School of Education Alumnus Receives Literacy Leadership Award

John Comings, former Director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) at Harvard Graduate College of Education, and a University of Massachusetts College of Education alumni (Ed.D. 1979) is one of the recipients of the National Coalition for Literacy’s 2008 Literacy Leadership Awards presented at a reception at the Library of Congress on Sept. 10, 2008.

From 1996 until recently, Dr. Comings was a member of the faculty of the Harvard Graduate College of Education. His work with NCSALL gave him “an opportunity to lead an 11 year, $35 million research effort that has improved the programs that provide literacy and math, ESL, and GED services to adults in the U.S.,” Dr. Comings said.

The National Coalition for Literacy’s literacy awards recognize individuals and organizations that have made extraordinary contributions to improving literacy in the United States. The National Coalition for Literacy notes that award recipients have demonstrated a deep and sustained individual or organizational commitment by supporting literacy continuously on the local, state and national level.

Sherrie Claiborne, President of the Board, National Coalition for Literacy, said that “John Comings has dedicated his life to adult learners, pursuing research, promoting professional development, and designing effective programs.” Claiborne said that each of this year’s awardees “has contributed to raising awareness of the impact of low literacy on the U.S. population and economy, to funding solutions, and to visioning a better future for all.”

“Receiving the Literacy Leadership Award is a personal honor,” said Comings, “but it also is an affirmation of the work done by the many scholars who made up NCSALL.”

Before coming to Harvard, Dr. Comings spent 12 years as Vice President of World Education, a nonprofit agency that supports adult education projects in Asia, Africa, and the United States. He has served as the director of the State Literacy Resource Center in Massachusetts, assisted in the design of instructor training programs, and directed research and development projects in both math and health in adult education programs.

Now a principal international technical advisor at the Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, Mass., Dr. Comings' current research uses quantitative and qualitative methods to understand the forces that support and inhibit persistence among adult students in Adult Basic Education, English for Speakers of Other Languages and General Educational Development programs in the U.S.

Dr. Comings’ interest in literacy was sparked in 1975 when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal trying to help rural farmers grow fish in village ponds. He wanted to develop a program to would provide rural adults with a minimal level of education. He came to UMass Amherst at a colleague’s suggestion that through the College of Education’s Center for International Education (CIE), he would be able to pursue his interest, he said.

“At CIE, I developed research skills, built an understanding of adult learning theory, and explored new ways to teach,” Dr. Comings said. “I came to believe that it was literacy that caused the difference between educated and uneducated rural farmers I had seen as a volunteer.”