Adults Left Behind

Ever since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in January 2002, I have been wondering about the ones who were left behind by the nation’s schools 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Many of them show up now in the lowest ranks of adult literacy. An estimated 40 million to 44 million Americans, age 16 and older, have minimal ability to read prose, interpret information on tables and graphs and manage everyday arithmetic. To the extent that the schools failed them decades ago, society owes them something now.

As we argue about policies and practices that might improve education for youngsters who are still in school, we should be doing something for out-of-school adults who are falling further and further behind in terms of prose literacy, document literacy and quantitative literacy.


Here are three suggestions.

1. Create a financial incentive for the millions who are unemployed or underemployed because they cannot read. They need something more than the prospect of better employment if they are to persist in a one-on-one learning relationship with a person who can teach them how to read. I think a great incentive to seek such help would be the availability—at the end of every one-hour learning session—of a $10 voucher redeemable for food at designated stores in the community. Regardless of employment status or participation in any other public assistance program, the learner’s eligibility for this tax-free voucher would be based solely on participation in a session aimed at improving literacy skills. Five hours a week would put $50 worth of food on the table and move the beneficiary five hours closer to a more fulfilling and productive life.

Organization of this service could fall under AmeriCorps or some other government agency. Local school districts might be able to handle it, as might church and civic organizations. There could be an all-volunteer army of tutors. Oversight, both fiscal and instructional, would be needed. And some test would have to be established to mark one’s “graduation” into the ranks of those who can read sufficiently well to make it in the world of social and commercial communication.

To avoid fraud or any form of corruption, the federal government would have to print the vouchers and bond those who handle them. Perhaps the U.S. Postal Service has enough experience in these matters to work out a system that could facilitate transfer of vouchers to tutors who, in turn, would award them to learners at the end of each hour’s effort to reach that magic moment “when the lines...separated into words,” as the narrator puts it in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Many people need help at the lowest literacy levels in our nation. It won’t be hard to find them. The availability of vouchers will help to get their attention—assuming, of course, that there is sufficient White House enthusiasm for this idea and enough Congressional action to make it happen.

2. Set up a training program for AmeriCorps volunteers to help other volunteers learn how to tutor people who need help if they are to escape the lowest literacy levels. Many of them have been faking it for most of their adult lives, pretending to be able to read when they cannot. They will have to let go of their dodge devices, drop their visual crutches and become independently capable of reading print, interpreting graphs and making change. This requires pedagogical methods that trainee tutors could pick up in about three weeks. Just as Peace Corps volunteers spent summers at the Georgetown University School of Languages and Linguistics back in the 1960’s to acquire the language skills they needed to function in foreign settings, now AmeriCorps volunteers could spend a few weeks on a college campus to learn how to help lift adults from low literacy levels.

3. Run a pilot project along these lines at a place like Loyola University in New Orleans. It would be great if concern for the disproportionately high number of citizens at the lowest literacy levels in that city prompted local elected officials and their representatives in Washington to come up with a pilot project targeted on people there, one that would attract federal funding for this voucher idea and the tutor-training component. According to statistics available through Loyola’s Lindy Boggs National Center on Community Literacy, more than 215,000 adults in the five-county metropolitan area of New Orleans function at the lowest of five levels of adult literacy. In New Orleans itself, about 40 percent of those 16 years of age and older fall into the lowest literacy category.

It might just be possible for New Orleans to convert its high negative on the literacy scale into a strong positive argument for federal assistance that would enable the city to show the rest of the nation how to rescue citizens who were left behind a decade or more ago from cripplingly low levels of literacy.

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11 years 11 months ago
In “Adults Left Behind” (10/11), William J. Byron, S.J., observes that adults now unable to read were perhaps failed by their schools when they were children, and points out that society owes them something now. Many of those who could not read in school then dropped out of school, went to the streets, drifted into drugs and crime and found themselves in prison. Some of them also had learning disabilities (like dyslexia) and had little support from dysfunctional families. It has been estimated that 40 percent of inmates in state prisons cannot read adequately, and an abnormal percentage of them have learning difficulties.

This is another case of finding the root cause of symptoms and trying to do something about it. Society owes these people a better effort to overcome their disabilities, educate them and enable them to survive productively in society.

11 years 11 months ago
In response to “Adults Left Behind” (10/11), in which William J. Byron, S.J., observed that society owes our illiterate adults something in compensation for failing them when they were children, a reader, Rudy Cypser, wrote (11/1) that “this is another case of finding the root cause of symptoms and trying to do something about it.”

But if the root cause of illiteracy is something that happened—or did not happen—to these unfortunate citizens in their early years when they were receptive to learning, can they really go back? The evidence would indicate otherwise; for hundreds of adults, it is too late now to make a substantial difference through adult remedial instruction. It is also prohibitively expensive.

This is why programs like the Harlem-based Casa de los Niños for 3- to 5-year-olds, under the direction of the Montessori Development and Training Corporation, are sorely needed if we want to interrupt the cycle of illiteracy.

The alternative to remedial programs is to catch children when they are sensitive to language development and learning in general. If you have a small child in your life, you know his constant “Why?”; and if you care about that child, you will not become impatient and turn off his natural curiosity by sitting him in front of the television set to “be quiet”; instead you will, as psychologist J. McVicker Hunt has said, match his level of “readiness to know” with appropriate learning activities or find an affordable institution that provides them. All the research points to this wisdom, but all too few academic programs for young children apply it effectively. Why do we wait until failure sets in and then wring our hands? Why do we waste time and throw away so many lives?


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