A Farewell to Niffle?

This morning, the Obama Administration released its plans for the FY2010 budget.  Most in the education community have been taken by some of the big items found on the education side of the ledger.  Cuts to Title I.  Significant investments in early childhood education.  Reductions in education technology.  But it was a $6 million line item that caught the eye of Eduflack.

When we’re talking about billions of education dollars, it is hard to get worked up over a couple of million bucks.  In the grand scheme of things, few are going to truly weep over the potential elimination of the National Institute for Literacy.  Other than a small, but loyal, following in the adult literacy community, there are few that even keep track of what NIFL is up to these days.  But the zeroing out of the NIFL budget in the president’s plans speak loudly and clearly.
For years now, NIFL was struggling to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.  Originally, NIFL was developed to focus on adult literacy issues.  According to its own materials:
The National Institute for Literacy was established in 1991 by the National Literacy Act (NLA) and reauthorized by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. In creating the Institute, the U.S. Congress recognized that building a competitive workforce required a concerted effort to improve adults’ basic skills. Congress tasked the Institute with initiating a coordinated, interagency effort to strengthen and expand adult literacy services. Both laws positioned the Institute as a national leader on adult literacy, a central source of knowledge about research, practice, and policy, and a catalyst for innovation.
A bold mission statement, yes, but some can and do question whether NIFL has actually acted as this rhetoric describes.  After 17 years of operation, how many seriously view it as a central source of knowledge about research or as a catalyst for innovation?  I’m not seeing many hands raised.
In 2002, NIFL took a turn from its core mission to focus on scientifically based reading research and the reading priorities found in No Child Left Behind and Reading First.  The organization focused on research projects, reports, technical assistance, professional development, and even advocacy for K-12 reading instruction.  Eduflack was fortunate enough to lead a communications effort for NIFL’s Partnership for Reading, a collaborative across multiple government agencies to emphasize the importance of scientifically based reading to policymakers, teachers, and families.
At the time, many of NIFL’s early fans and friends thought the NCLB work took away from the Institute’s core mission and unique value proposition.  They thought it distracted NIFL from the business of dealing with literacy issues for those who have left school, including new immigrants and those who were incarcerated.  They thought it was the U.S. Department of Education hijacking a needed lever for helping those adults and non-students who had fallen through the literacy cracks.
Others, Eduflack included, saw reading instruction in the early grades as a necessary, non-negotiable mission for NIFL.  While it may not have been a focus in the early years, one could not dispute that focusing on reading skills with our youngest learners has real and strong impact on our adolescent and adult learners.  The Reading Excellence Act (during the Clinton Administration) opened the door to this focus on the elementary grades.  NCLB merely brightened the spotlight and raised the stakes.
Personally, I like NIFL.  I have respect for the people who have worked there, those who have advised it, and those who have and still do sit on its board.  But the future of NIFL has long been a struggle.  Many felt that adult literacy issues are better served by ED’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.  And when it came to K-12, there was far more power and effort being exerted by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and even the Reading First office. 
How much impact can $6 million have, particularly when $3 million of it was being spent on the operational costs of the Institute itself?  We’ve heard for years that NIFL was launching a National Reading Panel, Part 2, but it has never come to fruition.  We’ve had multi-year NIFL research panels undertake work, only to have their final reports blocked by the Institute of Education Studies from final publication.  We had listserves taken down because they were far too critical.  And we had non-governmental groups like the National Center for Family Literacy do a more effective job in actually promoting change and improvement in the literacy community.
Am I sad to see the “Going Out of Business” sign potentially hung on NIFL’s doors?  No, not particularly.  The same issues can be better handled by others.  What I am sad about is the great potential NIFL has had, particularly over the last decade, and its inability to capitalize on that potential.  The organization was almost afraid to take a leadership position in a field where it had every right and responsibility to lead.  It favored inaction over action. It feared rocking the boat or drawing attention.  It wanted to go about its business, without truly integrating and interacting with those government offices and individuals who could help take the $6 million investment in NIFL and exponentially increase the impact of the investment.  No wonder the Obama Administration failed to see the value.
Years ago, Congress debated whether to reauthorize NIFL or not, questioning whether the Institute was a necessary cog in our education improvement efforts.  It was written into NCLB to prove its necessity.  Now, seven years later, we see that NIFL is expendable.  Our focus should not be on saving the Institute, that exercise was undertaken years ago.  Instead, we must now look to how the valuable activities and programs managed by NIFL are continued by others.  What do OVAE and OESE take over?  What moves over to IES?  What goes to NCFL and other non-profits?  
We still have much work to do if we are to improve literacy rates and reading proficiency in this country, from our youngest learners to our most experienced workers.  If not NIFL, someone must step in and lead on this issue.  The stakes are too high not to.

128 thoughts on “A Farewell to Niffle?

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