Stopping Adult Illiteracy at the Source

Tom Sticht

In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy from the U. S. Department of Education indicated that as many as 5 percent of adults over the age of 16 were non-literate in English (that's 11 million adults), 14 percent (30 million) were below basic in literacy, and another 29 percent (63 million) possessed only basic literacy skills.

Given the magnitude of the adult literacy deficit and the importance of adult literacy skills to international competitiveness as stated by the federal government and numerous business and economic organisations, one might have expected a fairly large increase in funding for adult literacy education. Instead the Bush administration requested a two-thirds cut in the federal budget for adult literacy education, and the Secretary of Education said that the data supported the President's call for a one billion dollar initiative to increase literacy in the high schools. But actually, the real assault on adult illiteracy was waged by the multi-billion dollars No Child Left Behind act and the initiative called Reading First. This is an approach built on the strategy of "stopping illiteracy at the source." The reasoning behind the strategy goes like

Stopping Adult Illiteracy at the Source

Question: Why do we have all these adults who are practically illiterate?
Why can’t they read?

Answer: It’s because the high schools are graduating functional illiterates.
We need to fix the high schools so they stop sending functional illiterates out into the world.

Question: Why don’t the high schools teach students to read before they graduate them?

Answer: It’s too late. The middle schools keep sending the high schools students who can’t read so the high schools can’t teach the academic subjects they need to teach while also teaching students to read. We need to have the middle schools stop sending students to high school who can’t read.

Question: Why don’t the middle schools teach students to read before they send them on to high school?

Answer: It’s too late. The primary grades keep sending the middle schools students who can’t read so the middle schools can’t teach the subjects they are supposed to teach to prepare the students for high school and also teach the kids to read. We need to have the primary schools stop sending students to middle school who can’t read.

Question: Why don’t the primary schools teach students to read before they send them on to middle school?

Answer: It’s too late. Parents keep sending the primary schools children who have not been prepared to learn to read at home. We need a preschool program like Head Start to prepare children to learn to read so parents can stop sending children to primary school who aren’t ready to learn to read.

Question: Why do so many children have to go to Head Start to get prepared to learn to read? Why don’t parents prepare them at home?

Answer: It’s too late by age 3 or 4. That’s why we need Early Head Start - so children can be prepared starting at birth to go to Head Start so they can learn to read in primary school so they can learn pre-high school subjects in middle school so they can learn high school subjects and graduate from high school able to read and be fully literate to contribute to society.

Generally this is where the strategy for stopping illiteracy at the source stops. It is claimed that literacy development starts at birth and so we now put billions of dollars into these preschool programs at birth and then add billions more in Reading First and No Child Left Behind money for the instruction of disadvantaged students when they enter school still unprepared to learn to read.

As I see it, a major part of the failure of this strategy up to now is that it stops too soon. It needs to ask another question:

Question: Why are so many children born unprepared to be prepared to learn to read?

Answer: It’s too late by birth. Too many young adults are functionally illiterate and unable to take care of themselves. Often they get involved with drugs or other activities that destroy their bodies and harm their minds. They often have many out-of-wedlock births, they are frequently unable to make informed choices about good prenatal and postnatal care, and they are unable to afford such care because they can’t qualify for well-paying jobs.

What we need is a high-quality, well-funded adult education and literacy system that will prepare adults for parenting and profitable work. This in turn will permit them to provide for their own and their children’s health, send their children to school prepared to learn to read, support them through primary, middle and high school, and graduate them with the literacy skills they need to participate fully in society.

It is a national disgrace that today the combined state and federal funding for the 3,000 or so programs served by the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 provides only some $850 per student. At the same time, federal spending alone provides over $7,000 per child in Head Start and $10,000 in Early Head Start trying to "fix" the children of the very adults who are themselves often in dire circumstances and in need of extensive and intensive education.

We need to base our education programs on a multiple life cycles education policy, understanding that there is an intergenerational transfer of literacy across individual life cycles. Based on this policy, with an investment in adult literacy education commensurate with the scale of need, we can get what I call "double duty dollars": we can improve the education of adults, then through the intergenerational transfer of good health, emotional support and stability, language, and literacy, we can also improve the educability of the adults' children.

It is not too late!

Published May 16, 2008


May 16th, 2008

Tom Sticht


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