Understanding illiteracy

Understanding Illiteracy

From Visual.ly. Source: Degree Scout

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    CW is that things in the US were better maybe fifty years ago. Let’s presume things were better some time back. Which of the manifold changes caused this?
    Let’s presume things are about the same. Who stands to benefit by starting a panic?

    • You can’t assume that things were better 50 years ago, @Richard. The U.S. high school graduation rate only reached 50% (from less than that) around WWII, according to Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test.” In fact, Joanne, you need to give some context here, or you seriously mislead your readers, which is a mortal sin for a journalist. Please provide some comparisons to past figures.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Caroline. Odd as it seems, fifty years ago was 1962. My HS grad year.
        Far as I knew, my classmates were literate–mid or lower-mid class system–by about the sixth grade.
        So they didn’t even have to graduate to be literate.
        Second, if things aren’t getting worse–see my alternative–who stands to benefit from starting a bogus panic?

        • As far as I know, every single one of my kids’ high school classmates graduating (from urban public high school) in 2009 and 2012 was literate, too, except for those who have serious disabilities that impact their learning and intellect (who still do get to graduate). They all had to pass the California High School Exit Exam, which is easy but does require literacy.

          But also, in 1962, it was normal and acceptable for kids to drop out of school before graduating high school to go to work — it was even EXPECTED, in working-class and lower-class families. I know that’s true, because that was the case in 1971 when I graduated from high school, and I doubt if there was a drop in standards from 1962 to 1971. So the ones who remained in high school probably were literate, but that doesn’t tell us much about the literacy rate overall.

          There is a ton of information online verifying that educational attainment has risen steadily, including from 1962 and from 1971 till now. There’s also a lot written about who stands to benefit from starting a bogus panic. (A massive industry that diverts children’s public education funding into their profits in testing and various other areas supposedly relating to improving education; everyone who is funded, paid or otherwise materially benefiting from any education “reform”-related project, etc. etc. etc.) Please read Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” if you haven’t already. I’ll buy you a copy out of my non-education-reform-fattened pocket if it would encourage you!

        • Demographics, demographics, demographics. Just look at the map and it becomes painfully obvious.

          Using this NCES data, non-Hispanic whites represented 70% of the sample, but only 37% of those deemed functionally illiterate. Blacks and Hispanics each represented 12% of the sample, but 20% and 39% of those deemed illiterate.

          The U.S. went from being 80% non-Hispanic white, 10% black, and 4% Hispanic in 1960 to only 63% non-Hispanic white, 17% Hispanic, and 13% black in 2010. Given the racial/ethnic differences in literacy, it therefore is unsurprising that overall literacy has declined.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    We have a very strange system:

    On the one hand, we force high school students to take courses in biology, chemistry, history, literature, foreign language, algebra–all things that are useful to a college student majoring in that particular department but that may have little interest to a high school student, and little use in later life.

    On the other hand, we don’t require high school graduates to be able to do various basic things, things that may actually be useful to them.

    Here’s a wild and crazy idea. No one gets out of 8th grade without being functionally literate, able to fill out a 1040-EZ, calculate a tip, etc. Make a middle school diploma mean something. Make it mean something achievable. Make it mean something useful.

    Then forbid employers to require anything more than a middle school diploma for any job unless they can show that further course work is necessary to do the job. That is the same standard that employers must now meet before they can require applicants to take a test.

    • Having stringent exit requirements for 8th grade does nothing about the significant percentage of the U.S. population who came to this country as teens or adults and who are illiterate in English (and may not be literate in their native tongue either).

  3. Why would you make that necessary for 8th grade, when it’s manifestly obvious that half the population would consider that challenging for 12th grade?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Then let them take another four years to learn it (still in middle school). And let those who do get it move on–to high school or work or whatever.

      • Because having 18 year old still in middle school with 11-14 year olds won’t cause any problems at all. I’m sure the 11-14 year olds won’t have their education negatively effected by this change.

        • Heavens, no.

          And Roger, I don’t disagree with your basic premise. We need a “basic skills” diploma. But theproposed implementation is ludicrous.

        • Miller Smith says:

          Putting illiterate older teenagers in my chemistry classes cause so much trouble that puttIng them in middle school sounds pleasant.

          Why would we put an 18 yo illiterate into a class of 13 yo students? We put them in classes with each other in separate buildings. We surely don’t put them in a high school for god’s sake!

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          If schools were a more college like environment – take only the classes that you need to complete your certificate or degree – and less an inescapable institution that warehouses young people and forces them through whether they’re willing or not – then having 10 and 14 year olds in the same classroom would possibly be workable.

          Part of the problem, imo, is the adults who are cajoling, bribing, forcing unwilling students to go through the motions of attending comprehensive schools to get the degree after which they are prepared for almost nothing. They’re getting a credential not an education. It’s completely understandable why adults are trying to get more kids graduated, but the more they accommodate and cajole the less meaning the degree holds and the less the kid needs to take responsibility for his/her future.

          Education used to be a privilege and an opportunity; now it’s a prison. Let them choose to take advantage of free public education or let them go.

          School would be less the social center of their world, and parents would find it harder to use schools as baby-sitters or dumping grounds. Those seems like features to me not bugs.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          No, don’t put 18 year olds in classes with 11-14 year olds. They failed those classes when they were 11-14. Don’t expect them to pass by repetition. As the hoary old quote goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

          Put them in classes with teachers who can work with them. Pay the teachers who can actually reach them big bucks. This is a school whose entire purpose is to make sure its graduates have certain skills. It is not a three year stop on the way to high school.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          You’re still thinking of schools as inflexible industrial age institutions – one size fits all comprehensive. They don’t need to be like that any more.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Yes. Make it a basic skills test that can be taken at any time between, say, the ages of 10 and 18, after which a “track” can be selected of a comprehensive college prep high school, a more technical or arts focused school, or a trade/vocational option.

        After elementary school, get rid of age grouping by “grade” and have certificate or degree requirements instead.

        As Roger said, we could make this achievement mean something – that the individual was functionally capable.

        I’m not sure forcing employers to recognize it would be necessary. They’d probably do that without coercion because the standard would be consistent and then useful.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      You sure such a number find the work “challenging”? Or do you think they find the idea of applying themselves “challenging”?

      • Genuine tenth grade level mastery is considerably above the capacity of probably a third of our students.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          I’m a little vague on “tenth-grade mastery” on account of scheduling issues. When I was four, I started kindergarten, didn’t flunk and so I was a year younger than my classmates. I took college prep chem in the tenth grade instead of the usual eleventh because my counselor was not paying attention and I didn’t know better. That meant I was two years early. Tough class.
          I was required to write in complete sentences starting in about the fourth grade.
          I managed plane and Alg2 with a lack of distinction. Hated solid and trig. Found the latter was useful in calling artillery, so there’s that.
          So, if you had to describe tenth-grade mastery to a guy whose ed experience is all over the lot and not particularly noteworthy, how would you do it?
          Having said that, I grieved,along with my HS teacher wife, over the kids who really didn’t have the horses to get Spn 1. But there were really, really few. Maybe one a year. I have a pretty good bump for language–see the Defense Lang Apt Test, but a lousy one for math–and I understand having to work hard and cursing the disappearance of a concept I knew the night before.
          So I am curious to know if you think the size of the IQ bucket in one third of the kids is actually inadequate to the challenge of tenth-grade mastery. Or are there other factors which, although not inherent, are so overwhelmng and proof against society’s efforts that they may as well be inherent?

          • Is there some reason your post has to be all about you? Because you seem to think your educational experiences has some relevance to your question.

  4. Put them in classes with teachers who can work with them. Pay the teachers who can actually reach them big bucks. This is a school whose entire purpose is to make sure its graduates have certain skills. It is not a three year stop on the way to high school.

    First, no, that’s not the purpose of the school. The school is tasked with educating students of a certain age.

    But we could have a whole different school for kids who are not capable of doing high school level work. And we won’t, for exactly the same reason we deny these problems in the first place.

    Stacy in NJ, every word of your first two paragraphs is true. However, your solution won’t work. If we make education a choice, we’ll be paying a fortune for cops. We should have separate schools for incompetent kids, but see my response to Roger.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Well, that was the purpose of the school I was talking about 🙂

      My “wild and crazy idea” was a middle school whose purpose was to make sure that every graduate had certain skills in literacy and numeracy.

      That is not the purpose of middle schools today. Which is one reason so many Americans don’t have those skills.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “We should have separate schools for incompetent kids..”

      They may not be competent at academics, but they may very well have potential in other areas. We’re currently telling them they need to attend a comprehensive school to “learn” stuff they’re not capable of or won’t learn. We’re telling them they’re incompetent at life when they aren’t – not necessarily. Give them real choices – options that are relevant and realistic. Possibly we’ll end up with more criminals; or possibly we’ll end up with more individuals who will take responsibility for their own futures. Citizens instead of serfs. Free people instead of cogs.

      We should be doing everything we can to provide a high quality basic skills education to everyone – moving at an appropriate pace. Some will meet that standard at 10, other not until 18, if ever. It is what it is. And, then, we should offer a myriad of choices – and a free market in education will determine what are useful and marketable choices – to everyone. This should all be paid for on the public dime with vouchers that follow the student. We’ll need to “certify” legitimate programs, but that’s fine.

  5. Stacy,

    Being incompetent in academic and a success doing something else (I know that many persons who cannot read function in some manner in society) is kind of a contradiction in terms. I look at my niece who is 6, and knows how to spell, write, read, perform basic math (including add, subtract, multiply, and divide (inc. long division), but then again, she attended a good nursery/day care facility, and worked every day on her reading, spelling, writing, and math.

    Of course, students will only get out of education what they put into it…


    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Not really. Many people, if not most, are not very good at academics. Good at or competent are relative terms, though.

      I agree that without basic literacy and numeracy (about an 8th grade education) success in life is pretty difficult. But, with basic literacy and numeracy, success is completely accessible. Success being self-supporting into adulthood and beyond.

      I don’t think reaching this level of competency means one must be good at academics.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    Here’s a wonderful research program for some millionaire out there:

    1. What do the jobs in America actually require in the way of things that schools can teach? I don’t mean what do the help wanted ads say. I mean what do the jobs actually require.

    2. How many of those skills can realistically be taught to how many people? Again, I don’t mean a pious “everyone can learn.” I mean a realistic, how many can learn how much. (This is basically the issue Cal brings up.)

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Roger Sweeney.

      Let’s see if the bazillionaires can break out the pure inherent abilties and the cultural and social conditions which have the same result as inherent inabilities.

    • What do the jobs in America actually require in the way of things that schools can teach? I don’t mean what do the help wanted ads say. I mean what do the jobs actually require.

      I’m not sure it’s possible to write a job description in such a way as to determine that.  For instance, someone who reads and calculates at a 6th-grade level may be able to handle a certain job after a lot of coaching, but someone with (what used to be called) a 12th-grade set of capabilities would likely be much quicker to pick it up and could come up with shortcuts for efficiency that the slower employee could not understand, let alone invent.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        One of my reasons for thinking about this was taking my mother-in-law to her doctor appointments. There was a woman there who “ran the office.” She scheduled appointments, took height and weight and a few other things, probably did billing, and who knows what else. Her job was relatively pleasant (“indoors and no heavy lifting”). I don’t think she was paid badly and as long as she got along with the doctor, didn’t have to worry about losing the job.

        I thought at the time that she probably didn’t need anything more from school than what would be required to graduate from my imagined eighth grade.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Cal. Have another cup of coffee. The reason I described my ed experience is to demonstrate that I have no idea what your idea of tenth-grade mastery is and, by extension, anybody else’s idea of tenth-grade mastery due to my disorganized ed experience. So I asked you what your idea of tenth-grade mastery is, explaining why I didn’t know.
    So let’s try again. What is your idea of tenth-grade mastery, and do you think the putative inability you mention is inherent in one third of the kids or the result of social and cultural issues or both? If both, which seems likely, what is the proportion?
    In the meantime, I would suggest that a kid who asked a question you think he should know would not do so twice.
    Which might punch up the numbers of the incapable in your particular case.

  8. Mark Roulo says:

    “Then forbid employers to require anything more than a middle school diploma for any job unless they can show that further course work is necessary to do the job. That is the same standard that employers must now meet before they can require applicants to take a test.”

    Oh, boy.

    Employers “require” stuff that they don’t need in an attempt to whittle the applicant pool down to something reasonable.

    In the tech field, one way to do this is GPA. Some folks just toss all the resumes with a GPA below some cut-line, for example. When I’m tasked with going through the resume pile for my boss, I don’t do this (and I take a *lot* longer to do the first-round filter than most of my peers), but it is a common approach. And it is actually pretty reasonable from a effort-for-value standpoint. The goal is usually not to find the *best* candidate (although that would be nice), but to find a good candidate without spending hundreds of hours. A first cut screen that doesn’t toss too many good candidates, but does whittle the applicant pool down a bunch, is pretty efficient.

    We can forbid the employers *requiring* a HS diploma, but it will be difficult to prevent them from simply tossing the resumes that don’t claim one.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      We can forbid the employers *requiring* a HS diploma, but it will be difficult to prevent them from simply tossing the resumes that don’t claim one.

      Right now the law forbids employers to consider a lot of things, and it correspondingly forbids employers to put a box for that on their application forms. It also requires them to tell applicants that this is a prohibited qualification, and forbids them to talk about it. So, for example, an employer cannot ask if an applicant is married. HR departments tell interviewers that they should do their best to keep applicants from volunteering the information.

      The law could do the same thing with diplomas and grade point averages.

      Of course, that would be a much different world. In a better world, the law would then allow employers (or third parties) to develop instruments that helped match people to jobs. Instruments that didn’t take four years and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        You are talking here about forbidding employers from asking about a specified education level, not about forbidding employers from requiring a specified education level.

        In theory, yes, we could change the laws to forbid this (just like it is now effectively illegal to ask about marriage status).

        Then we need to convince the job hunters to leave this information off the resume (applicants can still volunteer data like marital status).

        This isn’t going to happen any time soon.

        And I can see a lot of downsides, too, if we ever do get there without also changing the law to allow employers to verify/validate skills.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          The law would definitely have to be changed to “to allow employers to verify/validate skills.”

          Ironically, employment tests, IQ tests, etc. were prohibited because they have a “disparate impact.” Fewer blacks and hispanics score high on them whites and Asians. Sorting by schooling has exactly the same disparate impact.

          • That’s because in both cases, success is strongly correlated with IQ, which does differ across various groups. Unless you are talking about specific fields with particular knowledge and skills (engineering, nursing, accounting etc.), many employers want to hire people who are smart enough to be easily trainable and the specifics of the job matter less than the ability of the prospective employee to learn new material and skills efficiently. It really doesn’t matter if you are talking HS-grad-level knowledge and skills or college-grad-level; higher-ability people will learn faster and easier. It’s really a pity; the Duke Power decision closed off opportunities for many people who lacked college degrees but were trainable. Now, 2-4 years of additional education is required to get in the door, even if the actual job doesn’t demand that. I can’t see that as much of a plus.

  9. Mark,

    In the final analysis, GPA (while important) tells me very little about the candidate’s critical thinking and analysis skills. I’ve been in interviews which have lasted almost 3 hours, and they’ve required a great deal of on the spot thinking and problem solving (I did get that job, btw), but all the credentials in the world won’t tell me if a person can actually do the job, until they been on the job a few weeks and if they’re reasonably intelligent, they’ll do just fine (in most cases).

    I’ve also done quite a bit of training for new hires, and for the most part, I generally try to get the person(s) to figure it out on their own (which benefits them in the long run). If I always give them the answer, they’ll never develop their own skills.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      The GPA and credentials don’t get the folks the job.

      They are used (when they are used at all) to try to cut a pile of 200 resumes down to 10-15 for a phone screen.

      I quite agree that you usually need to have the person do the job for a while before you know, but by then it is kinda too late. Firing people 1 month after hiring them is legal, but a huge morale hit. It just doesn’t happen where I work.

      So I wade through the 100+ resumes looking for the 10-15 that look the most promising and then call them. I know other folks that do a pre-screen based on GPU (or degree, or both). What do you do? Do you actually phone screen 100+ candidates for a single job?