Family Literacy, Family Values

THE Republicans' rhetoric on "family values" coming out of their convention in Houston last month was disappointing in the way it seemed to try to foster divisiveness within American society.

As this newspaper has noted editorially, there is something to be said for plain speaking about values, morals, and religion, and about holding people to account for their actions.

Women working full time (or more) outside the home are not at war with stay-at-home mothers. Rather, women in each group are struggling to provide the right balance of economic and emotional support for their families. Women move back and forth between the two groups and into part-time work over the years, as their needs change. But in millions of American households, the wife's earnings make the difference for a family between being part of the working poor and part of the middle class.

And in a society striving for better global competitiveness, would any purpose be served by involuntarily sidelining a major part of the national talent pool?

In the light of all this, it is interesting to consider the activities of the National Center for Family Literacy, in Louisville, Ky. Its cause is too close to the heart of the first lady, Barbara Bush, for the center to disclaim any political inclinations, at least regarding the presidential race. But the family literacy approach appears to transcend some of the divisiveness, the false polarization, in the "family values" discussion.

Illiteracy is an economic problem: Too many Americans can't read well enough to do the work that needs doing in the workplace. Illiteracy, or undereducation, as it is coming to be known, is also a social/family problem. Parents with inadequate reading skills cannot hold well-paying jobs and are at risk of getting caught in family breakups or even crime, and are likely to perpetuate their own problems in their children.

Programs that empower parents and young children with the ability to read - the essence of the family literacy concept - address both problems at once.

Watson Courtenay, spokesman for the National Center for Family Literacy, outlines the programs:

Programs are customized to the needs of their target populations (recent immigrants, nonnative speakers of English, etc.).

Parents are given general adult education, to expand their "life skills" in things like budgeting as well as their abilities in reading and writing. Preschoolers are given education appropriate for "at-risk" children so they can enter school "ready to learn."

Parents and children have supervised sessions together during which the child sets the agenda ("Let's play with the blocks," or whatever). This helps parents learn the value of listening to their children. There are also discussion sessions for parents.

Family literacy programs are about "restoring the whole family," says Mr. Courtenay. "It's important for undereducated families to understand that the parent is the first educator" of the child. This isn't easy: "Parents have low self-esteem. They have no resources or transportation. They're not motivated to be teachers of their children."

Such parents are only too likely to think of turning their children's education completely over to the schools. But a parent with a book in his hands, reading to himself or aloud to a child on his lap, conveys an important message to his children.

It is a message Toyota Motor Corporation wants to convey, too: Toyota is expanding from five to 10 the number of American cities in its "Toyota Families for Learning" project, wherein it makes grants to programs using the family literacy model.

President Bush has set forth a program of educational goals for the country called "America 2000." They are laudable but ambitious goals, and it has not always been obvious how they are to be met. Family literacy programs, though, address two of them: each child starting school ready to learn (goal 1) and each adult able to compete in a global economy (goal 5.)

"We're merging the solutions," says Courtenay. "We've had a very strong message from [the center's president] Sharon Darling, that we can't solve pieces of the problem, but we've got to treat the problem at its source."

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