Literacy in the US
I plan to spend some time talking about education. As a former educator and someone who now works for a for-profit education-focused company, I think this is in an important area that is ripe (perhaps over-ripe) for discussion. We need to talk about education or lack-thereof, standardized testing, educational research, public schools, charter schools, private schools, socio-economics, and a host of other things.
We have to face facts, the US education is a great model… for 1953. Having gone through US public school as a student, as a teacher, and as a researcher in the field, I can say with confidence that the students who will succeed will do so in spite of public schools and those who will not succeed will not, in spite of public schools. If this wasn’t true, then there would be adult education programs that provide something like 400,000 high school equivalent certifications per year. Yep, slightly more than 1% of the US population gets their GED each year.
Let’s start with something alarming. In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics conducted a survey of literacy. This was the most comprehensive survey of literacy in the US since 1992 and gives a nice comparison of a decades worth of education.
The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy is a nationally representative assessment of English literacy among American adults age 16 and older.
The website continues with
In 2003, over 19,000 adults participated in the national and state-level assessments, representing the entire population of U.S. adults who are age 16 and older, most in their homes and some in prisons from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Approximately 1,200 inmates of federal and state prisons were assessed in order to provide separate estimates of literacy for the incarcerated population.
The results are painful. Only 13% of the adult population of the US is at a proficient reading level (can perform complex and challenging literacy activities). On the other side, 14% of the population is at a below basic reading level (no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills).
Who is ‘below basic’? Fifty-five percent of people in the below basic category did not graduate high school. Thirty-nine percent of people in the below basic category are Hispanic and 20% are black. Twenty-six percent are over 65 years of age.
The test shows that eleven million adults in the US are not capable of enough in reading the English language to answer the test questions.
Whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders performed the best in all three tests. Black adults had great improvements since 1992 (up between 6 and 16 points in the various sub-tests). Hispanics were down between 14 and 18 points in various sub-tests.
Obviously, literacy increased with increased education.
But here’s the killer.
ALL education levels were DOWN from the 1992 results. High school and less than high school were both down almost 10% from 1992. College graduates were DOWN 11 points in prose and 14 points in document sub-tests. graduate students/graduate degree were DOWN 13 points in prose and 17 points in document sub-tests.
What the heck?
Talk about college being the new high school.
More and more jobs are requiring a bachelor’s degree, even for entry level work. When my dad graduated from high school, he went to the local refinery and got a job. Worked his way up to operator. Now those positions require a four-year degree in engineering and many refineries require a two-year degree in Process Operations just to get an entry level job. There are dozens of people with masters degrees competing for those same jobs. Even auto-mechanics have two-years of college and numerous tests and certifications. I can’t find an article in the Times I read recently about how several companies only hire 4-year degreed individuals, even for mail-room jobs.
And yet, the education of even college students (for reading skills) is less than what it was 11 years ago.
I think that there is a problem here.