Working to End Illiteracy and Social Injustice Around the World

Co-authored by Marcie Craig Post

"The chance of an education is a chance to escape poverty, to improve health and to enhance opportunities."

Sounds like part of a speech by President Obama, philanthropist Bill Gates or any one of the many education activists in this country. But the statement is attributed to Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser of Qatar, founder of the international "Educate a Child" campaign that is sharing best practices in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Americans who think they are at the epicenter of the debate over academic achievement, student testing and social justice in education are fooling themselves. Debate over what works in the classroom is no less noisy in developed countries with strong results on student assessments such as the Program for International Student Assessment than it is in the United States. Meanwhile, 774 million people in the world, mostly women and girls living in developing countries in south and west Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, are illiterate.

This week, more than 8,000 teachers, researchers, administrators and educators of literacy from around the world will present and analyze the latest research, debate the issues, and share strategies and tools for teaching at the International Reading Association's Annual Conference in New Orleans.

Founded in 1956, the International Reading Association is a global nonprofit that champions literacy through the work of more than 53,000 members, including academic experts, and affiliates in 82 countries. A force for quality instruction in literacy through the professional development of teachers of reading (the ability to recognize words) and literacy (understanding what is read), the Association brings proven, research-based practices to the classroom and the world.

But we of the International Reading Association and the National Urban Alliance (NUA) for Effective Education, argue that more is needed if we are to accelerate an international literacy movement. Teachers must be more than proficient. Students must read with comprehension, think critically and creatively, and become world-class problem-solvers.

We want to end illiteracy and social injustice.

We want diversity in books. Of 3,200 children's books published in the United States in 2013, only 93 were about black people, 34 about Native Americans, 69 about Asians and 57 about Latinos. We need books in which all children can see themselves, identify with characters, and recognize their cultures and customs. We commend #weneeddiversebooks, and the efforts of groups such as the Givens Foundation for African American Literature.

We want diversity in the classroom -- students and teachers alike. The need is obvious. A recent national study for the Center for American Progress and the National Education Association reported that "U.S. teachers are nowhere near as diverse as their students...[and that]...almost half the students attending public schools are 'minorities,' yet fewer than 1 in 5 of their teachers is nonwhite."

We want to take on the following three challenges:

Go well beyond the converted. Inform policymakers, other education and social service experts, and parents and concerned citizens about 21st-century learning, the instructional demands placed on teachers, and the professional development needed for teachers to be effective.

Work strategically and fast. Given the need in school communities to address the obstacles facing students challenged by poverty and difficult family circumstances, there is an urgency to work hard to accelerate learning for all students. Improving teacher quality remains the sine qua non of education transformation; consequently, innovative professional development and instructional strategies must be scaled more quickly in particular in under-resourced schools and settings. For urban and students challenged by poverty, this form of professional development does not focus on remediation, rather it is focused laser-like on the strengths of students, such as verbal, creative, expressive, analytical, resilience and problem-solving skills.

New skills for new forms of literacy. Different skills which recognize new demands of literacy, including critical and creative thinking and global and ethical capacities, must be developed if students are to become proficient in the new forms of literacy arising throughout the world. Culturally responsive pedagogies and neuroscience research also need to be applied more uniformly for all students, especially the underserved schoolchildren and youth in urban, suburban and rural communities.

The scope of the challenge is formidable, so we need to fire on all cylinders: continuing to understand what works; to fight for smart educational policies; to improve teacher education programs; and to place books and digital platforms into the hands of children and their parents.

Ending illiteracy and underperformance in the world is our goal, and those joining the International Reading Association in New Orleans this week are part of this pan-international literacy movement. You can be part of it, too, by believing in the unique talents and potential of all students, which animates hope, and ultimately leads to determination and confidence in learners.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement.

Marcie Craig Post is the executive director of the International Reading Association. She can be reached at