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Posted by on Mar 21, 2013 in Education, Life, Research, Society | 3 comments

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.

Prose literacy by educational attainment: 2003

prose literacy
from: http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_dem_edu.asp

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.

 

  • NJH

    This data is scandalous. Poor literacy standards are common across the English speaking world (ESW). At the root of this problem is the burden of the antique spelling system. Large numbers of irregularities mean little rule-orderliness, makes learning to read very difficult as it becomes a memory task which is beyond many of our children and contributes to chronic failure at school. Most European languages are the product of reforms; these, in their spelling systems, are easier to learn – they are more user-friendly and children do not need to spend the 2 to 3 extra years struggling, as we do in the ESW, with these irregularities. The system as it is now also makes it harder for dyslexics – a disability in the ESW in a way it is not in Finland, Spain and Italy etc. There is a powerful economic argument too: in a knowledge economy we cannot continue with this handicap.

    We need to grasp the nettle and talk about repairing the most erratic and irregular aspects of our writing system. It is a dumb system as it is now – lets smarten it up.

    • SmilodonsRetreat

      You know, that’s a very interesting comment. I wonder if the literacy rates would improve by using texting speak or LOLcat speak. I’m actually serious.

      What if us grammer Nazis quit fighting the future and let the changes happen. Language, including written, should be free to evolve.

      • NJH

        It is all about the early years and the task of learning to read –
        this is a spelling issue rather than a grammar one. Languages can change
        naturally and/or in a planned way but we are not talking about the
        language, but the writing system which in English has never had a planned
        reform and so we now have the situation of a system that is over 50%
        irregular and takes years to learn. It causes us harm in terms of the costs of social exclusion and not being economically competitive.