1 in 7 U.S. Adults Can’t Read?

Considering our upcoming conversation with Kelly Gallagher on his new book Readicide (see here, here and here), I thought the findings of a 2003 survey of adult literacy skills released by the National Center for Education Statistics were completely fascinating.  Poking around a bit led me to these disturbing conclusions:

  • There was little change in the adult literacy levels between the time of the first National Assessment of Adult Literacy—conducted in 1992—and the second survey conducted in 2003.
  • Double digit drops in both the prose literacy (searching, comprehending, using information from continuous texts) and document literacy (searching, comprehending, using information from noncontinuous texts) of Hispanic Americans were noted between 1992 and 2003.
  • The average prose literacy scores for adults between the ages of 25 and 49—prime working and earning years—dropped from 1993 to 2003.
  • Only 5 percent of the 16-18 year olds and 12 percent of the 19-24 year olds surveyed in 2003 were rated proficient in document literacy.

Considering that “proficiency” includes the ability to perform such commonplace tasks as comparing two competing viewpoints in editorials, interpreting a table showing the connections between age, blood pressure and physical activity, and computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items, I’d say that we’ve got something to be concerned about, don’t you?!

I think the statistics that I found the most interesting were connected to the literacy performance of students graduating from high school and college.  From 1993-2003, the literacy scores of high school graduates dropped by 6 points and the literacy scores of college graduates dropped by 14 points.

Those numbers just sit wrong in my craw.  I mean, with all of the emphasis that we’ve placed on reading instruction in the last decade—including something like a billion dollars to implement “proven reading practices” in schools—how can it be possible that the students graduating from our schools are leaving with such a poor handle on the very skills that are most important to their future success?

Is this evidence of an underinvestment in schools?  What about communities?  Are they doing less to support families, causing children unnecessary personal struggles that interfere with reading?  Should we redirect our efforts from supporting early readers to supporting adults who haven’t mastered basic literacy skills?  Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Could this somehow be a reflection on the poor quality of teachers in our country?

What about a reflection on the poor quality of instruction in our country?

Are the two connected?

These are the kinds of questions that Kelly tackles in his new book, Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do to stop it—-which will be available for download here on the Radical this Thursday (January 14th).  They are also the kinds of questions that we’ll tackle in our focused 4 day conversation with Kelly, running from January 18th through January 22nd.

I hope you’ll join us.  This is a conversation that practitioners need to grab a hold of and own.

11 thoughts on “1 in 7 U.S. Adults Can’t Read?

  1. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    It’s good, as always, to chat with you and the other folks who drop in. May I suggest that you look at the poverty vs. culture issue in another way?
    Poverty is not a cause of behavior and poor academic performance. At best, it is a complicating factor. It is, in reality, an economic condition. It is culture, more than any other factor, that determines whether poverty will be merely a temporary condition or a permanent condition, passed down from generation to generation. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants who came to America, in most cases, poorer than dirt, but whose poverty was temporary and transitory. Through hard work, dedication, self sacrifice, education, a positive and supportive sense of community and through making good personal choices, they built the greatest nation in history, a nation that produces the nearly magical machines and technologies that allow us to have these conversations.
    Indeed, children living in poverty will have a poorer vocabulary and will be limited in other ways, but that need not be a permanent condition. One of the glories of life in America is that each and every day, people pull themselves and their families out of poverty into prosperity…unless their culture not only discourages it, but drags them back two steps for every upward step they make.
    When one lives in a culture that does not value education, where more than 50% of families have no father and many children don’t live with either parent, where teenage pregnancy is not only not scorned and discouraged, but expected and even glorified in popular culture, where drugs and crime are made to seem attractive, progress is very, very slow and difficult, poor or not.
    I know many middle class families of all races that have many of the same issues, particularly in terms of poor vocabulary development, no interest in reading and little interest in education who have the same difficulties in school as the cultures I outlined in the previous paragraph. Again, it is not economic condition that drives their difficulties, but their culture.
    Luck? Successful people make their own luck, or they persevere despite having little or no luck. Luck may be nothing more than the willingness and lack of laziness necessary to take advantage of one’s opportunities, no matter how small they might seem at the moment. As Shakespeare said in Julius Ceasar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune…” If one’s culture not only not only does not scorn but glorifies laziness, no amount of luck dropping into one’s lap will amount to anything.
    I suppose we’re talking about one of the fundamental divisions between conservative and liberal thought. Conservatives believe that culture determines accomplishment and that those with a culture that emphasizes accomplishment, education and personal responsibility will likely do well. Liberals believe that politics determines all, and that the right policies, promulgated by those with the right thinking will change the world regardless of one’s circumstances or motivation. Well. Good luck with that.

  2. Bob Heiny

    Yes, Bill, you make sense. And Bill Gates serves as a good illustration of how chance (luck?) also plays into outcomes, irrespective of a person’s cultural background. Richard Petty used to say that luck on the stock car race track was being prepared to take a chance that might pay off.
    Kudos, Mike, for your musical accomplishments. Wish I could hear you perform.
    A sidenote about vocabulary: I think we all know that “race” exists as a political, not a biological or anthropological entity. While it provides a hot button to provoke, it also confounds rather than clarifies discourse. I appreciate reading something that clarifies. For me, Mike’s summary of his music background clarified his initial point.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    Poverty does not cause cultural problems that interfere with academic attainment, quite the opposite.
    Wow, Mike. I couldn’t disagree with you more on this one. One specific example: Richard Rothstein in Class and Schools showed that students living in poverty come to school knowing MILLIONS fewer words than students living in wealth.
    Primarily, that’s a function of being surrounded by text and being spoken to on a regular basis in complex ways. Families living in poverty can’t provide either opportunity for their children as well as families living in wealth can.
    As a result, children under the age of five are already YEARS behind their peers in literacy development by the time they arrive in school. Is this a result of the “bad choices” that you describe in your comment? I mean, these kids are FIVE.
    Gladwell in Outliers talks about the false ethos around success that we have in our country. We walk around believing that success is a result of hard work and hard work only—-which allows us to venerate those who succeed and demonize those who don’t.
    In reality—and what Gladwell shows over and over again—-is that circumstances play a huge role in explaining the success of every individual.
    Take Bill Gates—a wildly successful person whose history is studied in Outliers. In middle school, Gates transferred to a private school in Seattle that had a “Mother’s Club” who decided to purchase a “time sharing terminal” computer for their students.
    Why is this so important?
    Because time sharing terminals were state of the art machines—–when this happened in 1968, most university computer science programs didn’t even have time sharing terminals—-that made computer programming easier than ever before. The other model for learning programming—on punchcards—was incredibly time consuming and frustrating.
    Gates says that this early exposure to programming in an easy way is what turned him on to what later became his vocation.
    So one circumstance—transferring to a private school that had a forward thinking Mother’s Club that purchased a machine that no one had adopted yet—played a HUGE role in the success of Bill Gates. He didn’t make an intentional decision to go to a school with a time-sharing terminal. Heck, they didn’t even have it when he arrived.
    But having the terminal let Bill Gates—as a middle schooler—-practice programming at levels higher than individuals in university programs.
    My argument is that children living in poverty are going to have fewer of these circumstances come their way than students living in wealth.
    Does any of this make sense?

  4. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Poverty does not cause cultural problems that interfere with academic attainment, quite the opposite. Indeed, if a student comes from a poor family, their opportunities in any number of ways will tend to be less than those afforded the affluent, but there is sufficient evidence that poverty is generally a matter of many years of bad choices rather than evils imposed by outside choices. Culture does, sadly, play a role here. When something like 70% of black men, for example, impregnate and then abandon the mothers of their children, bad outcomes like generational poverty are going to result.
    Yet America remains one of the few nations on Earth where immigrants, legal immigrants can come with nothing in their pockets, yet prosper within a single generation. But this is not possible in a culture that separates itself from the mainstream of what is possible in America or that sees itself as victims to whom everything is owed.
    As a classically trained musician (I sing with the chorus of a major metropolitan symphony orchestra) I agree completely that virtuosos are so because their genetic endowment made their attainments possible, and talent without practice, without hard work over time, is mere potential. I was born with a predisposition toward musical talent, but spent more than 40 years developing it. I’m no Mozart, but the principal is the same.
    The same is true with education, which is always work, work that can and should be enjoyable, even fun, but hard work just the same. Without the cultural disposition to hard work, delayed gratification, self sacrifice, working toward long term goals, one will be unlikely to succeed.
    Sadly Bill, race (culture) does indeed have much to do with lack of achievement in school. Ask Bill Cosby, or even Barack Obama who has been recently known to utter Cosby-like admonitions. And tons and tons of research proves just that.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    @curmudgeon asked: Just out of curiosity – are these numbers including people who CAN read but in another language? Several of my kids parents used the kid as translator.
    IF I read the report right (and that’s a big if! I don’t always understand the fine print), there was an alternative test for people who’s primary language wasn’t English—so the people who were not deemed ‘proficient’ were people who should have been able to master the required tasks.
    Bob asked:
    What relationship, Bill, do you think exists between how much certified teachers’ read (beyond for school assignments) and general public literacy?
    Good to hear from you, Bob—and I definitely think students who see their teachers reading for pleasure are more motivated by the same activities than students who never see their teachers reading for pleasure.
    My evidence is only anecdotal, but I know that when I’m teaching language arts, we NEVER skip silent reading time—and we read for 30-40 minutes a day. I read with my students every day and make it quite clear that it’s my favorite time of the day.
    By the end of the year, my students are almost always silent reading junkies themselves. The sense of flow in our classrooms when we’re reading is undeniable.
    The barrier, though, is being willing to give 30-40 minutes of class time to silent reading every day. While I know how valuable it is, I’ve still got massive curriculas to get through. The pressure to ditch silent reading is intense because if I don’t, we don’t get through the curricula.
    Solution: Society—educators, state departments, parents, colleges—has to be realistic when deciding what they want students to master. You just can’t have it all.
    Mike wrote:
    We-teachers, the educational system–provide the opportunity to learn. This is meaningless if students choose not to take advantage of it for cultural or other reasons.
    You know, Mike, in some ways what you’re suggesting here has basis in fact—but I don’t think that race has anything to do with it.
    Here’s what I mean:
    Malcom Gladwell has got a new book out called Outliers. One of the arguments that he makes—based on tons and tons of research—is that to become an expert at anything takes an incredible amount of practice. In fact, the generally accepted rule of thumb is that true experts (the Bill Gates and Mozarts of the world) have spent 10,000 hours practicing their skills.
    Obviously, we’re not expecting everyone to reach this level of mastery, but the general rule still applies: Practice DOES make perfect.
    For me, then, the reason we see trends of poor performance in minority groups has nothing to do with race or culture, but instead has to do with poverty. When mom and dad—or just mom…or grandma—are working two or three jobs to put food on the table, they’re not there to push their children to practice anything—-whether it be sports or academics.
    The opposite side of the same coin is that students growing up in affluent communities tend to have far more parental support for practice. Parents hire tutors, parents provide extra learning opportunities during the summer, parents buy tools (computers, books) that make practice possible.
    Now, these factors are certainly not “all or nothing” principles. Kids living in poverty CAN find opportunities to practice and kids living in families of means do struggle.
    But the general idea that practice matters—and that students of poverty have fewer opportunities to practice, therefore a greater barrier to success—is accurate.
    Does this make sense?

  6. Mike

    Dear Bob:
    I am not suggesting that students of a given race cannot excel in reading or any other academic discipline, merely that we must take into account, in a very serious way, two factors: student/parent participation in a student’s education (if kids and parents don’t care and don’t ensure that the student works, the greatest teachers in the world will accomplish little with such children) and an understanding of cultural issues that really do–in the real world rather than the world some would like to see–make a significant difference in learning.
    Pointing to a few successful people of a given culture only illustrates that some people of any culture can excel, and as I said–and implied–nothing to indicate that I believe that any individual or group is in any way incapable of reading, you’re arguing a point that doesn’t exist, at least not for me.

  7. Bob Heiny

    Oh my, Mike. I strongly agree with empirical experimental behavior studies that a teacher can increase student learning rates in spite of cultural influences. Which parts of your comment do you think Gov. Bill Richardson (NM) would agree? Or his former aide, Arturo Gonzalas (Ph.D. from Brandeis)?

  8. Mike

    What I am about to suggest is horrifically politically incorrect, but what we need to understand the statistics you’ve mentioned is a racial/cultural breakdown. This would seem fair in that you mentioned a significant drop in literacy among Hispanics, for example.
    I’m certainly not picking on Hispanics. I have many in my classes (English) and love them dearly. But we need to clearly understand the cultural components involved when one immigrant racial sector–Asians–seems able not only to assimilate but excel, and others seem constantly to barely keep their collective heads above water, if that.
    Before we begin beating up teachers and curriculum too much, let’s recall that students–of any racial group–have to be wiling, and culturally motivated, to succeed in any academic pursuit, and without the ability to read and write English, will likely accomplish little. We-teachers, the educational system–provide the opportunity to learn. This is meaningless if students choose not to take advantage of it for cultural or other reasons.
    I’m not suggesting that we can’t improve, far from it, but we can only do so much, and the answer is not governmental intervention. My colleagues and I generally agree that the largest educational deficit our students have is that they are almost all non-readers. From that, a great many other ills slow. But if students are dealing with language and cultural barriers, they have yet to reach the level of being non-readers in the English language.
    Mark Twain said that the man who can read good books but doesn’t has no advantage over the man who can’t read. As usual, he was right.

  9. Bob Heiny

    What relationship, Bill, do you think exists between how much certified teachers’ read (beyond for school assignments) and general public literacy?

  10. Brian

    I’d point to poor instruction as well as mis-guided intentions. While the 1993-2003 time period may correlate to the rise of the internet, it also correlates quite well to the emphasis on high stakes testing.
    I don’t buy the argument that the internet has had a detrimental effect on reading. If anything, it brought more people back to reading/writing on a daily basis (however poorly formatted it may be) instead of just watching TV. The early Internet would have been especially good at this, since it was almost entirely text based. It’s strange to think that YouTube was only created in 2005.
    Of course, it’d be silly to try and link the decline in literacy to any one reason. Like any good educational conundrum, there are too many variables to account for and something like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in effect.

  11. Curmudgeon

    Just out of curiosity – are these numbers including people who CAN read but in another language? Several of my kids parents used the kid as translator.
    Second thought – and one that would definitely need exploration – there does seem to be a correlation with the drop in reading scores and the rise of the Internet, and conversion to Block scheduling in high schools.

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