Ouch… sometimes it’s hard to realize there is a whole other world out there. A new study from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows that 5 percent of 222 million American adults simply cannot read or write English. And of the remaining 211 million:
Some 30 million adults have “below basic” skills in prose. Their ability is so limited that they may not be able to make sense of a simple pamphlet, for example.
By comparison, 95 million adults, or 44 percent of the population, have intermediate prose skills, meaning they can do moderately challenging activities. An example would be consulting a reference book to determine which foods contain a certain vitamin.
I’m guessing that most of my readers emanate from the ranks of the 86 million whose prose skills are better than intermediate. As for the rest… well, would it be impertinent to ask what more the public education system could do to help remedy this problem? One more important educational trend shows flat, long-term results, despite vast amounts of extra money taxed and spent under the heading of “education.” Yet not enough education seems to be occurring for the price tag incurred.
How many more people will it take to stand up and point out that the proverbial emperor is buck naked before things change? Let’s get past good intentions – I have no doubt many in the teachers union genuinely care about helping kids learn – and get to curriculum and programs that really work. And get to putting the consumers in charge. It is extremely difficult for someone to appreciate music or the other arts, to do well in math and science, or to have genuine self-esteem, if they aren’t functionally literate or if they don’t have better prose skills.
Now, of course, the fault doesn’t lie completely within the educational establishment. But they certainly could be doing a lot more to help… mostly by getting out of the way. Smaller schools, decentralized authority, strong school leadership, reforming tenure and teacher compensation, vouchers or tax credits, empowering parents with choices and rewarding skilled educators for their performance. Can we envision such an education system? The unions spend vast resources to point fingers at those who dare call for change in the way schools are run and to label them “enemies of public education.” (I sympathize with Mike Rosen on this one.)
The comfortable educrats seem to lack all imagination. Public education should not be understood as limited to the structure of the system status quo but the societal consensus for an educated public. But certain forces have constructed many walls around the current educational delivery structure, ostensibly to preserve the interests of adults who work in that system.
Let me say it again, if I haven’t said it before: public education fundamentally exists to help kids learn, it should not be fundamentally a jobs program for adults. Until we get our priorities straight, the long-term trend of adult literacy in this country will not look any brighter.
Mike Antonucci’s Intercepts has the best off-the-wall take on the results of the national literacy survey. Check it out. After all, how often do you get to see a bunny with a pancake on its head?