There are many ways to measure the success or failure of public education in the United States, and one way is to compare functional Illiteracy in the United States to similar English speaking countries and Mexico, because culture plays an important role in children’s attitude toward education and literacy.
It’s arguable that the four MOST similar countries/cultures in the world, when compared to the United States, are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, because they share an Anglo Saxon heritage, culture, and the same language. In addition, almost 80% of the U.S. population is white alone (in 2013, 77.7% were white), and the more than 13% who are African American, who have been in the U.S. for several generations, due to slavery, are no longer linked to an African cultural heritage. If you doubt that, consider that 78% of African Americans are Protestants and 5% are Catholics and—forced—immigration from Africa stopped and/or slowed drastically after the Civil War in 1865. What this means is that African Americans with roots that reach back 150 years or more are culturally American. If interested in this topic, I suggest you read a study out of Yale: African vs. African-American: a shared complexion does not guarantee racial solidarity
The United Nations defines illiteracy as the inability to read and write a simple sentence in any language, and it’s arguable that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn—if not the most difficult—if it is your second language. To understand this, I suggest you read 10 Reasons Why English is a Hard Language
The BBC asked, How many hours does it take to be fluent in English?
Huan Japes, deputy chief executive of English UK, a trade body for language colleges, says a rule of thumb is 360 hours—120 hours for each of three stages—to get to the standard the government expects benefit claimants to reach. …
Dr Elaine Boyd, head of English language at Trinity College London, says, “If someone is really highly motivated, they can learn really quickly. It’s common for children under the age of 11 to be very immersed and be fluent in about six months.” …
Philida Schellekens, a language consultant, says that when she researched English language learning in Australia a decade ago the figure of 1,765 hours was used. That could mean four years of classes. It signifies the standard needed to do a clerical job in an office.
In English Spelling Confuses Everyone, Professor Julius Nyikos, a linguistics expert born and raised in Hungary, learned numerous languages in his elementary school, high school, and university training. He came to the US in 1949 and, after a few years of studying English, was able to continue his profession as a linguist that he began in Europe. He spent many years as a professor at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania studying the languages of the world. In his scholarly article for the 1987 Linguistics Association of Canada and the United States Forum, titled “A Linguistic Perspective of Functional Illiteracy,” he made the statement, “It would be both ludicrous and tragic if it took lawsuits to jolt us into the realization that neither the teachers, nor the schools should be faulted as much as our orthography [spelling], which is incomparably more intricate than that of any other language (emphasis added). If English is not the absolute worst alphabetic spelling in the world, it is certainly among the most illogical, inconsistent, and confusing. This is due to the developmental history of the present.”
Literacy is the ability to read and write. In modern context, the word means reading and writing in a level adequate for written communication and generally a level that enables one to successfully function at certain levels of a society.
The standards of what level constitutes “literacy” vary between societies.
In the United States alone, one in seven persons (i.e., over 40 million people) can barely read a job offer or utility bill, which arguably makes them functionally illiterate in a developed country such as the US.
In 2003 the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), conducted by the US Department of Education, found that fourteen percent of American adults scored at this “below basic” level in prose literacy. More than half of these persons did not have a high-school diploma or GED. Thirty-nine percent of persons at this level were Hispanic; twenty percent were Black; and thirty-seven percent were White.
Now, to compare the five countries listed in the post to the United States.
First – Mexico: The OECD reports that 7.2 years is the average years of schooling of adults in Mexico.
Second – Canada: In 2012, Indicators of Well-being in Canada reported that 22% of adult Canadians had less than a high school education in addition to 16.5% reading at Level 1 or Below Level 1. Canada has five literacy levels. Canada’s Below Level 1 and Level 1 are equal to Below Basic in the United States. 83.9% of Canadians read at levels 2, 3, and 4/5. If Canada measures literacy the same as the United Kingdom, then 48.5% are ranked at Level 2 and below and are functionally illiterate.
Third – United Kingdom: The Telegraph reported that one in five Brits is functionally illiterate—that’s 20% that read below level 2, the common definition of functional illiteracy, and the OECD reports that the UK is ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries. BBC.com
Fourth – Australia: Uses the same five level literacy skill level rating system as the UK and Canada, and in 2006, almost 46.4% of adults read at Level 2 or below and were functionally illiterate. abs.gov.au
Fifth – New Zealand: The distribution of literacy skills within the New Zealand population is similar to that of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Analysis of New Zealand Data from the International Adult Literacy Survey reports that 45% of adult New Zealanders were in Levels 1 and 2 for prose literacy. EducationCounts.govt.nz 5731 and EducationCounts.govt.nz 5495
Sixth – United States: 14% or 30 million were ranked below basic on the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), and 49% of adults who ranked below basic had less than/some high school but did not graduate from high school or earn a GED/high school equivalency. The United States has four literacy levels compared to five for the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 87 percent of American’s read at basic or above. 65 percent read Intermediate and above. As reported by the OECD, one in six adults (16.6%) in the United States scored below level 2, in literacy. nces.ed.gov
In Conclusion, in case you are wondering why I included Mexico in this comparison, the PEW Research Hispanic Trends Project reports that “The number of Hispanic students in the U.S. public schools nearly doubled from 1990 to 2006, accounting for 60% of the total growth in public school enrollments over that period. There are now approximately 10-million Hispanic students in the nation’s public kindergartens and its elementary and high schools; they make up about one-in-five public school students in the United States. Most if not all of these students come from the poorest population in Mexico, and they bring with them the same attitudes toward education that they held before they came to the United States.
Ranking functional literacy in English speaking countries and Mexico
1st Place: In the United Kingdom, 80% read at Level 3 or above.
What explains the UK having such a low functional illiteracy rate? The Guardian.com reports that the “UK publishes more books per capita than any other country.” Does this translate into the UK being a more literate society? If this is the reason, it might be a cultural difference between the other major English speaking countries with similar cultural heritages.
2nd Place: In the United States, 65% read Intermediate Level or above.
3rd Place: In New Zealand, 55% of adults read at level 3 or above
4th Place: In Australia, 53.6% of adults read at level 3 or above
5th Place: In Canada, 51.5% of adults read at level 3 or above
6th Place: In Mexico, 64% of adults do not have a high school degree or its equivalent, and the The World Bank estimates that in 2012, 52.3-percent of Mexicans lived in poverty in their home country compared to 15-percent of the U.S. population who live in poverty—and 25.6% or about 12 million are Hispanic, and 35-percent or 6 million of the 16 million children who live in poverty in the U.S. were also Hispanic. In fact, over half of Mexican youth at age 15 are functionally illiterate and cannot solve simple equations or explain basic scientific phenomenon. WorldFund.org
In addition, the New York Times reports that many of these children from Latin America are boys between ages 15 and 17 when they arrive in the United States, and they come from some of the poorest regions in those countries. Do you think these children arrived in the U.S. functionally literate in their own language?
Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran,
who taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005).
His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves
Lofthouse’s first novel was the award winning historical fiction My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. His second novel was the award winning thriller Running with the Enemy. His short story A Night at the “Well of Purity” was named a finalist of the 2007 Chicago Literary Awards. His wife is Anchee Min, the international, best-selling, award winning author of Red Azalea, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1992).
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