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Californians Who Can't Read: A TIMES PUBLICE SERVICE REPORT : Illiteracy: World, U.S. and California

Californians Who Can't Read: THIRD IN A THREE PART SERIES

September 11, 1988

Determining America's world standing in terms of literacy is no mean feat, for what it means to be literate varies widely from country to country. The United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as the ability to read and write a simple sentence. Some countries, such as Japan, Sudan and Zambia, say an "illiterate" is someone over 15 who has never attended school. Most developed nations, however, rate their people's "functional literacy," which means being able to write a check, fill out a job application or understand a map.

The United States is an exception among the nations of the First World. At the directive of Congress, it defines as literate anyone who has finished the fifth grade. Measurements by that yardstick have resulted in the impressive male literacy rate you see in the chart at right: 99%. (Female literacy rates, which are unavailable for some of the less developed nations listed in the chart, are roughly equal in developed nations, though significantly lower in Third World nations.)

Most American educators and researchers, however, agree that at the very least, 23 million Americans are functionally illiterate. By this yardstock, only 87% of Americans over 15 would be considered literate and the U.S. would rank 49th, not 18th, relative to other members of the United Nations--behind Romania, South Korea, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. These adult illiterates, unable to function productively, are estimated to include 60-80 percent of the nation's prison population, half the chronically unemployed and a third of all welfare recipients.

Estimates released earlier this year by the Department of Education suggest that the problem may be even more severe: more than 27 million Americans older than 17 cannot read or write well enough to perrform basic requirements of everyday life, the department reported, and an additional 45 million are "barely competent" in basic skills. That means more than 72 million--one out of every three adults--may lack the reading and writing skills they need to find work. And the number is growing annually by more than 2 million, federal officials say.

Illiteracy affects all racial groups in America. In a 1982 eport on the Department of Education's Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs, the National Center of Education Statistics found ABE's 2.2 million students to be 46% white, 20.6% black and the rest Hispanic, Asian American or Native American. The situation is especially grave, however, for black Americans--47% of urban black youth are functionally illiterate--and for recent refugees and immigrants, many of whom are not literate in their own languages, much less in English.

One in Six Californians

To date, there has been only one survey which specifically studied illiteracy in the California population. Done in 1979, the NOMOS study was based on five different "competency areas" like economics and health and safety. It tested adults on practical skills such as opening a checking account, using a telpehone book and understanding warning labels on household chemicals.

In 1987, the NOMOS study ws re-analyzed and updated by a California research firm, SRA Associates. According to the study, "Illiteracy in California: Needs, Services & Prospects," 3.1 million Californians--one out of every six adults--are illiterate. That estimate, states the report, is "extremely conservative" because the data was collected in 1979 before "the major influex of refugees into California and before the military services ceased serving as a literacy-services provider of last resort to several key 'at risk' populations."

State and Federal Help

Recent state and federal legislation will have a significant impact on California's literacy programs.

California's GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence) program will greatly increase the number of people needing remedial education in Los Angeles County. The goal of GAIN is to help welfare recipients become self-supporting through a comprehensive education, employment and job training program. Primarily directed to recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the GAIN program tests all participants to determine whether they need training in literacy skills.

Originally, state officials estimated that no more than 15 to 20 percent of GAIN participants would require remedial education. Later, a preliminary survey of nine counties indicated that the need ws 57 percent. After 26 counties had implemented GAIN, another survey was conducted and found that 67 percent of those currently active in the programs do not have the basic skills necessary to find and keep a job.

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