My colleague Gary Wolfram asked an important question recently - "Why are 47 percent of the adult population of Detroit functionally illiterate?" While it should be noted that this statistic is essentially fabricated out of thin air from a report that is now 20 years old the question of literacy is certainly worthy of further discussion.
Many like Wolfram simply use statistics like this to push a common conservative platitude that we need free market more involved in education even thought data shows that 75% of Charter schools produce no better or worse results than their local public school counterpart.
The reality is that this problem is not a public versus private question.
A study by the University of Texas found that the answer to the long standing question of why more girls aren't becoming scientists is simply community make up. In communities where a high percentage of women were in science, math, technology and engineering jobs there was a corresponding increase in girls who studied those topics in school. Essentially, it was a question of role models.
The illiteracy data show that children raised in a home with at least one illiterate parent are twice as likely to be illiterate. Additionally the U.S. Department of Education found that the most important determiner of early success for children is an introduction to books at home while the National Adult Literacy Survey found that children who enter school without basic literacy skills are three to four times more likely to drop out of school. So while blaming schools or teachers for illiteracy may be good for asserting more banal politically motivated change the data shows this to be an ironically uneducated position.
Regardless of the education system, there is little a school can do to change the circumstances of their students and provide the types of at home role models or resources that children need to alter their path to end the vicious cycle of illiteracy.
Reports show that "adult illiteracy costs society an estimated $240 billion each year in lost industrial productivity, unrealized tax revenues, welfare, crime, poverty, and related social ills". This occurs because 20% of adults in the US are functionally illiterate.
The reality is that if we truly care about addressing illiteracy, using politically motivated rhetoric is the absolute worst course of action. Children obviously need a robust education system to foster their reading skills however the vast majority of schools both public and private already provide this. The real answer to improving the literacy rate in the US requires a focus on adults. While seeking help can be a difficult and embarrassing situation for illiterate individuals the joy of learning to read and the opportunities that such learning creates are nearly immeasurable.
The good news is that there are plenty of organizations available to help. They are always looking for volunteers, additional funding and other support. But most of all they are looking for brave adults who want to provide a better life for themselves and their families. To find out how you can help or help someone you know that struggles with reading, search for a literacy program in your area or click any of the links below.
Or any of the county run programs listed on the Michigan.gov website