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

Original Reporting | By David Noriega |

Kruidenier said he still believed these subgroups would need to remain flexible: a student would have to be able to move from one group to another if he or she responded to instruction at a different rate. But it would still be possible to address and respond to the differing individual needs of students without remaining stuck at the one-on-one or small-group scale.


“It’s not that simple”

The final element to a revamped adult education system about which nearly all experts agree is the need for a more professional, better-trained, and better-paid teachers. Adult education professionals frequently say the same thing: volunteers are wonderful and we could not do without them, but we need better.

“People make the mistake of thinking, ‘everybody reads, it must be easy to teach it’,” said Kruidenier. “It’s not that simple. At the very least, you need professionals who are guiding any paraprofessionals you have.”

“If you’re coming in as a low-level adult [learner], and you look to the future and see that it’s going to take you the next six years to finish by doing this reading one hour a day, or twice a week, or three times a week, the chances of you persisting in that are pretty low,” Mulligan said.

MacArthur explained that this is because the teaching methods that have been proven to work necessitate a solid grasp of complex concepts both linguistic and pedagogical.

“Reading instruction is actually a highly technical field,” MacArthur said. “There’s a lot that you need to know. You have to understand the structure of the English language. Why are words spelled the way they are? It’s not random. There’s a structure and an organization, and there’s a developmental sequence that learners follow in learning how to spell and decode words.”

MacArthur pointed out that when elementary school teachers get their professional degrees, they usually have to take three courses devoted entirely to teaching reading and writing. “And they’re hard courses,” he added.

Jane Hugo, senior project director at ProLiteracy, the largest national membership group of community-based literacy programs, said that there was an even steeper need for trained instructors in programs teaching basic math. This is because teaching math is just as technical and difficult as teaching reading, but far fewer people consider themselves capable of doing it. “There is math-phobia among volunteers, just as there is among the learners,” Hugo said.


The reaction so far

Since the results of the OECD’s survey of adult skills came out in October, the federal Department of Education has openly acknowledged the problem. Officials from the department’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education interviewed by Remapping Debate said it was a significant issue that so few adults with low basic skills had access to education programs. (The officials were made available by the department only on condition that we would not quote them by name.) They also pointed to the need for research evaluating the different kinds of existing programs and the possibilities for rolling them out on a broader scale.

To this end, the officials said, the department is launching a series of information-gathering meetings across the country with regional representatives of the adult education field: educators, advocates, employers, philanthropists, and so on. The goal of the meetings is to learn what those on the ground believe is needed to solve the problem; the end result will be a “national action plan” due some time in the spring.

“Without some kind of investment, it’s impossible to do anything” to have a significant impact on the problem, said Jeff Carter. 

However, the officials would not say whether they believed any attempt to revamp the system would involve significant new funding from the federal government, saying that this question would not be answerable until after they had completed their research. One official also suggested that there may be several ways to improve the system without spending a lot more money, including increased partnerships with the private sector (such as employers and philanthropists) and the use of technology for distance learning.

Some in the adult education field have taken a similar tack, concluding that it is impractical to demand more funding from a Congress very unlikely to give it, and instead looking for ways to do more with less. “People stepped back from [asking for more funding] a little bit in the face of the recession,” said Jane Hugo of ProLiteracy. The thinking, she said, is that “it won’t help our cause if we ask for something that at the moment is totally unfeasible.”

Indeed, the only recent effort to increase federal funding — a Democratic bill in the House that would have almost doubled funding — failed to make it out of committee.

But others insist that it is folly to pretend that any real progress will come without substantial additional government investment—and insist that the government’s failure to devote more resources to the problem represents not an inevitability, but a choice. “That’s the policy decision that’s not being made,” said Jeff Carter, a literacy advocate in Washington D.C. and member of the board of directors of the National Coalition for Literacy. “Without some kind of investment, it’s impossible to do anything.”


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