Policy makers have long tried to address education in general and literacy in particular. Sadly, the results are not always satisfactory. For instance, in the 1990s the United States made the improvement of literacy a prerequisite of its goal to lead “the world in math and science by the year 2000.” Clearly this goal was not met.

Three recent U.S. presidents have taken up the literacy challenge.

National Literacy Act

On July 25, 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed the National Literacy Act of 1991, a law that emphasize adult literacy and lifelong learning. Upon launching the initiative, the forty-first president had this to say:

National Literacy Act of 1991

Adult Education and Family Literacy Act

The next president, William Jefferson Clinton, launched the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act of 1998. The idea was to shift the emphasis to the family, fully involving parents in the education of their children. This memorandum provides an overview of the law:

Adult Education and Family Literacy Act of 1998 PDF

No Child Left Behind Act

Perhaps most famous (and controversial), the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was signed into law on January 8, 2002 by President George W. Bush. The policy was slated to strengthen K-12 literacy education through a program that included state flexibility, school choice, and standardized testing.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

Promoting Literacy: International

Given all of this attention by high-level American politicians, one might be tempted to think that literacy is entirely an American issue. Not so. Here are just three examples of efforts to promote literacy elsewhere, ranging from an international literacy day to national education programs in India and Ireland.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization)

2003-2012 marked the United Nations Literacy Decade. In the YouTube video below, Laura Bush, former First Lady and UNESCO Ambassador for the United Nations Literacy Decade, argues for the centrality of literacy and education on the occasion of the 2012 UNESCO International Literacy Day.

Take the First Step, Ireland

In Ireland, the National Adult Literacy Agency and An Post have teamed up to create Take the First Step, an adult reading, writing, and numeracy initiative that offers online, self-paced courses. The following YouTube video illustrates the power of literacy.

National Literacy Mission, India

India has identified illiteracy as a significant challenge. According to the National Literacy Mission, literacy campaigns in the country have brought communities together to view lifelong learning as essential, significantly increased school enrollment, dramatically improved gender equity in both the workplace and home, and reduced both fertility and infant mortality. The following brief YouTube video brings several of these aims together in a public service announcement.

Consider the important, broader connections between literacy and power that are asserted in these initiatives. What are your thoughts about these initiatives? What are the strengths of each? The weaknesses?

Promoting Literacy: United States

Closer to home, many private groups now endeavor to address the reality of widespread illiteracy. Some focus on family literacy, some on adult literacy, some on early childhood education. The following videos offer a very incomplete survey of the many groups, ideas, and programs currently in operation. What do you think are the positives and negatives of these programs? What might an ideal literacy campaign look like?


Although not every initiative or program inspires video-based critiques, the reality is that virtually every idea about reducing illiteracy inspires naysayers. No Child Left Behind and standardized testing have drawn some of the most virulent opposition.

Here are four videos that criticize testing. What are the pluses and minuses of the arguments therein? Groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation understand tests as vital to successful education reforms. Are there benefits to standardized testing? What role do tests have if our goal is to increase widespread literacy in America? Should government programs rely on testing to determine who gets funded?