Let’s Read Them a Story! The power of parents

All parents want to help their children learn, but parents sometimes feel unsure of the best way to help. New research shows that parents with relatively little time and no specialised knowledge can still support their children’s learning effectively.

Let’s Read Them a Story! The Parent Factor in Education, a 2013 OECD report shows that many parent-child activities linked with better reading performance among students involve relatively little time and no specialised knowledge. Key actions parents can take:

  • Reading books to children when they are just beginning primary school
  • Talking with teenagers about topical political or social issues
  • Reading themselves: When parents are interested in reading, children are more likely to be interested too.

The OECD research also highlighted that parental involvement in education is essential for the success of children throughout their school years and beyond.

Reading to children isn’t easy for everyone. Parents who are not confident readers may find it hard to help their children with reading; others may not know the importance of reading to children,particularly younger children. Growing Up in New Zealand: Now We Are Born (Morton S. et al, 2012), the second report in a longitudinal study of children born here in 2010, has found family differences in reading by the time the children were nine months old:

  • 16% of mothers and 38% of fathers in the study reported they seldom or never read to their babies at nine months of age, despite only 2% of parents saying they had no books in the home
  • 4% of mothers and 15% of fathers seldom or never sing or tell stories to their babies.

Helping parents develop reading confidence and skills is crucial if we want to break intergenerational cycles of low literacy.

What would it take to support all families and whānau to read, sing and tell stories more often to their children (including babies)?  Imagine what might happen if every child in the country had an adult read to them 10 minutes a day, every day of their preschool lives!  What would it take if we had storytellers and readers all over our communities so there was reading in parks, libraries, community centres, churches, marae?



E3 Alliance – Education Equals Economics

My last site visit was to E3 Alliance on two hot days in vibrant and fast-growing Austin in Central Texas –  with a couple of cowboys, Elvis look alikes, lots of country music, wild flowers, guns, and BBQ. Central Texas has a rapidly growing population (about 1.8 million, with rapidly increasing diversity) where, like Auckland, there is a mismatch between the skills of local people and industry demands.

E3 Alliance is a specially created backbone organisation, driving collaboration around the Blueprint for Education, to build the best skills pipeline in the country. Their four goals: school readiness; eliminate achievement gaps; high school, college and career readiness; community accountability.

Making the economics of education (and the cost of failure) visible in their organisationE3Alliance Theory of Change strapline is strategic – it helps bring business to the table and keeps return on investment front of mind when planning what actions to take up. The small Board of Directors is always chaired by a business person. To maintain neutrality, their organisation bylaws preclude any elected politicians.

E3Alliance does not see itself as a grassroots organisation.  ‘Engaging with community’ in their case means powerful and on-going collaboration with stakeholders with the power and influence to change the system.

The change process is iterative, with data central to everything they do. They actively work to grow the capacity of stakeholders to understand and use data and hold quarterly data shows that draw in large crowds! The organisation promotes a graph a month, so over time stakeholders become exposed to a wide range of issues.  A common question ‘What 2 things could you/your organisation do now to make progress toward shifting that data?

The community accountability workstream is one  aspect of their work that is different to Strive Together’s cradle to career model and has proved to be one of the most powerful. It enables conversations about success being everyone’s business. An example – attendance comes under community accountability because families, health services and employers have roles to play in keeping young people at school.  For example, fast food outlets have been challenged about employing school aged students during school hours.

E3Alliance sTEx mex Lunch E3taff were very generous with their time and expertise. Seeing the depth and progress here after nearly a decade was inspiring. I came away loaded up with good ideas, new understanding of collective impact in action – and having had wonderful Tex-Mex food.

Learning literacy outside

I had never thought about  outdoor learning as a medium for supporting literacy learning until I met an expert from Scotland the other day on the plane.

Juliet Robertson described how universal elements of children’s play outside – adventures, making trails, small scene setting (creating little words), taking on fantasy roles) – were all things that helped children learn what stories mean and how stories are constructed. She described how Scottish schools are taking children to their nearest urban space and making letters with sticks and leaves – and the rich oral language that comes with it.

If you are interested, here are some idea.

Scotland has an national play strategy – what a wonderful idea.

APril 14 – Literacy Leaders day- new thoughts

As it happens, the 14th of April was Leaders in Literacy.    Andreas Schleicher Director, Directorate for Education and Skills blogged about the findings of the OECD survey of adult skills and what nations might do about the findings. It made me think about the outcomes I would want from a nationwide strategy on adult literacy.  Many things would be pretty standard

  • Making sure people knew what provision was available, via a national campaign
  • Continuing to  build and support a capable workforce
  • Informing our practice, policy and investment from data; data on programmes
  • Ensuring learners in programmes make progress and are equipped to transition to higher levels of study
  • Working with stakeholders to ensure quality programmes across the system, fit for the diverse purposes of adult lives
  • Developing a research programme that informs practice and policy
  • Growing uptake from most vulnerable and high risk or high need learner

What we don’t have yet is any cross-sector commitment to making a difference. Imagine if a national strategy included:

  •  Working with partners to ensure all government departments and services know about and respond appropriately to the literacy needs of their constituents or clients
  • Working across sectors to reduce the pipeline of young people leaving school with insufficient literacy
  • Commitment to raise the early oral language and school readiness of all our children.

 Thought leaders for literacy in the USA were commenting also, primarily on the schooling system. Their comments resonate with my observations from the Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship

  •  Low literacy and poverty are inextricably linked
  • Cross sector partnerships and collective impact thinking is needed if we are going to make a difference
  • The adult literacy world needs to support and contribute to community-led reading improvement initiatives
  • We all need to think inter-generationally – school reading initiatives or tertiary programmes for individuals are insufficient in themselves to tackle the cycle of intergenerational literacy

Raise DC – brings people, resources, and data together to improve cradle to career outcomes for every young person in DC.

Raise DC was a terrific choice as my last Washington collective impact visit because they are  operating in a city roughly comparable in size to Auckland and have only formed over the last three years.

A small group of ‘thoughtful people’ seeded the idea, initial sponsorship came from the Mayor’s office and a forum of 150 stakeholders endorsed the concept. Now the local community foundation hosts the backbone staff.  A large leadership table of key stakeholders meets quarterly, a smaller executive committee meet regularly and importantly, Raise DC is actively connected to a local research institution. The establishment process has been iterative and their leadership table has changed twice in three years (in a process similar to changes in Learning Auckland).

It’s reassuring to hear staff still struggle to find a straightforward and compelling elevator pitch to describe collective impact and use something like ‘we provide a city-wide infrastructure to support education and skills alignment’ (which doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue).  To explain the intent of collective impact, the Raise DC  director says many partnerships and collaborations are like incandescent light bulbs – for all the heat they generate, only 10% ends up as light. The aim of  new collective impact is to work like an  LED light – get 90% of light for only a 10% expenditure of energy.

Raise DC has five goals, each with an action network. Each network has co-chairs who collectively make up the executive table that meets every two months.  The aspiration is to have co-chairs who have sufficient reach and authority to bring about change in their respective areas- but the lived experience is that you have to work with who is in your circle to start with – it wasn’t always possible to get the ‘A list’ of CE level business people or senior officials. Not all goals can be high priorities at the same time – because of resources and staff capacity, and also the readiness of the workstream for collective impact.

The first three goals are similar to Strive Together: school readiness, high school graduation and post-school qualifications. Although school readiness seemed  a logical starting point for collaborative action, it has proved to be challenging. After an initial project (setting up a common screening tool for developmental delays), the network is still deciding how best to add value to a landscape crowded with stakeholders and projects.

The school success workstream has started with a stocktake.  The post-school graduation network are focusing  data sharing protocols to get  accurate data on post-school results and destinations.

In addition to the Strive-type goals, Raise has two different networks: disconnected youth (our NEETS – not in education, employment or training);  and helping young people find work experience and employment (somewhat like Auckland Council’s Youth Connections project). More energy appears to be going into these areas. RaiseDCInfoGraphicRoad7

Raise DC is endeavouring to use the Strive Together data triangulation approach – national data, local data and community ‘voice’; the action point is where those three points intersect. A ‘quick win’ for the Disconnected Youth project was Connecting Youth to Opportunity, an action research survey of 500 disengaged young people, the data from which was concrete (and new) to put in front of key stakeholders. As a result, a Re-engagement Centre is being developed, rather like the Youth Hub piloted over the summer in Puketepapa which had education providers and social services available in one place.

The Strive Together model advocates for bringing in business voices, but the Raise DC experience is that this is challenging and problematic, particularly initially.  A lot of the work is process, building trust and getting organisations (education and social sector) to share data. This is not compelling to business people. Yet ‘collaboration can only move at the speed of trust’.

Raise DC is certainly worth following because their challenges and scale are similar to Learning Auckland.

Champions for Change 2015 – the work of collective impact backbone organisations

I spent an eventful three days at the Champions for Change 2015  conference in Washington. 

Funders and  backbone organisations of collective impact projects from hundreds  of communities attended, concerned about dozens of issues:  Strive Together (cradle to career education action) and Grade Level Reading (Reading success by age 8) were education focused; there were obesity initiatives alongside food poverty collaborations (places where people are so poor there is not fresh food, where children have never consciously eaten a vegetable): homelessness;  environmental action;  a global coffee coalition; a woman from Tauranga working globally on island developments  (Cuba, Mauritius, Solomon Islands); reducing violence; health coalitions of many kinds; and two other organisations from home (Water Safe NZ and a whanau  well-being collaboration). 

Many of the groups who attended were still forming, wanting to draw on the insights from the Collective Impact Forum (an alliance of FSG and the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions). This is a new field and FSG and Aspen have been charged with developing capacity. They want ‘escape velocity’ – hopefully we will know it when we feel it!  The Tamarak Institute from Canada were major players, which was useful because key staff have both been to NZ several times.  

 The first challenge was thinking how to tell our collective impact story without jargon in three minutes including me/you/us – I am not even sure the presenter passed that task. Almost everyone found their collective impact story hard to describe.  The mantra – work smarter, work faster, work together.

Some quick observations:

  • The Backbone makes collective impact happen, but often without being seen (shining the light on cradle to the work of others, supporting everyone to get the credit). Of course this makes it challenging to raise funds for backbones
  • Maybe collective impact isn’t new, its just a new label for collaboration. But some of the speakers had been in other sorts of collaborations for years and say it is fundamentally different;  it puts outcome and data and systems change at the centre.  And it starts out expecting a long haul.
  • The backbone has to be conscious that it will be measured on whether there is any policy and/or systems change. Its not about ‘projects’ or initiatives with short term funding. Much easier said than done because everyone keeps going on about quick wins.  Idea: To keep the mission at the front, read out the core purpose statement at every meeting
  • Backbone organisations are cat-herding jugglers!
  • Groups want Backbones to tell them what to do.  But the essential shift is when stakeholders say ‘What are we doing to contribute to the issue? How are we going to contribute to the solution?
  • Backbones have to take both the helicopter and worm’s eye view – know the political scene and know how to work at a small, local scale as well.
  • Collective impact is ‘bricolage’ – something new made up of bits of other things

One big event – during the lunch-break between the conference and a leadership workshop, all my stuff was thrown away – my  notebook for this whole trip, conference papers and business cards I collected. Talk about stressed! I couldn’t hear anything during introductions at the start of the workshop because I was so preoccupied. Eventually, with the help of one sympathetic kitchen staff member prepared to bend the rules, I was allowed into the garbage bay to search for the right bag. To everyone’s chagrin, I buried my arms in the huge sacks of stuff  and emerged triumphant, papers in hand.  Nothing that  a bit of a wipe wouldn’t fix. 

There was a metaphor there for working in  collaborative projects I commented back at the workshop:  being unable to think because of pressure, finding a mentor who was prepared to help, hunting through rubbish, looking for treasures. According to the South African standing near by, hardly anyone understood  what I said. But everyone could see my relief.

Much to mull over.

Baltimore Grade Level Reading

My first US meeting was in Baltimore, a 45 min train ride from DC.  Waiting to be picked up at the station I had my shoes shined by a man who read his King James version of the Bible between jobs. He loved the stories in it and how he had to study and look up the meaning of words.  He thought I was an aristocratic, a really nice lady from England – and then wondered if NZ was anywhere near Switzerland.  The Bible wasn’t going to help his geography.

 The scale of the challenge to raise education achievements in many US towns and cities is daunting.  An influential report from the Annie Casey Foundation  in 2010 highlighted the link with low socio-economic  status and low literacy, which led to the development of a nation wide  Grade Level Reading Campaign.  Currently 140+ cities have signed up to collective impact-type partnerships. 

In Baltimore two previous local reading initiatives hadn’t changed the statistics. 80% of poor kids in Baltimore don’t achieve the national reading standard by third grade (about age 9);  25% of students are chronically absent.  Poverty is so prevelent, targeting any services is not really an issue – any initiative will impact on kids from a low SES background. 

City  assets for a new campaign- 134 primary schools and 40 high schools, the Casey Foundation that is willing to experiment and prototype approaches locally; and the John Hopkins Hospital, a major employer.  A local schooling improvement-focused trust acts as the local backbone organisation with a coalition  of 70 organisations meeting quarterly to review progress. 

The Grade Level Reading approach is to have action groups working on school readiness, attendance and summer reading programme.  In Baltimore they were able to build on existing relationships and networks to set up those work streams. Each work programmes  start with a  research overview – a literature review and population analysis. The ideal network has a mix of content (researchers, providers, ‘experts’) and context specialists (community leaders, family members, people with lived experience of an issue). One of the biggest challenges is to get the voice of  families and communities represented at the table.

This GLR campaign  school readiness network has a strong focus on infant mortality and child wellbeing. They had health data which shows higher literacy  has a positive impact across the  life course and  an existing Maternal and Child Health Network.   The questions they asked themselves resonated with those we are asking in Learning Auckland:  Do all families know what resources are available and  do services connect up so families can transition from one to another? Early actions: providing literacy rich environments in social welfare centres; getting a mobile library to visit all mother and baby centres; training up staff from Head Start (centres that provide early learning for the most vulnerable families) in smoking cessation. 

It has taken the multiple stakeholders a couple of years to realise that adult literacy needs to be at the table because of the link between mothers’ literacy and poor birth outcomes.  Although they have included ‘family literacy’ in their Maternal and Child Health network, what they were doing to intentionally grow the skills of parents wasn’t obvious to me.

Supporting city school leadership of reading is a second strand, which is particularly challenging given the churn of staff in school leadership. Therefore, GLR staff started with things that could be influenced in the community – getting books into homes and increasing local literacy tutoring and community action on attendance. Staff observed that they have learned to be unapologetic about choosing a focus, that it’s a combination of rigour about the issue and being opportunistic. 

Keeping in touch is key – the programme leads for each network meet fortnightly. Baltimore is smaller than Auckland physically and population wise, and apparently meeting that often is not an issue  – neither is parking!    

 What stood out – the link with health, just as I saw in the UK. And the reinforcement of what COMET Auckland has been advocating for years- thinking intergenerationally.