Can Massive Injections of Adult Literacy Education
Improve Children's Reading Skills?
Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education
Data released in 2005 from the National Center for Education Statistics
showing 30 years of National Assessment of Educational progress (NAEP)
indicate that, from 1971 up to 2004, reading scores for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds
were flat. Indeed, a patient in an intensive care unit whose health-monitoring
indicators went as flat as the NAEP data would be declared dead!
Despite past failures to improve reading scores, today, as in the past,
tens of billions of dollars are being spent on special programs to raise
the literacy skills of children. Meanwhile expenditures for adult literacy
education have been and still are trivial.
This goes on despite the fact that for the past 30 years the K-12 system
has been graduating millions of young adults below the 20th and 10th percentiles
of reading as measured by the NAEP, with no apparent improvement in the
proficiency scores for students at these percentile ranks. Furthermore,
there is little evidence that this can or will be turned around anytime
It is extraordinary that policies that attempt "fix" children
in the institutional settings of preschools or the public schools, and
then return them to their debilitating home lives still command such massive
amounts of funding, while there is great reluctance to acknowledge and
meet the needs of the children's parents for continuing education. This
situation prevails despite extensive research suggesting that, through
the intergenerational transfer of language and literacy, serious investments
in the education of adults could likely improve the educability of their
Given the data of the past 30 years, which indicate mostly failure to
improve children's learning of language and literacy in the schools and
up into adulthood - even those children at the 10th percentile - it seems
that some new strategy for improving children's and hence adults' literacy
is called for.
There is a grossly underfunded and underdeveloped adult education and
literacy system in the United States with over 3,000 programs and close
to 3 million enrollees per year. But the federal level of funding is less
than US$225 per enrollee. Even with state contributions added in, the average
funding per enrollee across the United States is only about US$650. This
is less than one tenth of what is spent per enrollee on Head Start, which
serves mostly the children of these poorly literate adults.
Perhaps now, after 30 years of trying and apparently "flat-lining" in
our attempts to raise the reading achievement of children through schemes
that largely ignore the literacy education needs of the children's parents,
it may be time to acknowledge the existence of the adult education and
literacy system and to provide the funding and other resources it needs
to produce genuine and extensive improvements in the literacy and lives
Massive injections of adult literacy education might just be what is needed
to resuscitate a reading instruction patient that is presently in a deep
coma. And we should do this before the patient goes completely brain-dead.
Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133