Why no literacy programs for 30 million in U.S.?

Original Reporting | By David Noriega |

Dec. 11, 2013 — There are currently more than 30 million adults in the United States whose ability to read, write, and do basic math is at or below the level of the average third grader.

The current system of adult basic education in the U.S. has long been unable to reach more than a fraction of the population that could benefit from its services.

Experts in the field agree that this is a problem that could be meaningfully addressed. Doing so, however, would require aggressive, coordinated investment on all levels of government, and the federal government has not provided the necessary leadership or funding. In fact, over the last decade, federal funding, adjusted for inflation, has gone down. State governments, too, have mostly failed to respond in any way that would suggest recognition that the epidemic of adult illiteracy is an emergency.

Experts and advocates suggest a number of reasons for this political lethargy, including a tendency among lawmakers to see low-skilled adults as undeserving or beyond repair, along with unreasonable expectations of progress without first providing meaningful investment. Whatever the cause, there has not been sufficient political will to do what is necessary to help the millions of adults in the country whose lack of basic literacy skills are major obstacles to a decent life.


“An undernourished system”

The extent of the adult literacy problem in the United States was made newly clear in October when, for the first time in a decade, an international survey organized by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produced a comprehensive picture of adult skills in the U.S. The survey revealed not only the number of adults in the country lacking basic reading and math skills, but also that adults at the lowest skill levels were four times as likely to report poor health than those at the highest levels, a gap far larger than the international average.

While dreary, the results came as no surprise to those who work in adult education. The researchers, teachers and advocates we interviewed all acknowledged that the current system of adult basic education in the U.S. has long been unable to reach more than a fraction of the population that could benefit from its services.

Marcie Weadon-Moreno Foster, public policy chair for the National Coalition for Literacy and a policy analyst at CLASP, an anti-poverty group, said that out of the 36 million adults with the lowest skills, only about 5 percent have gained access to education programs. In other words, about 34 million have not gained access. There are waiting lists for such programs in all but one state, some stretching to a year’s time and hundreds of thousands of people.

“The number one issue is that we’re simply not providing the resources that we need to serve the students that we need to serve,” Foster said.

The federal government funds adult education through the Workforce Investment Act by distributing money to states, which, in turn, fund local education programs. (States are required to match at least a quarter of what they get from the federal government.) CLASP calculates that federal funding, adjusted for inflation, has declined by 17 percent since 2002: measured in 2011 dollars, funding for adult education in 2002 was above $700 million, dropping to less than $600 million today. To make matters worse, state contributions plummeted along with revenues after the recession. As funding sank, so did enrollment in education programs.

“It’s a very undernourished system at both the federal level and the state level, and you can only do so much with that many dollars,” Foster said. Federal and state governments combined spend between $700 and $900 a year per adult learner, Foster observed, compared with about $10,000 per student in the K-12 system. And that refers only to those adults who are already enrolled in programs, leaving aside the tens of millions who are not receiving services at all. “That’s how much we’re attesting to care about our adult learners, and about improving the basic skills of our adult population,” Foster said.


Structural challenges

Making any substantial progress in educating the country’s low-skilled adults would require surmounting a number of deeply ingrained problems, according to the people we interviewed.

Adult education programs, for example, are plagued by high attrition rates, due in large part to the difficulty of adding classes to lives already busy with work and families. Adult learners also vary tremendously in terms of what they know and the experiences they bring to the table, making it hard to apply uniform teaching strategies to large groups of students. This complexity is compounded by a lack of professional training amongst the people who teach adults, a large proportion of whom work as volunteers. Finally, adult education is delivered through a patchwork of local programs that vary tremendously in their settings, methods and effectiveness—from programs run through public schools to occasional meetings in libraries and community centers.

Which methods and programs are most effective? Though efforts in a couple of states are widely praised anecdotally (see bottom box), there is surprisingly little empirical research available to answer the question. In spite of a few spasmodic attempts, the federal government has failed to sustain a dedicated research center for adult education. In addition, the immense variety of programs and high attrition rates hinder researchers.

Two well-regarded programs

Two state-operated programs are frequently cited by experts in adult education as showing great promise: Minnesota’s FastTRAC (Training, Resources and Credentialing) and Washington State’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST)

Those who praise these programs say their approach reflects two of the basic principles behind successful adult education: classes are intensive and concentrated, with clear goals and expectations; and the approach combines the teaching of basic skills with career-specific, technical training.

In FastTRAC, the state gives grants to interconnected groups in different aspects of basic education and workforce training: voluntary education programs and rehabilitation centers combined with employers in manufacturing or nursing, for example. Using the state’s guidelines, these groups teach basic reading and math skills intensively and in the context of specific career paths. According to FastTRAC’s own numbers, 88 percent of students complete the courses successfully.

While I-BEST is limited to Washington’s community colleges, its proponents say its model can be applied in wider settings. Every class is taught by two instructors: one for basic reading and math skills, and the other for occupational skills. The Community College Research Center found that I-BEST students generally perform better than students from other basic skills classes in terms of their likelihood to earn college credits and workforce credentials, and to secure better-paying jobs.  

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