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Tag Archives: Functional illiteracy

Measuring the Success or Failure of Public Education in the United States through Literacy: Part 1 of 3

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.”

Part 2 Continues on November 18, 2014

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Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran,
who taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005).

lloydlofthouse_crazyisnormal_web2_5

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).

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Sign me up!”

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The Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 2/2

The Importance of Literacy

A Literacy at Work study, published by the Northeast Institute in 2001, found that business losses attributed to basic skill deficiencies run into billions of dollars a year due to low productivity, errors, and accidents attributed to functional illiteracy. Source: Functional Lieracy.Wiki.org

In Conclusion:  I taught in California’s public schools (1975 – 2005) and was teaching English and reading when the educational system was changed dramatically from the top down (ignoring the protests of classroom teachers at every step—teachers were not part of the decision making process) starting in Washington D.C. in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk. The next step was the 1989 education summit that involved all fifty state governors and President George H.  W. Bush followed more than a decade later with the adoption of national education goals in the year 2000 under his son, President G. W. Bush.

Before these changes, most of the public schools identified students that were falling behind in literacy (mostly because the parents of these students were not part of the education process of learning to read and write) and were then moved into learning tracks and different classes with goals designed to deal with the challenge of parents not reading at home.

In the early 1990s, when the English/Reading department at the high school where I taught was told that tracking was going to be abolished and all students, no matter his or her reading abilities, would be placed in grade level classes working out of grade level textbooks (this meant students reading at second or third grade would be reading out of textbooks written at ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade), the English and reading teachers protested and managed to hold off these changes for about three years before the politicians (elected school boards and the adminstrators hired to work for the school board to run the district) forced the end of tracking.

About the same time, a program called The Whole Language Approach to Reading and Writing was implemented and again the teachers protested but were forced to comply or else.

The foundation of this program was reading for fun outside of the schools with parent support (you may already have guessed how this worked out).  Student and parents were told that children had to read a minimum of thirty minutes or more a day outside of school hours, seven days a week besides doing the school work and homework assigned by teachers. A decade later, it proved to be a total failure and was cancelled. California, where I taught, had ranked near the top in literacy when this program was launched. A decade later, California was almost dead last compared to all other states.


Parents make the difference – mine did, and I learned to enjoy reading at home.

The average functional illiteracy rate as reported by the UNDP of the six dominate English speaking countries that were once part of the British Empire and have Caucasian majorities with roots mostly to the United Kingdom was 19%.

Adjusted for errors and/or under reporting, the average percentage changes to 30.7%, more than 10% higher than the United States.  It doesn’t matter which average we use in this comparison of cultures that are fundametally the same.  The Untied States is one percent above the average reported by the UNDP but 10.7%  lower than the corrected average.

The US is either ranked fourth in literacy according to the UNDP or first after we adjust for errors and/or under reporting.

Does that sound as if the public education system in America is broken?

Return toThe Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 1

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga.

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Not Broken! – Part 5/5

You may want to skip this page if you prefer opinions without facts used as support (this is known as hot air or natural gas).  I tend to support my opinions, some say, with too many facts (what I consider to be six cups of coffee).

There are more comparisons we should look at, and the first is comparing literacy in America with its northern and southern neighbors in addition to the top-ten countries with the highest reported high-school graduation rates.

In fact, there is another measurement that may be more meaningful than a country’s reported high school graduation rate. That measurement is functional illiteracy.

The United States and many other countries claim high literacy rates because the definition of literacy says, “The adult literacy rate is the percentage of people age 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.”

However, functional illiteracy means that reading and writing skills are inadequate “to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”

Functional illiteracy is contrasted with illiteracy in the strict sense, meaning the inability to read or write simple sentences in any language.

For example, my older brother, (died age 64 in 1999) graduated from high school in the United States in 1953 and was considered literate due to the definition of literacy, because he could write and read at a second grade level.  However, he was functionally illiterate and never read a newspaper, magazine or book in his life. In fact, he could not fill out an employment application.

Now, let’s cast serious doubt on comparing high school graduation rates in America with other countries.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report, the United Kingdom, that reported the highest secondary (high school) graduation rate in the world, has 21.8% of its adult population age 16 – 65 considered functionally illiterate.

Switzerland, in second place for high school graduation rates has a functional illiteracy rate among adults of 15.9%.

Norway, in third place, has a 7.9% functional illiteracy rate among adults.

I could find no information on functional illiteracy in South Korea, fourth place, and Japan, fifth place.

Italy, in sixth place for high school graduation rates, has a functional illiteracy rate of 46% among adults

Seventh place Ireland has a 22.6% functional illiteracy rate.

Eighth place Germany has a functional illiteracy rate is 14.4%

Ninth place Finland’s functional illiteracy rate is 10.4%

Tenth place Denmark’s functional illiteracy rate is 9.6%

America’s functional illiteracy rate was reported as 20% among adults.

However, for a better comparison with a similar culture that has similar values and similar problems, I looked north to Canada and discovered that among adults aged 16 to 65, about 42 per cent scored below Level 3 in prose literacy, which is considered the threshold needed for coping in society. Source: Vivele Canada

In addition, the CBC reported on Canada’s shame, saying that nearly 15 percent of Canadians can’t understand the writing on simple medicine labels such as on an Aspirin bottle and an additional 27% can’t figure out simple information like the warnings on a hazardous materials sheet.

For further proof that comparing high-school graduation rates between countries as a way to judge America’s public education system was and is wrong, in 2009, Canada’s high school graduation rate was reported as 78% but the country has a functionally illiterate adult population ages 16 – 65 of forty-two percent (more than twice that of the United States). Even comparing literacy rates is not a fair comparison between countries, for example, because in Finland most parents teach his or her child/children to read before they start school at age seven showing us that culture has a lot to do with literacy too.

However, in America studies show that 80% of parents never attend a parent-teacher conference.

What about Mexico—just south of the US.  According to Mexico’s 2010 census 93.7% of Mexican males aged 15 and older were literate compared to only 91.1% of females, but what about functional illiteracy?  Mexico comes close to Canada with 43.2% of its adult population aged 16 – 65 functionally illiterate as my brother was.

Compared to America’s closest neighbors, the public-education system in the US is doing a fantastic job. Is there room for improvement? Of course, but the overall evidence shows that America’s public schools do not deserve to be condemned as broken. Instead, the facts say that most of America’s public school teachers are doing the job they were hired to do while it is politicians that are telling them what to teach.

Another factor to consider is High School graduation rates by race/ethnicity in the United States

For the 2007-08 school year, 91.4% of Asian/Pacific Islanders graduated from high school (156,687); 81% of Whites (1,853,476); 64.2% of American Indian/Alaska Native (31.707); 63.5% of Hispanic (443,238), and 61.5% of Blacks (415,111). Source: U.S. Department of Education

Most schools have all five races/ethnicities represented in the same classrooms (the schools I taught in for thirty years did) with the same teachers. However, when the numbers are averaged, critics of public education blame the teachers.

When averaged, the graduation rate in 2008 was 74.9%, which makes the public schools seem to be earning a C while they are earning an A- for the Asian/Pacific Islanders and a B- for Whites.

Really? How can the same teacher be so successful with Asian/Pacific Islanders and Whites and not with the other ethnic groups?

This is the advise I told our daughter when she was in grade school: “The only excuse to fail and not learn in school is when students do not pay attention, ask questions, read, do homework, class work, etc.  There is no excuse. Even if the teacher is incompetent, a motivated student will still learn.” And she did.

In addition, the graduation rates increase when the GED is included with traditional high-school degrees. In 2009, the completion rates of 18-through 24-year-olds was: 88.3% white, 87.1% black, and 76.8% Hispanic. Source: U.S. Department of Education

If an Asian or White student is successful with a teacher, why can’t the Hispanic or Black student have the same success with the same teacher?  After all, the teacher is responsible to teach and the student is responsible to learn (or has this been forgotten).  If the teacher wasn’t doing his or her job, then the Asians and Whites should have graduation rates similar to Hispanics and Blacks.

Return to Not Broken! – Part 4 or start with Part 1

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga.

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