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NIFL-ASSESSMENT 2005: [NIFL-ASSESSMENT:1223] Review of Conflict

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From: Marie Cora (
Date: Wed Aug 31 2005 - 10:01:06 EDT

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Subject: [NIFL-ASSESSMENT:1223] Review of Conflicting Paradigms
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Dear List Members,

Some may have interest in the following review of Conflicting Paradigms
in Adult Literacy Education published in:

Literacy and Numeracy Studies Vol 13 No 2, 2004, published by the Centre
for Language and Literacy, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
(; review by Jay Derrick, UK-based
consultant and researcher in adult literacy, numeracy and language

Demetrion, G. (2005). Conflicting Paradigms in Adult Literacy Education:
In Quest of a U.S. Democratic Politics of Literacy. New Jersey:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
320 pp, softback, $36.00

This is an ambitious book that performs a valuable service, and not just
for North American readers: it illuminates in great detail the 'telling
case' of a specific political debate over the period covering the two
Bush presidencies (senior and junior), and sandwiched between them, the
Clinton administration. It deals with the trajectory of a wide-ranging
public debate about adult literacy: its nature, how it can best be
taught and learned, how learning can best be assessed, and, most sharply
of all, how adult literacy work can be accountable, to learners, and to
the taxpayer. 

Demetrion discerns three distinct schools of thought and practice as
protagonists: the 'participatory literacy movement', rooted in
grass-roots political activism; the New Literacy Studies school, whose
ethnographic studies identify multiple and dynamic literacy practices
and which resists simplistic and reductive views of literacy; and the US
federal government, which has through many administrations seen literacy
straightforwardly as an issue of 'workforce readiness', an attribute of
individuals that can be scientifically measured using standardised
tests. These three positions are linked by Demetrion to Mertens' three
paradigms of social science research, representing in turn the
emancipatory, the constructivist, and the neo-positivist. 

Demetrion's account begins in 1990, when the senior Bush administration
set eight National Education Goals, the sixth of which stated that by
the year 2000, every adult American would be literate. It was realised
that in order to monitor progress towards this goal there would have to
be national standards and a national system of assessment; and for this
to be achieved and have credibility, there would have to be some
consensus between policymakers, academics, practitioners and learners
about what it means to be literate. What Demetrion shows convincingly is
that it was not that there had not been debates before between these
constituencies: on the contrary, most practitioners across the US were
only too familiar with the process of campaigning for funding and
lobbying for political support for their work at the state level. What
was new was the identified need for a national system of accountability,
and a federal government more and more determined that this system shou!
ld be based on objective standards, free of professional judgements and
so apparently comparable across the whole country, notwithstanding the
strong theoretical, political and practical objections to such an

During the Clinton period, the federally-funded Equipped for the Future
project attempted to reconcile the differing viewpoints and come up with
a national system of standards for 'what adults need to know and be able
to do in the 21st century', starting with a massive consultation
exercise involving thousands of people over a period of years, including
learners and teachers, employers, policymakers and academics, and
achieving the publication of the standards by 2000. Work started on
producing assessment tools to complement the standards, but federal
funding was withdrawn early in the new Bush administration: 'Unlike
medicine, agriculture, and industrial production, the field of education
operates largely on the basis of ideology and professional consensus. As
such, it is subject to fads....we will change education to make it an
evidenced-based field' (US Department of Education Strategic Plan,

The situation in 2005 is similar in the UK, and I suspect in many other
countries too: politicians everywhere are talking of 'evidence-based
policymaking' by which they seem to mean the avoidance of professional
judgements, political debate and provisionality, and embracing the
comforting certainty of policymaking by numbers. 

The book uses a wide range of resources to animate this debate: academic
authorities backing the various positions being argued, policy papers,
and political publications, as well as the wealth of material produced
as part of Equipped for the Future. What is particularly interesting is
the use Demetrion makes of contributions to electronic list discussions
over the period, which represent powerful evidence of the important role
practitioners have played in this public debate. Demetrion rightly sees
these threads as of great value, acting in effect as 'thick
description', and at times giving his account an ethnographic flavour.
The book provides illuminating discussions on the intellectual origins
of the perspectives of the various protagonists, including earlier
debates on adult literacy and the quality of life and on the effects of
globalisation and new technology on workplace training issues: there is
also an informative chapter on relevant research traditions.

The heart of the book is a detailed account of Equipped for the Future:
notwithstanding the project's equivocal future under the junior Bush
regime, Demetrion sees it as a paradigm of the kind of practical and
political process that attempts to construct an imperfect but workable
compromise between a range of differing political positions.
Interestingly he sees this kind of project as a modern manifestation of
the spirit of the authors of the US constitution, but one that rejects
both an 'uncritical pietistic embrace of the founding fathers as heroes'
and 'any cynical deconstruction of the intent of the founders or what
they actually accomplished.' He suggests that 'a working through of
these political tensions will reveal an unappreciated middle ground,
which could lead to a substantial political and cultural revitalisation
of an inclusive US democratic tradition.' Following on from this,
Demetrion offers a provisional theoretical framework for literacy as
growth, which !
incorporates Dewey's pedagogy of pragmatic enquiry with Barton's
ecological metaphor for literacy activity. This theoretical framework is
presented as analogous to and compatible with the political processes of
dialogue, collective identification of agreed practical problems, and a
pragmatic and pluralistic search for provisional and imperfect
solutions, between individuals who do not necessarily agree about
everything, but recognise their need to work together for the common

It is heartening to hear an optimistic voice in this context,
particularly from the field of practice: but even hardened cynics will
find this book extremely interesting and thought-provoking.

NB: documents relating to Equipped for the Future can be found at 

Jay Derrick 
UK-based consultant on adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL
March 2005 

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