such an issue in America, which has a literacy rate in the high nineties, I can imagine how challenging Jamaica’s illiteracy must be. I gather that Jamaica’s literacy rate is still in the low eighties, despite decades of private and public initiatives to combat illiteracy, and while that represents quite an improvement in the past three or four decades, there’s still a long way to go.

The Jamaican education minister is making a determined effort to boost literacy. He set a target of 85 percent of school children reading at or above grade 4 level by 2015. The percentage is already up to 75 percent (in 2007) from 64 percent just two years earlier.

Meanwhile, the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning is undertaking an ambitious program to educate thousands of adults. Established in 2007, the JFLL continues the work started by the Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy, in the mid-Seventies, when at the urging of then-Prime Minister Michael Manley, volunteers flocked to join an island-wide crusade to stamp out illiteracy. But unlike JAMAL, the JFLL seeks to promote lifelong learning – a combination of literacy, numeracy and life skills – as an option for the estimated 700,000 Jamaicans who are either illiterate or lack a high school education.

I can remember the elementary schools of my childhood, when free education was provided for all Jamaican children up to the age of 15, and – if my memory can be trusted – attendance was compulsory. In those days diligent teachers stood over you with a cane or strap and drummed knowledge into you with physical and mental relentlessness. That was so very long ago, and so much has been attempted and achieved since. Yet illiteracy remains a vexing problem.

Why is Jamaica having such a hard time, while literacy programs have proved successful in other countries such as Cuba, Tanzania, Nicaragua, and China? In fact, the Minister of State for Local Government, Robert Montague, recently reported he was consulting with the Government of Cuba. He said a Cuban expert is helping him reduce illiteracy in the parish of St. Mary.

There can be no doubt that Bruce Golding’s government, like other previous administrations, is making a determined effort to bring the light of literacy to all Jamaicans. But a lingering doubt remains in my mind: How will this initiative succeed when so many others have had such limited success? The answer might lie in the minister of education’s words: “We, as the Government, we have to support parents. Help them to develop this culture of expectation that their children must learn to read and write.”

If the new administration follows that path, in addition to more traditional tactics, the war against illiteracy might yet be won in Jamaica.