A Fifth of American Adults Struggle to Read. Why Are We Failing to Teach Them?
Annie Waldman, Aliyya Swaby  and  Anna Clark (ProPublica) 15 December 2022
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
In Amite County, Mississippi, where a third of adults struggle to read, evidence of America’s silent literacy crisis is everywhere.
It’s in a storefront on Main Street, in the fading mill town of Gloster, where 80-year-old Lillie Jackson helps people read their mail. “They can’t comprehend their bills,” she said. “So many of them are ashamed that they haven’t finished grade school.” She longs for the day she can retire, but she doesn’t want to abandon her neighbors. “That’s the only reason I really stay open,” she said.
It’s in the Greentree Lumber mill, where dozens of residents cut Southern yellow pine into boards, but supervisors — who must be able to page through machine guides and safety manuals — are recruited from other counties. “We’re going to have demand for jobs with no people to supply them,” mill accountant Pam Whittington said.
And it’s in the local high school, in a district where a fifth of students drop out, one of the highest rates in the state. Principal Warren Eyster has seen low literacy trickle from one generation to the next — an unusually American phenomenon.
In other wealthy countries, adults with limited education who were born into families with little history of schooling are twice as likely to surpass their parents’ literacy skills. Here, one’s destiny is uniquely entrenched. Though nationwide graduation rates have risen in recent decades, the number of adults who struggle to read remains stubbornly high: 48 million, or 23%.
If there were local programs that could teach adults the reading skills they never got, those parents could help educate their kids and get better jobs, Eyster said. The entire county would benefit: “Our tax base would go up,” he said. But in Amite County, no such program exists.
In a nation whose education system is among the most unequal in the industrialized world, where race and geography play an outsize role in determining one’s path to success, many Americans are being failed twice: first, by public schools that lack qualified teachers, resources for students with disabilities and adequate reading instruction; and next, by the backup system intended to catch those failed by the first.
Nearly 60 years ago, the federal government established funding to provide free education for adults who could not read to help them improve their literacy and obtain employment. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson recognized how low literacy intertwined with poverty and all the ills that came with it. The adult education system they built was supposed to give people everywhere a second chance at success.
But, ProPublica found, access to this instruction is limited, increasingly insufficient and — much like the nation’s school systems — highly dependent on geography and the political will of elected officials.
The federal government provided roughly $675 million to states for adult education last year, an amount that’s been relatively unchanged for more than two decades when adjusted for inflation. It’s not enough, and states that oversee these programs are required to commit their own share of funding. A review of adult education spending found glaring disparities among states, with some investing more than four times as much as others for each eligible student.
“The magnitude of the need for adult education services has long eclipsed Congressional appropriations,” a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Funding levels have not kept pace with the rising cost of service delivery, nor are funding levels commensurate with the millions of people who could benefit from adult education services.” Continue Reading…
(Additional reporting by Nicole Santa Cruz, photography by Kathleen Flynn, special to ProPublica)
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