More on adult literacy in the USA

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Tue Apr 22 13:32:29 UTC 2008

I suppose it is shocking indeed if we may be little better off than we were 
130 years ago; merely clucking one's tongue does give one comfort and relief in 
a world full of fools and knaves.   

Complaints that schools aren't as good today as they were 40 years ago have 
been voiced for at least 100 years. My point was simply that a few 
uncontextualized statistics tell us next to nothing. Who did the measuring 130 years ago 
and how did they do it? Who did the measuring in 2003 (or whenever) and how did 
they do it? What do the categories mean? What possible causes--quite apart 
from anything that goes on in the schools themselves--could be involved (e.g., 
coulde the large immigration of people speaking Spanish in the past 30 years 
have affected over-all English literacy rates?)? 

The answers that one tends to hear are mostly simple-minded, easy-fix 
solutions, often heavily motivated by ideology:

1. Spend more money on teacher salaries
2. Create market-place competition through vouchers and/or withholding funds 
from schools that perform poorly
3. Create market-place competition by paying teachers for "performance"
4. Adopt "old-fashioned" teaching methods (e.g., "phonics")
5. Make students wear uniforms
6. Require prayer in the public schools.

I'm not taking a position (here) that any of these is either "good" or 
"bad"--only that (a) just what the problem is (if there is one) is complex, not 
simple--and not definable in terms of a few unanalyzed statistics about 
"literacy"; and (b) improving education in language skills (whatever that means) is not 
an intellectually simple matter of radically changing the spelling system of 
English (which is totally impossible anyway)--or, for that matter, any other 
simplistic, single-track solution.

In a message dated 4/20/08 11:12:45 AM, wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM writes:

> Why am I not relieved to read about one adult American in four is barely 
> literate?
>   Consider the implications of: "Between [1992 and 2003], average prose 
> literacy
> decreased for most levels of educational attainment, and average document 
> literacy decreased for those with some college, associate's degrees, and 
> college graduates."
>   I remember vividly the Dept. of Education report in 1982/83 that concluded 
> that (memorial paraphrase follows) "if a foreign power had conspired to 
> place U.S. education in its current condition, it would rightly be considered an 
> act of war."
>   JL
> RonButters at AOL.COM wrote:
>   ---------------------- Information from the mail header 
> -----------------------
> Sender: American Dialect Society
> Poster: RonButters at AOL.COM
> Subject: More on adult literacy in the USA
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------------
> --
> Note the following, seemingly most reliable, statistics, which indicate 
> that=
> =20
> 22%--not 50%!--of Americans in 2003 were marginally illiterate ("possess 
> no=20
> more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills"). This appears to 
> be=
> =20
> little different from the 1880s (see my previous posting) and may even be 
> an=
> =20
> improvement, since total illiteracy and possessing "the most simple and 
> conc=
> rete=20
> literacy skills" are not be the same thing. Note also that Canada and 
> Bermud=
> a=20
> both outperformed the US, despite using virtually the same spelling 
> system,=20
> while the US actually outperformed Italy (yet the spelling system of 
> Italian=
> is=20
> arguably more phonetic than that of English). And, again, literacy is, by 
> ot=
> her=20
> reports, quite high in Japan, even though the primary writing system of=20
> Japanese is not a spelling system at all; ditto Chinese.
> The logical conclusion would seem to be that spelling systems are at best 
> of=
> =20
> minor importance with respect to literacy. At any rate, arguments 
> asserting=20
> the efficacy of a particular methodology based on supposedly changing 
> litera=
> cy=20
> rates in the USA are meretricious, not only because just what 
> "illiteracy"=20
> means is open to variation in interpretation (e.g., the CIA's surprising 
> ass=
> ertion=20
> that only 1% of American adults are illiterate, meaning perhaps that 1% 
> of=20
> American adults cannot sign their own names bjut must make an X?), but 
> also=20
> because the data themselves point to no clear direction.
> The following information comes from The Condition of Education, U.S.=20
> Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2007) 
> (N=
> CES=20
> 2007=F1064)--summary at
> Question:
> What are the literacy levels of adults, and how does the United States=20
> compare to other countries?
> Response:
> National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)
> Adults age 16 or older were assessed in three types of literacy (prose,=20
> document, and quantitative) in 1992 and 2003. Literacy is defined as 
> "using=20=
> printed=20
> and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, 
> and=20
> to develop one's knowledge and potential." The average prose and document=20
> literacy scores of U.S. adults were not measurably different in 2003 from 
> 19=
> 92, but=20
> the average quantitative literacy score increased 8 points between these=20
> years.
> One measure of literacy is the percentage of adults who perform at four=20
> achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. In 
> eac=
> h type=20
> of literacy, 13 percent of adults were at or above Proficient (indicating 
> th=
> ey=20
> possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy=20
> activities) in 2003. Twenty-two percent of adults were Below Basic 
> (indicati=
> ng=20
> they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills) 
> in=20
> quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12 
> per=
> cent in=20
> document literacy.
> Differences in average literacy scores were apparent by sex and=20
> race/ethnicity. Women scored higher than men on prose and document 
> literacy=20=
> in 2003, unlike=20
> in 1992. Men outperformed women on quantitative literacy in both years. 
> Male=
> =20
> scores declined in prose and document literacy from 1992 to 2003, while 
> fema=
> le=20
> scores increased in document and quantitative literacy. In 1992 and 2003,=20
> White and Asian/Pacific Islander adults had higher average scores than 
> their=
> =20
> Black and Hispanic peers in the three types of literacy assessed. Black=20
> performance increased in each type of literacy from 1992 to 2003, while 
> Hisp=
> anic average=20
> scores declined in prose and document literacy.
> Additional differences in average literacy were apparent by education and=20
> age. Educational attainment is positively related to all three types of 
> lite=
> racy:=20
> those with any education after high school outperformed their peers with 
> les=
> s=20
> education in 1992 and 2003. Between these years, average prose literacy=20
> decreased for most levels of educational attainment, and average document 
> li=
> teracy=20
> decreased for those with some college, associate's degrees, and college=20
> graduates. From 1992 to 2003, the average prose, document, and 
> quantitative=20=
> literacy=20
> scores of adults ages 50-64 and 65 or older increased.
> ...
> ... U.S. adults outperformed adults in Italy in 2003, but were 
> outperformed=20
> by adults in Norway, Bermuda, Canada, and Switzerland. Adults in Bermuda,=20
> Norway, and Canada had higher literacy scores than U.S. adults at both the 
> h=
> igh and=20
> low ends of the score distribution.
> **************
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