More on adult literacy in the USA

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Wed Apr 23 15:13:18 UTC 2008

I suppose I trust the statistical trend more than Ron does.  Of course, the only way to know for sure is to drop everything and become an expert on the measurement of literacy - its techniques and its history - oneself.

  Short of that, one might reasonably ask, "Where are the studies and statistics that show genuine literacy improving in the U.S. over the past twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years? Are there any?  Was the D of E under Reagan so politically and ideologically corrupt that it would not just falsify but utterly reverse the results of its own study and then use such startling language ('act of war') to promote its conclusion?"

  If anyone here who's taught undergraduates between, say, the '70s and recently has noticed even anecdotally a general and reassuring improvement in reading and writing skills, I wish they'd tell us.

  I agree that there is no simple solution, and perhaps the problem cannot be solved. Judging by how both government and populace have reacted to the repeated warnings, a deep cultural resistance or disdain for liberal education exists in America.  IIRC, de Tocqueville recognized it over 150 years ago.

  Maybe it doesn'tmatter. Maybe we'll always have enough sufficiently literate people to write, edit, read, comprehend, and act reliably on all the technical manuals that must be produced in the future, enough sufficiently literate teachers to keep society going, and enough literate voters to prevent representative democracy from becoming a total farce.

  That's what I'm skeptical of.  Nor do I relish the prospect of a technological society deeply divided by literacy skills between ruling technocrats and idiocratic_lumpen_.


  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

I suppose it is shocking indeed if we may be little better off than we were=20
130 years ago; merely clucking one's tongue does give one comfort and relief=
a world full of fools and knaves. =20

Complaints that schools aren't as good today as they were 40 years ago have=20
been voiced for at least 100 years. My point was simply that a few=20
uncontextualized statistics tell us next to nothing. Who did the measuring 1=
30 years ago=20
and how did they do it? Who did the measuring in 2003 (or whenever) and how=20=
they do it? What do the categories mean? What possible causes--quite apart=20
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?)?=20

The answers that one tends to hear are mostly simple-minded, easy-fix=20
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=20
"bad"--only that (a) just what the problem is (if there is one) is complex,=20=
simple--and not definable in terms of a few unanalyzed statistics about=20
"literacy"; and (b) improving education in language skills (whatever that me=
ans) is not=20
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=20
> literate?
> =A0 Consider the implications of: "Between [1992 and 2003], average prose=20
> literacy
> decreased for most levels of educational attainment, and average document=20
> literacy decreased for those with some college, associate's degrees, and=20
> college graduates."
> =A0 I remember vividly the Dept. of Education report in 1982/83 that concl=
> that (memorial paraphrase follows) "if a foreign power had conspired to=20
> place U.S. education in its current condition, it would rightly be conside=
red an=20
> act of war."
> =A0 JL
> RonButters at AOL.COM wrote:
> =A0 ---------------------- Information from the mail header=20
> -----------------------
> 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=20
> that=3D
> =3D20
> 22%--not 50%!--of Americans in 2003 were marginally illiterate ("possess=20
> no=3D20
> more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills"). This appears to=20
> be=3D
> =3D20
> little different from the 1880s (see my previous posting) and may even be=20
> an=3D
> =3D20
> improvement, since total illiteracy and possessing "the most simple and=20
> conc=3D
> rete=3D20
> literacy skills" are not be the same thing. Note also that Canada and=20
> Bermud=3D
> a=3D20
> both outperformed the US, despite using virtually the same spelling=20
> system,=3D20
> while the US actually outperformed Italy (yet the spelling system of=20
> Italian=3D
> is=3D20
> arguably more phonetic than that of English). And, again, literacy is, by=20
> ot=3D
> her=3D20
> reports, quite high in Japan, even though the primary writing system of=
> Japanese is not a spelling system at all; ditto Chinese.
> The logical conclusion would seem to be that spelling systems are at best=20
> of=3D
> =3D20
> minor importance with respect to literacy. At any rate, arguments=20
> asserting=3D20
> the efficacy of a particular methodology based on supposedly changing=20
> litera=3D
> cy=3D20
> rates in the USA are meretricious, not only because just what=20
> "illiteracy"=3D20
> means is open to variation in interpretation (e.g., the CIA's surprising=20
> ass=3D
> ertion=3D20
> that only 1% of American adults are illiterate, meaning perhaps that 1%=20
> of=3D20
> American adults cannot sign their own names bjut must make an X?), but=20
> also=3D20
> because the data themselves point to no clear direction.
> The following information comes from The Condition of Education, U.S.=3D20
> Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2007)=20
> (N=3D
> CES=3D20
> 2007=3DF1064)--summary at
> Question:
> What are the literacy levels of adults, and how does the United States=3D2=
> compare to other countries?
> Response:
> National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)
> Adults age 16 or older were assessed in three types of literacy (prose,=
> document, and quantitative) in 1992 and 2003. Literacy is defined as=20
> "using=3D20=3D
> printed=3D20
> and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals,=20
> and=3D20
> to develop one's knowledge and potential." The average prose and document=
> literacy scores of U.S. adults were not measurably different in 2003 from=20
> 19=3D
> 92, but=3D20
> the average quantitative literacy score increased 8 points between these=
> years.
> One measure of literacy is the percentage of adults who perform at four=
> achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. In=20
> eac=3D
> h type=3D20
> of literacy, 13 percent of adults were at or above Proficient (indicating=20
> th=3D
> ey=3D20
> possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy=
> activities) in 2003. Twenty-two percent of adults were Below Basic=20
> (indicati=3D
> ng=3D20
> they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills)=20
> in=3D20
> quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12=20
> per=3D
> cent in=3D20
> document literacy.
> Differences in average literacy scores were apparent by sex and=3D20
> race/ethnicity. Women scored higher than men on prose and document=20
> literacy=3D20=3D
> in 2003, unlike=3D20
> in 1992. Men outperformed women on quantitative literacy in both years.=20
> Male=3D
> =3D20
> scores declined in prose and document literacy from 1992 to 2003, while=20
> fema=3D
> le=3D20
> scores increased in document and quantitative literacy. In 1992 and 2003,=
> White and Asian/Pacific Islander adults had higher average scores than=20
> their=3D
> =3D20
> Black and Hispanic peers in the three types of literacy assessed. Black=
> performance increased in each type of literacy from 1992 to 2003, while=20
> Hisp=3D
> anic average=3D20
> scores declined in prose and document literacy.
> Additional differences in average literacy were apparent by education and=
> age. Educational attainment is positively related to all three types of=20
> lite=3D
> racy:=3D20
> those with any education after high school outperformed their peers with=20
> les=3D
> s=3D20
> education in 1992 and 2003. Between these years, average prose literacy=
> decreased for most levels of educational attainment, and average document=20
> li=3D
> teracy=3D20
> decreased for those with some college, associate's degrees, and college=
> graduates. From 1992 to 2003, the average prose, document, and=20
> quantitative=3D20=3D
> literacy=3D20
> scores of adults ages 50-64 and 65 or older increased.
> ...
> ... U.S. adults outperformed adults in Italy in 2003, but were=20
> outperformed=3D20
> by adults in Norway, Bermuda, Canada, and Switzerland. Adults in Bermuda,=
> Norway, and Canada had higher literacy scores than U.S. adults at both the=
> h=3D
> igh and=3D20
> low ends of the score distribution.
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