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.