Schools, libraries, and other organizations that aim to improve students’ reading skills have a new online tool to help them evaluate how well their literacy programs work: the Verizon Literacy Program Self-Assessment Tool (VLP-SAT).

Developed by the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) with funding from the Verizon Foundation, VLP-SAT is available free of charge to all literacy programs from one location, the Verizon Foundation’s Thinkfinity.org.

“Thousands of people give their time and effort daily to advance the cause of literacy, but unfortunately, despite those great efforts, literacy rates in our country are still not where they need to be,” said Sharon Darling, president and founder of NCFL.

“We believe this self-assessment tool can play a tremendous role in improving literacy rates,” Darling said. “It provides a roadmap with more scope and depth than any other tool currently available.”

This “roadmap” incorporates the latest scientific research on the effectiveness of literacy programs that serve populations from birth through childhood, its makers say. The online tool provides a detailed questionnaire that asks about a literacy program’s methods, the education level of its students, parental involvement, and current methods used to assess the program’s success.

Based on answers to the questionnaire, the literacy provider is given a grade of 1 to 5 in each of several areas. These grades describe whether the organization is using proven, research-based methods and achieving the best possible results.

For schools and other organizations that receive a score of “3” or lower in any particular area, the tool provides a list of recommended resources created by literacy and education experts. All of these resources are available free of charge at Tghinkfinity.org as part of the Thinkfinity Literacy Network.

Thinkfinity.org is the Verizon Foundation’s free online portal, where visitors can access more than 55,000 standards- and research-based educational resources. These include free online courses, K-12 lesson plans, best practices, program assessment tools, teaching and learning tools, model programs that demystify technology for parents, and abundant research highlighting the importance of literacy development.

Ideally, program staff will use the VLP-SAT as a benchmark to evaluate current literacy practices, seek out resources to improve key areas, and return to the VLP-SAT to assess program improvement, its creators say.

The tool was unveiled last month as part of the Verizon Foundation’s National Literacy Summit.3, held at Georgetown University.

“We asked ourselves at the last summit where our philanthropy dollars should go, and we answered: to help leverage each other’s assets and skills and to start some sort of measurement … here are some measurements!” said Kathy Brown, senior vice president of public policy and corporate responsibility for Verizon.

Brown explained why literacy is an important issue, now more than ever.

“In today’s workforce a person must have the ability to read, write, speak, compute, and solve problems at higher levels of efficiency. These are the skills necessary to function on the job and that require higher levels of skills than what’s taught in high school,” she said.

She added: “For every 13 people we interview for a job at Verizon, only one is chosen, and [he or she] must have a 2-year degree … [and] that’s just for entry-level [work].”

To date, Verizon has donated $31 million toward the Thinkfinity platform.

Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, said the biggest problem facing the United States in terms of global competitiveness is not how much math or science students at Harvard are learning–it’s the literacy and education gap across the country.

“The difference between the lowest-performing American and the highest-performing American is five times that of Singapore,” said Zakaria. “The real problem is that the bottom third of U.S. citizens live with sub-standard, third-world benefits. They are illiterate, with no access to a decent education.”

Brown cited a National Adult Literacy survey estimating that adult illiteracy costs the U.S. $17 billion a year from loss in common tax revenue; welfare, unemployment, crime and incarceration; and training costs for business and industry–causing a negative impact on the U.S. economy and society.

She also said the U.S. Department of Education “anticipates that the literacy gap in America will produce a shortage of 12 million qualified workers in the next decade.”

Patrick Gaston, president of the Verizon Foundation, said the tools provided at Thinkfinity and its various partner organizations are crucial, because “we have to know we’re making a difference, that we’re making an impact. We need to support innovation, create sustainable learning communities, and align community resources, programs, and organizations.”

“It’s our goal as a society to increase the standard of living,” Brown concluded. “How do we do that in today’s global economy? We do that by learning and teaching 21st-century skills … by doing well and prospering.”

Links:

Thinkfinity

Verizon Literacy Network

Verizon Literacy Program Self-Assessment Tool

Verizon Foundation

National Center for Family Literacy