Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

When Best Intentions Fall Flat

August 5th, 2010 · 1 Comment

In addition to railing against American imperialism and digging up the bones of long-deceased heroes, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has taken a keen interest in improving his nation’s literacy rate. One of his key initiatives was a $50 million-plus program to teach 1.5 million Venezuelan adults to read, primarily by providing financial and job opportunity incentives. Just two years after the program’s 2003 launch, Chávez pronounced it a rousing success that had completely erased illiteracy in his native land.

Impressive stuff, until you scratch beneath the surface a bit. As it turns out, the results weren’t nearly as dazzling as the Chávez government claimed. For starters, the program wasn’t nearly as large as Caracas claimed—there’s just no way the budget figures jibe with the reported number of literacy trainers. And there were massive inefficiencies, too, caused by program materials that focused on political indoctrination rather than reading skills, and incentives that could be achieved without attaining full literacy. As a result:

Even if one attributes all of the reduction in illiteracy observed between the first semester of 2003 and the second semester of 2005 to Robinson, the estimated cost would be $536 per pupil who learned to read. In contrast, a recent study by UNESCO of 29 international adult literacy programmes estimated the average cost per successful learner to be $47 in sub-Saharan Africa, $30 in Asia, and $61 in Latin America. Under a more conservative – yet still optimistic – estimate of program success, namely that the total number of people who become literate through the program was only 48,327, then the cost per newly literate person would be much higher, at US$1,035.

But was this simply a case of public mismanagement? Perhaps not—perhaps the effort was doomed from the start, owing to a very basic misunderstanding about the neurological differences between children and adults:

Politicization, inadequate incentives, and budgetary problems are, however, common characteristics of large-scale literacy programs which do not appear to distinguish Robinson from many other cases of previous failures. Indeed what is remarkable about the record on literacy programs is that, despite a broad diversity in approaches, there are few cases of resounding success. Recent research has suggested that the problem may be in the cognitive model underlying the design of most literacy programs. As Abadzi (2003b) has argued, cognitive research has found that the process of learning to read in adult individuals may be systematically different from that in young children. The results of this literature suggest that significant changes must be made to the basic design of adult literacy programs in order for them to be successful.

This issue actually came up in some recent Microkhan comments. Children and adults have different ways of coping with the world in large part because their brains function in distinct ways. And so it would make sense that the methods we use to teach children to read—the handholding through phonics, the dissection of sentence structure—won’t work with adults who have been exposed to language for decades.

I’d like to think that there’s a better way to increase adult literacy. But if it’s really going to cost $1,035 per success, it might be worth asking whether those resources might be better allocated to helping scores of kids who are just beginning their educations.


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One Comment so far ↓

  • ADW

    Sounds similar to second language acquisition. I’ve seen grade school age immigrant students go from a complete lack of understanding of basic English to near or complete fluency in a year, with no trace of their native accent. It’s much harder for the parents. Of course the children are in a learning environment, but the it’s much more than that. Some struggle for years and don’t come close to what their children were able to pick up in a month. At Back to School night, often, the children translate basic English for the parents.

    I suppose the neurological differences can be applied to anything. Widespread computer access didn’t hit the scene until I was in college. I still struggle. But, if I have a problem, I can ask any random seven-year-old on the street. I get the dumb look, but they can solve my problem in less than minute.