Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Literacy in the news

The latest literacy report getting media play, America’s Most Literate Cities, 2009, reports Washington, DC as the nation’s second most literate city with a population of 250,000 or more.   The rankings are determined by how cities fare on what Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) considers to be “six key indicators of literacy”:   newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.

According to CCSU President and study author Dr. Jack Miller,

This study attempts to capture one critical index of our nation’s social health. . . .   This set of factors measures people's use of their literacy and thus presents a large-scale portrait of our nation’s cultural vitality.   From this data we can better perceive the extent and quality of the long-term literacy essential to individual economic success, civic participation, and the quality of life in a community and a nation.

This year, Washington, DC comes in behind Seattle, WA but ahead of such cities as Boston, Atlanta, and Denver.   DC’s ranking since the study began in 2005 has ranged from 2 in 2009 to 5 in 2007.

USA Today announced the study’s release on December 21.   The problem with the USA Today report of the America’s Most Literate Cities, 2009 study according to expert Jeff Carter of D.C. Learns is that “nowhere in the story does the writer come out and say we don’t have a literacy problem here in the District, but I think it leaves readers with a mistaken impression.”   At least as far as the District is considered, this study represents only part of the picture.

The other part of the picture is that a significant portion of the city’s population – nearly 20% according to the US Department of Education – has what is known as below basic literacy skills.   This means that these residents have the lowest levels of literacy performance (there are five levels); people at this level can do things like sign a form or add up check and cash amounts on a bank deposit slip.

So while it is terrific that those on the more literate end of the spectrum can be considered highly literate, it is troubling and extremely problematic for the District’s economic, cultural, educational, and social strength and resilience that 20% of our residents face daily challenges.   The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, known as NAAL, defines literacy as reading for a purpose, purposes that are common in daily living.   More on this from Mark Schneider, Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics, upon the release of the 2003 NAAL results:

Our definition of literacy focuses on reading for a purpose.   It emphasizes using printed and written information to function in society and to achieve one's goals and potential.   This is somewhat different from a school-based definition of literacy, which focuses on learning to read and reading to learn.   NAAL measures three types of literacy using materials that are part of daily life:
  • Prose reading materials are arranged in sentences and paragraphs.   Examples include the newspaper articles some of you will write on this report.
  • Documents are not organized in sentences. Documents include such things as bills, maps, bus schedules, and prescription labels.
  • Quantitative activities require simple calculations using numbers found in written materials such as tax forms or checking statements you receive from your bank.

Combining the nationwide NAAL results with the educational attainment of DC residents illustrated by the US Census Bureau, we get a much better picture of literacy and poor literacy in the District of Columbia.

The Census Bureau’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates for Selected Social Characteristics in the United States: 2006-2008 reports that 142,147 or 35%, of the 401,222 residents 25 years old or older had a high school diploma or equivalency or less.   The remaining 65% of the population (259,057) of residents 25 years old or older had some college education or more.   The breakdown of less well educated residents by attainment level is:

  • 22,948 have less than a 9th grade education
  • 36,179 have completed a grade in high school (grades 9 – 12) but do not have a diploma
  • 83,044 are high school graduates (this includes equivalency)

The bottom line is that the NAAL, Census educational attainment data and CCSU study can fairly easily co-exist.   What we do with the information will determine the kind of city we truly are.   So yes, let’s celebrate success and achievement.   But now that the more complete story is being told by D.C. Learns and others, the community can now make literacy for the least literate a priority in 2010.

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