Tag Archives: literacy in the United States

Measuring the Success or Failure of Public Education in the United States through Literacy: Part 2 of 3

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.

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.

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. 5731 and 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.

Part 3 Continues on November 19, 2014 or start with Part 1

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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).


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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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

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


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

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The Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 1/2

In Not Broken, a five-part series, I pointed out a number of comparisons to show that America’s public school are not broken. In Part 5, I provided evidence that culture (Asian/Pacific; White; American Indian/Alaska Native; Hispanic/Latina, and Black—the US may be one country but it has subcultures and each subculture has its own unique characteristics) influences a child’s ability to achieve functional literacy.

After Part 5 appeared, it took a few days before I realized I missed an important comparison: the English speaking nations that were all colonized and ruled by the British Empire establishing links to a common culture.

The majority in each of these countries is White. The influence of that White dominated culture has much to do with the structure of the schools in those countries today and the way teachers are treated.

Note (to establish the dominant ethnic group and/or culture of each country):

In 2009, the census in Australia reported that 92% of its citizens were identified as White.

In 2006, the census in Canada reported that 67.32% of its citizens were identified with links to the UK, France and Ireland

In 2006, the census in Ireland reported that 94.9% of its citizens were White.

In 2009, the census in New Zealand reported that 56.8% of its citizens were identified as European.

In 2001, the census in the United Kingdom reported that 92.1% of its citizens were White.

In 2007, the estimate in the United States was 79.96% of its citizens were White.

For this comparison of literacy, I focused on six of the thirty-six English speaking countries that were once ruled by the British Empire.

The following information comes from a report published for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 1994–2003. According to this report, we may discover the number of people in each of these countries lacking functional literacy skills (% aged 16–65).

Note: In addition, I researched each country to discover any reports that confirmed the reported percentages and in several countries, the percentage of adults that were functionally illiterate may be higher.

1. Australia = 17% (the actual number may be much higher)

However, it may be much worse in Australia than the UNDP report says. Brendan Nelson, Education Minister said, “About 30 percent of Australian children who are leaving the school system in Australia are functionally illiterate.” Source:

2. Canada = 14.6% (the actual number may be much higher)

According to the two following quotes, the functional illiteracy rate in Canada may be much higher than what the UNDP reported: “About 42% of young adults age 16 to 65 scored below level 3 in prose literacy, which is considered the threshold for coping in society. Source: Vivele Canada

In addition, CBC reported on Canada’s shame: “Nearly 15 percent of Candains 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.”

3. Ireland = 22.6% (the actual number may be a bit higher)

In addition, Irish reported, “The dumbing down of Ireland – 23 percent of males are illiterate. A Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study has shown that one in six Irish students has significant reading problems while 23 percent of Irish males have lower than “functional literacy.”

Then reported, “The horrifying figure of 24 per cent adult illiteracy was first published in an OECD survey in 1996, and put us close to the bottom of the international league. (In Europe, only Poland scored worse than we did.)

“But in the months prior to the publishing of the survey results, government ministers were at pains to deny the figures which were already filtering through.”

4. United States = 20% (this percentage appears accurate)

The report of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy in the United States says:  “After completion, this massive assessment revealed that only thirteen percent of American adults are proficiently literate, most of whom hold a college degree, while the majority merely have intermediate literacy skills. However, the population of adults with basic or below basic skills total forty-three percent according to NAAL research, which is far higher than those with proficient skills.

“In fact, the term “functionally illiterate” is frequently used to describe the estimated twenty percent of adults in the US who cannot perform basic tasks involving printed materials. Functional illiterates may have trouble filling out a job application, using a computer, understanding written instructions, reading a contract, and many other related tasks. Many of these citizens are not able to hold a job, and those who do work regularly have difficulty with occupational tasks and career advancement.”

5. United Kingdom = 21.8% (this percentage appears accurate)

6. New Zealand = 18.4% (the actual percentage may be much higher)

Education reported that levels three and above on the International Adult Literacy Survey  (IALS) indicate “functional literacy” while Levels 1 and 2 indicate “functional illiteracy”.  The survey found that 45% of adult New Zealanders were in levels 1 and 2 for prose literacy, 50% for document literacy and 49% for quantities literacy (the average of the three is 48%).

If Josh Harden can read to his young children as he is dying, what is your excuse?

Continued on September 11, 2012 in The Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 2


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

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