Giving Voice to Those Who Cannot Yet Read?

After more than six years of work, the National Early Literacy Panel has finally released its findings.  Commissioned by the National Institute for Literacy and the National Center for Family Literacy, NELP was originally charged “to conduct a synthesis of the scientific research on the development of early literacy skills in children ages zero to five.”

The thought here was that NELP would build on the work of the National Reading Panel, which focused on kids in elementary school (those in kindergarten through fourth grade).  At the time it was launched, NELP was a hot topic.  Everyone was eager to jump on the Early Reading First bandwagon.  NRP’s findings were the law of the land.  The world would build a continuum on literacy skills connecting the early years of NELP to the latter years of adolescent literacy (as put forward by the Alliance for Excellent Education a few years go) with the good work of the NRP.
Six and a half or seven years is a long time to wait for the findings, particularly for what is a meta-analysis of existing third-party research.  So what did NELP find?
* The best early predictors of literacy include alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness, rapid naming skills, writing, and short-term memory for words said aloud
* Instruction on the best predictors may be especially helpful for children at risk for developing reading difficulties
* To a lesser degree, students also benefit from concepts about print, print knowledge, reading readiness, oral language, and visual processing
* More complex oral language skills “also appear to be important”
Nothing groundbreaking here, I’m afraid.
Like the NRP, NELP also highlighted the limitations the Panel faced and provided direction for future research efforts.  Unlike its big brother, though, NELP is not likely to cause much of a ripple in the education improvement pool.  (And I know it doesn’t need to be disclosed yet again, but Eduflack served as a senior advisor to NRP, helping guide the Panel through its entire life and afterlife.)
Why is NELP different from NRP?  First, NRP took a hard stand on key issues.  The Panel purposely avoided publishing another “consensus” document along the lines of the National Research Council study that came out when NRP began its work.  The result?  A lot of attention — both good and bad — for its findings.  We knew exactly where NRP stood on issues, and loved them or hated them for it.  
Second, NRP took complex issues and related them back to the end user.  There was a reason we pushed so hard for a video report to accompany the telephone book-thick Report of the Subgroups.  Teachers, TA providers, and practitioners needed to see the Panel’s findings in real practice.  Seeing the reccs at use in classes like theirs and with kids like theirs made the NRP real and practical.
Third, NRP was audacious in its findings.  Teaching Children to Read essentially told the education community that reading instruction in the United States was broken, but we knew how to fix it.  The Panel (or at least all but one of them) boldly went out with real solutions to fix the teaching of reading, keeping the report viable long enough for policy and funding, in the name of Reading First, to catch up with the recommendations.  
I want to see those three characteristics in NELP and its Developing Early Literacy report, but it just isn’t there for me.  As I read it, the report is a consensus document, proven by the nearly seven years it took to produce the end product (for the record, the NRP study was conducted and released in on a two-year calendar).  The study, its executive summary, and even its press release seem to be written by researchers, for researchers, with little link back to the educators and caregivers needed to implement the findings.  And finally, the report is beige at best, blending in with dozens upon dozens of other education studies hoping to catch the attention of a well-meaning policy crowd.  The report is nice, but it isn’t the end all-be all, nor is it the solution so many of us are looking for.  it is a report that contributes to the discussion, providing some fresh perspective on what early childhood educators have known for some time.  It is nothing more, nothing less.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for NELP (and similar reports) and the impact it can have on early learners.  Just yesterday, NIEER released its report on its recommendations to the Obama Administration on early childhood education.  PreK Now has been calling for an early childhood ed czar in the White House, with the group serving as the most consistent drumbeat for improving early childhood education.  So we have both means and opportunity.
Means and opportunity for what, you may ask?  The opportunity to move early childhood education toward the top of the list when it comes to education improvement initiatives.  How?  Through five easy steps:
* Step One: Identify clear policy initiatives.  PreK Now and NIEER have already gotten the ball rolling on this.  Obama campaigned on dramatically increasing funding for early childhood education.  The policy initiatives are coming.  Those leading this fight need to streamline our thinking, focusing on the top three issues (TBD) and keeping the collective focus on those issues only.
* Step Two: Identify a leader.  Libby Doggett is right.  We need an early childhood education czar.  We need someone in the White House who can harness the power of what is happening in ED, HHS, Labor, and everywhere else in the Administration to ensure that preK dollars are wisely spent and all programs are pointed toward core goals and real ROI.
* Step Three: Build a coalition.  PreK Now and NIEER are ready for this.  NCFL is probably game as well.  Bring aboard the teachers (through both AFT and NEA), the content leaders (IRA), and the policy hounds (NGA, NCSL, CCSSO, and National Head Start Association), and you have a real network to identify the national clarion call for early childhood ed reform.
* Step Four: Focus on the research and the results that come from it.  NELP provides some core research findings to get us started, as does some other work offered by the research community at large.  But at the end of the day, we need to know how to effectively measure any improvements that are put forward.  That means core academic standards for our preK programs which means a greater emphasis on instructional matters in early childhood programs, including Head Start.
* Step Five: A bold idea to stir the pot.  Call for Head Start to be moved from HHS over to ED.  Early childhood education is the gateway to K-12 success.  If every student is reading at grade level by the end of fourth grade (a task that nearly 40% are unable to master today), we must start instruction earlier than we are now.  NELP provides some of the necessary instructional building blocks for literacy.  Let’s take it even further, ensuring that preK is about both the social and academic preparations all students need to achieve.
Five easy steps doesn’t mean the work itself is easy.  But if early childhood education is going to get its due (and if the NELP findings are going to get any legs and be put to practical use) this is the roadmap we should be unfolding.  Now is the time for those leaders and that coalition to come together, embrace a select group of policy initiatives focused on ROI, and then push, push, push to get buy-in and adoption with fidelity, and then we may be onto something here.
At its best, NELP is one of many tools that show us what is possible and what intellectual resources we have to work with.  Now is th
e time to take that potential and move it into real actions and real improvements.  That isn’t going to come from a meta-analysis.  It comes from real policy, real advocacy, and real leadership.

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