Illiterate in LA

Fifty-three percent of Los Angeles area workers are functionally illiterate, according to a United Way report.

Continued immigration and a stubborn high school dropout rate have stymied efforts to improve literacy in Los Angeles County, where more than half the working-age population can’t read a simple form, a report released Wednesday found.

Ten percent of poor readers take an adult literacy class, but half drop out within three weeks. That’s what happened when my mother volunteered to teach reading to Mexican immigrants; most of those who signed up never came at all, even though the class was held at the restaurant where they worked.

The study measured levels of literacy across the region using data from the 2000 Census, the U.S. Department of Education and a survey of literacy programs taken from last September to January.

It classified 3.8 million Los Angeles County residents as “low-literate,” meaning they could not write a note explaining a billing error, use a bus schedule or locate an intersection on a street map.

In addition, 30 percent of Los Angeles students never finish high school.

Via No Illusions.

Update: According to a study based on Census data, 24.5 percent of public school teachers in the Los Angeles/Long Beach area send their own children to private schools, compared to 15.7 percent of the general public.

Here’s a link to a Fordham study on where teachers send their kids to school.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    How about functional literacy BEFORE self-esteem or tribal pride?

  2. I wonder what bearing California’s mandating of state-wide “whole word” reading instruction, in preference to phonics, has on this situation?

  3. If you read the Executive Summary of the report, available at the United Way LA Website (, you will read that the LA-area number (53%) differs only slightly (47%) from the percent of low-literacy (levels 1 and 2) adults nationwide, as reported by DoE in 1992. So I doubt anything peculiar to California teaching methods — like “whole word” instruction or self-esteem classes — contributes much to the finding.

    The (presumably) higher number of non-native-English speakers in California (the report is talking about literacy in English, not in English or, for example, Spanish) would suffice to explain the slightly higher percent in LA.

    Unfortunately, the complete report is not available yet, just the Executive Summary — a “glossy” PDF that is less than informative about *how* United Way LA, or its researchers, arrived at these results. My experience is that research by advocacy groups routinely exaggerates the magnitude of problems, and the journalists who cover the stories rarely ask the right questions. So I’d be inclined to defer any real judgments here until I can read a report that includes a section on research methodology.

  4. The statistic is probably also skewed by the number of non-english speaking peoples (both legal and illegal) and those for whom english is a second language, but who haven’t achieved the same level of literacy that they have in speaking.


  5. I agree with Ray and Kalroy. Keep those illegals coming. They’re worth every bit of the $10 billion they cost the taxpayer each year.

  6. They’re not literate in Spanish, either. We don’t get people from the higher ranks of Mexican society, which is very stratified. We get people from tiny little villages who stopped going to elementary school.

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    What is the Mexican literacy rate in Mexico?

  8. The UN claims a 91%+ adult literacy rate in Mexico.

  9. Obviously, the Mexican education system has a lot to teach the California, indeed the entire U.S., public education system. I wonder what they’re per student spending is?

  10. Either they’re incredibly educated in Mexico, or just good at picking who gets polled. Or, more likely, giving the UN they’re own numbers. After all, a fine upstanding government like Mexico would never decieve.


  11. Regarding the “Where Teachers Send Their Kids to School” bit, I freely admit that I send my daughter to a Catholic elementary school (I teach in a public school). It’s not due to inferior teaching and/or curriculum in public schools; on the contrary, I believe them to be superior in public schools. What definitely concerns me, however, is the discipline situation. More and more, year after year, I believe the situation deteriorates. Increasingly, administrators’ and teachers’ hands are tied with pressure put on them to “not rock the boat.”

    In a racially mixed school setting (like mine), the PC sensibilities of many get offended if the discipline #s are not “correct” or “proportionate.” Do we get refreshers for students on how to behave properly and/or a firm allegiance to the consequences of inappropriate student actions? Nope — we get teacher “sensitivity training” on how to “understand” how students in “different groups” may act or respond in class.

    Meanwhile, unfortunately, while some teachers may be busy trying to “understand” these students, other students are missing out on what the teacher should actually be doing. I, OTOH, refuse to abide by such nonsense, and will take whatever “administrative lumps” may come my way.

  12. It’s worth mentioning that Mexico has a single legal language (Spanish) even though they have substantially larger non-Spanish-speaking minorities then we have non-English-speaking minorities (as a proportion of the population). No ambiguous messages there.

  13. What’s the US literacy rate among the children of white English-speaking parents?

    I’d also wonder about how statistics are collected from remote villages in Mexico.

  14. One thing that struck me immediately about this story is the assumption that high school dropout rates have an impact on literacy rates — shouldn’t kids be able to read long before they reach high school? This tells me something about the expecatations (or lack of them) placed on students in the CA system, and no doubt elsewhere.

  15. What I’d like to know is the literacy rates for the TEACHERS in California? How many of them can’t even write correct sentences? Just look at the notes that get sent home. So far, out of 5 school communications and 2 notes from the teacher, NONE of them have been completely correct – either the grammar is wrong, the punctuation is wrong, or the sentences are incomplete. And these are the people who are supposed to be teaching our kids? Outrageous.