The problems that beset America since the “new millennium” had been silently growing beneath the surface for some time without adequate response. For example, we all share the memory of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but it is important to remember that radical Islamic terrorism did not begin then. It had been growing for years. Maybe it had only seemed like a bad cold, but the 2001 attacks signaled a change in our situation. Evidently, the cold had morphed into a bad case of double pneumonia.
Similarly, our current financial crisis didn’t just blow up in October. This one had been percolating for some time, and the Secretary Treasury was scrambling to keep the lid on it. It turns out these markets had been destabilized years ago and it was just a matter of time until they toppled. The economic train only came off the tracks recently, but that train has been careening recklessly at high speed for a long time, so its recent crash should not have been so surprising.
I wonder if we haven’t been suffering from our own case of the education sniffles or if our literacy train hasn’t foolishly been picking up speed with curves ahead?
In 2000, the U.S. census together with the subsequent National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) may have been our ignored canaries in the coal mine. These reports revealed what may be the most important literacy statistics of recent times.
For the first time in U.S. educational history, increases in numbers of years of schooling have not led to gains in literacy attainment. Additional schooling seems no longer be a potent stimulant to reading achievement.
In the past, when school years lengthened from 110 days to 180, or when school enrollment became compulsory, or when schools allowed African-Americans to attend, the result has been concurrent improvements in school completion and in literacy.
Now we are accomplishing levels of educational attainment never before reached in our long history, but literacy levels remain stagnant. Average Americans earn more than a high school diploma now, but they can’t read any better than their older brothers or sisters who got by with less time in school.
Many educational reform efforts depend on the idea of increasing the amount of schooling. Think of the high school dropout prevention initiatives of groups like the Alliance for Excellent Education or the efforts to expand college access put forth by President-Elect Obama. In the past, such investments would have presaged higher literacy levels, but the problem that is being ignored is that something has changed in high school and post-high school education that has cut the effectiveness of such schooling.
There are many possibilities, but I think the most likely is that schooling no longer requires sufficient amounts of demanding reading. The students are there, they take classes, they might even learn some information, but they don’t get stretched in reading like they once did. A couple of years ago, American College Testing reported that the best predictor of post-high school success was the amount of challenging reading that students engaged in their academic courses in high school.
The impending crisis is this: we will beggar ourselves trying to provide our kids with more years of education, but it will not pay off for them in terms of better economic success despite our big investment. The additional education we can buy for our children now appears to be both expensive and a pale imitation of the potent variety that we would have bought them in the past. It is not enough to expand college access or high school completion; we need to ensure that this added teaching leads to added literacy or the game won’t be worth the candle.
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