The Surprising Lack Of Data About Literacy
In many ways, campaigns to improve literacy are more sophisticated than ever. Nonprofits, K-12 and adult continuing educational systems, and government agencies have gone far beyond a literate-illiterate dichotomy in their day-to-day work, expanding the scope of literacy and applying programs focused on issues like health and technology. At the local level, literacy programs around the U.S. strive to adapt to the changing needs of populations they serve, especially in communities home to growing numbers of immigrants and refugees.
Yet educators struggle with a lack of detailed empirical data about adult literacy rates on state and local levels. Searching for a county-by-county breakdown of adult literacy rates leads to a federally sponsored research project named the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Its data was gathered in 2003, and no similar nationwide survey has been conducted since.
More than a decade later, adult literacy organizations are left working with a lot of information that's outdated or cursory. This issue has worried people in the literacy field for a long time. Even the U.S. Census Bureau's FAQ plainly states: "No, we have not collected data on literacy for many years." In a 2007 report, researchers from the since-defunded National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy wrote, "Unfortunately, the field of adult literacy only has a small foundation of scientific research."
One of that paper's authors, Lisa Soricone — now a senior research manager for the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs For The Future — said in an interview in early 2016 that concern is growing about limited and outdated data, but finding funding for research to fill the knowledge gap is difficult.
"It's ironic that at the same time there's a push at the national level to invest in evidence-based programming, it's not like there's a lot of money flowing into research on adult literacy," she said.
From one vantage point, admitted Soricone, it can be a tough sell to fund research finding out about the adult literacy problem because it's well-known that there's an adult literacy problem. But these challenges are still worth understanding it in greater detail, she said: "It would allow a more clearly, efficiently directed use of resources." Moreover, Soricone added, newer and more comprehensive data could cut down on duplicated efforts.
Gaps in research
For Michele Erikson, executive director of Wisconsin Literacy, the idea of relying on the 2003 national assessment data is absurd, particularly as nonprofits like hers try to help adult learners keep up with the evolving demands of digital literacy. "Just think about how differently you communicated in 2003 than you do now," she said, citing the ubiquity of texting and apps like the money-sharing service Venmo.
The obsolescence of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy data is aggravated and compounded locally by limitations in the study's methodology, Erikson pointed out. The survey's figures on state- and county-level adult literacy are not derived from actually surveying local areas around the nation, but from surveying respondents in about a dozen states (not including Wisconsin) and then extrapolating resulting data to estimate literacy rates everywhere else. This methodology "involved a lot of assumptions," Erikson said. "It was really hard to gauge where your county or state fell."
As educators and advocates increasingly treat literacy as an array of distinct skill sets, this expanded definition brings up further questions that suggest a need for more detailed research. Anne Clarkson, who works on adult digital literacy for the University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living Programs, said she could better focus her efforts if she had more sophisticated information on how people across the state access the Internet.
"I would love to know rates in Wisconsin of not only Internet access but also access through smart devices, Wi-Fi access to the Internet and how that breaks down across demographics," she said.
Like many people conducting literacy work on the ground, Clarkson encounters surprising nuances that aren't necessarily reflected in Census data or specific studies of literacy and skills like the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. For instance, she said many low-income families don't have household Internet connections, but still go online through smartphones. Clarkson has also learned that one can't assume that young people raised in a digitally saturated world will automatically grow up with strong digital literacy skills.
It's possible to try to suss out local literacy rates by drawing inferences from other data, such as detailed U.S. Census numbers on educational achievement levels. Lower education attainment levels in a geographic area can suggest a greater need for adult literacy services. But it's still apples and oranges, as Erikson can personally attest, having tutored high-school graduates who didn't know how to read. And if it's not a safe assumption that all high-school graduates have basic literacy and numeracy skills, that suggests one can infer even less about how those graduates are faring in more applied areas like health and financial literacy.
This example of low-literacy high school graduates, Erikson said, speaks to a larger problem with understanding literacy: There's a lot of research about the many societal issues which literacy can affect — from jobs to crime to education — but not so much about the subject on its own.
"This is not one of our nation's priorities, and slowly it's eroding away at other things that are making America less competitive," Erikson added. "How can you really fix something that nobody knows how bad it is?"
A population without a voice
Lack of data undermines literacy advocates in subtle but important ways. Private, community-based nonprofits are on the front lines of improving U.S. adult literacy rates, providing services like volunteer tutors through a mix of private donations and public funding. Without detailed numbers, Wisconsin Literacy's Michele Erikson said, these programs can often have a tough time quantifying the problem for potential donors.
"Our local members (local literacy non-profits belonging to Wisconsin Literacy) need strong data to make their case to funders and stakeholders, and it is almost impossible at the local level," Erikson explained. "They use census data (that is) also not too recent … and try to make relationships between grade level completion and literacy skills — two very different things. Or, language spoken at home and English proficiency, (which are) also two very different things."
The fact that literacy isn't a bigger priority for government actors and private donors results, to some extent, from stigma. Adults who need the most help with literacy often have a hard time just crossing the threshold into seeking tutoring assistance, much less drawing attention to themselves in the public sphere.
"(These are) adults that don't want their employer to know, their doctor to know. And in many cases, believe it or not, their spouses don't know," Erikson said.
Nor are these adults likely to become advocates for the issue. "They're not out there pounding the pavement" to promote adult literacy, she said.
Even if individuals can overcome their emotional barriers, it's hard to motivate every adult who might lack literacy skills. "There are people who come out of the woodwork and seek services, but there's this whole other layer of people who might be OK with where they're at, and you might not be able to draw them in," said Lisa Soricone of Jobs for the Future.
Of course, literacy nonprofits do seek to ease the emotional strain that adult learners endure.
"We purposely don't use the word 'illiterate' because it's historically associated with not being smart, and the truth is that every adult learner I've ever met is actually very smart," said Kevin Morgan, president of ProLiteracy, the major umbrella organization for literacy advocates in the United States.
Another obstacle is that the public tends to define literacy as a childhood issue and ignore adults. The tragedy of this, Morgan said, is that the two are intertwined: Children who grow up around adults with higher levels of literacy will have better odds of developing strong literacy skills themselves. A landmark study in 2003 put this correlation in stark terms. Researchers at the University of Kansas showed that children from high-income families tend to be exposed to a greater vocabulary in their early development than children from lower-income families or those on welfare — by a factor of about 30 million words.
That means adult literacy must improve for the United States to break the cycle of educational and economic disadvantages facing children born into poverty, Morgan said. And though he would welcome more granular data on adult literacy, basic awareness of adult literacy as a problem is still the biggest hurdle.
"Our biggest issue is convincing people that this is something they should care about," Morgan said. "Literacy overall has habitually low awareness. It doesn't matter what kind of data you have."
The most recent major survey of adult literacy in the United States came in the form of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Using data gathered in 2011-12, this assessment looked at how adults in 24 developed nations fare in literacy, numeracy, and, in keeping with this issue's increasingly applied focus, "problem solving in technology-rich environments." By most measures, PIACC found the U.S. ranked near the bottom of the pack. One bright spot, though, is that the United States ranked third for participation in adult education.
Several people interviewed for this story expressed hope that the PIAAC findings will catalyze a greater national effort to address adult literacy in the United States, but that hasn't happened yet. Morgan pointed out that the main PIAAC findings came out at a poor time to make a splash with political leaders, during the fall 2013 federal government shutdown.
Perversely, the existence of a big international literacy survey — even one that offers only nation-level data — could make it harder to persuade elected officials to fund more detailed literacy research at state and local levels.
"I think (the political push) would have to come from the state level," Soricone said. "I don't know if that's necessarily a priority, to quantify the need. We know the need is out there. It might be a bit of a hard sell."
Wisconsin Literacy's Michele Erikson finds it frustrating that PIAAC really offers no points of comparison with National Assessment of Adult Literacy's older state- and local-level data, but she is confident the international survey paints a dismal picture of long-term progress: "You could make a pretty safe assumption that we have not moved the needle on improving literacy rates in this country," she said.
But if PIAAC doesn't break down the U.S. adult-literacy problem geographically, it could at least help focus literacy efforts by age group.
"As you start to dive into the (PIAAC) data, there were red flags coming up specifically in the 18-to-24 demographic," Morgan said. "You expect each generation to become more educated than the previous generation, and the poorest-performing demographic in the U.S. was 55-plus adults, but the second worst was 18 to 24."
More clarity may be coming down the road. Federal researchers are at work on a supplement to the U.S. portion of the PIAAC study that will include an effort, beginning in 2017, to suss out state- and county-level literacy rates, said Emily Pawlowski, a researcher with the American Institutes for Research, which contracts with federal agencies to support PIAAC and similar efforts.
"That is definitely a thing we're very aware of that people really want," Pawlowski said, adding that the organization hasn't yet set a timeline for the actual release of that data.
Another part of the supplement, due out in March 2016, will look in more detail at computer and literacy skills in specific groups of Americans, including unemployed adults, young adults (defined here as ages 16 to 34) and older adults (66 to 74). Pawlowski said her organization has plans to keep contributing to PIAAC through 2021, which opens the possibility of building a more cohesive and up-to-date body of research about adult literacy in the United States and around the world.
Opportunities on the ground
Adult literacy organizations have long taken advantage of their relationships within local communities to make up for a lack of data. They may not have the funding or political clout to launch massively detailed surveys, but just by their nature, these groups have to meet their learners where they live. An on-the-ground approach helps to give educators and advocates a deeper understanding of the nuances of literacy problems.
Literacy organizations understand that immigrants and refugees in the United States not only do not know English, but often have very low literacy skills in their native languages. Educators also understand the unpredictable relationships between literacy and technology.
"People are sometimes surprised that adults that don't know how to read or have low literacy skills actually have smartphones," Morgan said, likening the "iconic environment" of iOS and Android devices to the pictorial shop signs in medieval Europe, when 80 percent of the population was illiterate.
Professionals working in the fast-growing field of health literacy, like Stephanie Severs of the nonprofit Covering Wisconsin, are trying to deepen the health care industry's understanding of how literacy skills play out when people are making decisions about health insurance. Severs, whose organization is affiliated with UW-Extension and works to help Wisconsinites get and use health insurance, said this type of literacy requires a strong foundation of knowledge and not just superficial help.
"Insurance companies are figuring out the need for plain language, but plain language isn't enough, because they're still approaching it from the standpoint of, 'Well, let's educate people about the options and choices of what they now have,'" Severs said. "If you have no conceptual framework from which to read those materials, it's nearly impossible for you to make well-thought-out decisions about how to use that plan. What consumers new to health insurance need is not educational materials that give them options. They need materials or a person to tell them how to use the system appropriately."
Literacy professionals also have poignant insights into how the stigma of illiteracy plays into everyday decisions that most people take for granted. For instance, Morgan said, a person who can't read prices in the produce section might decide not to buy fresh fruits or vegetables, because they can't estimate the price of what they're buying and don't want to be embarrassed if they don't have enough money at checkout.
A situational understanding of literacy offers something of a way forward, especially combined with the detailed data that do exist on related social factors, especially poverty. And as advocates increasingly approach adult literacy as an economic issue, they have chances to deepen their understanding with feedback from businesses about the skills people need to compete in the job market. This information also helps advocates to frame their cause in terms of economic opportunity and savings to America's health-care system and social safety net.
Soricone sees value in an increasingly detailed understanding of adult literacy, but also thinks it will remain inherently limited without a strong foundation of empirical evidence.
"It's still not getting you the nuances of what level people are really at," she said.
In the face of these obstacles, Morgan thinks literacy organizations can make a lot of progress by simply challenging the way people perceive the issue. In fall of 2014, ProLiteracy began hosting hackathons at its Syracuse, New York, headquarters, in hopes of inspiring more startups to develop tutoring methods that scale better than current ones and could therefore serve the needs of more people. (The recently launched Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition has the same goal.)
For Morgan, such efforts go hand in hand with raising literacy's political profile. ProLiteracy recently published a guide for presidential candidates, with an eye toward helping candidates incorporate adult literacy into the issues they're already talking about on the campaign trail. The organization also publishes an advocacy toolkit for people looking to engage elected officials on literacy issues.
"This should be part of everything (candidates for public office) talk about," Morgan said. "Once we do that, I think the scalability and innovation will follow."