A Crisis of Literacy or a Systemic Issue in Society?
What factors are contributing to low levels of literacy in the United States?
In recent years across social media, there has been a trend among people to declare the next identifiable generation of children, Generation Alpha, children born between 2010 and 2024, as a lost generation. Long gone is the Millennial bashing of my adolescence, or the generation war between Gen Z and the Baby Boomers. We have already moved on to condemn the legions of children aged 14 and under as a lost cause in society. Why is this? According to social media, it is because these children cannot read. And it’s not just a few children. It’s a lot of students. Testimonies from teachers across the internet seem to confirm this.
As is the nature of social media though, there is a tendency to catastrophize to a point that any semblance of a real world message can easily get lost. There is a reason why the act of “doom scrolling” has become so popular in today’s day and age. Bad news of course always sells and social media is no exception. So then what exactly is going on with Generation Alpha and why has this ballooned into condemning an entire generation of children?
Illiteracy is not an issue confined to Generation Alpha, but because of social media, it has become easy to see this issue grow and metastasize across society in real time. In fact, illiteracy and low levels of literacy are issues that affect a large portion of American adults. According to a Gallup analysis from the U.S. Department of Education, around 130 millions adults in the US have low literacy skills. This means that more than half of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 or 54 percent read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.
Given this reality, it is not productive nor fair to blame an entire generation yet to fully form, or to label them as “dumb” or “stupid” as some people have so gleefully jump to do. Given this generation has yet to come of age as adults, this issue is as much, if not more of our problem than it is theirs. By trivializing this issue affecting them, as will be shown, we are ourselves complicit in leading our youth into a future fraught with hardships and struggles. This issue is not as simple as a lack of education, or any specific failing in the education system, but a series of interlinked issues all bound together. Illiteracy and low literacy should not be seen as the main issue, but rather the symptom of systemic societal issues that affect us all and most importantly are negatively affecting our children. They are among the most vulnerable in society and are often an afterthought in political discourse, that is unless they are being used as the poster-child for some specific issue or agenda. In this article I will attempt to unravel at least small part of the puzzle and give some level of insight into the complexity of the issues that our education system faces as a whole.
The effects of poverty and high inequality on education
One of the most noticeable effects on the literacy of students today is poverty. From my conversations with my Aunts Bonita and Mary, and my sister Morgan, this was apparent. Students coming to school hungry and not being able to afford lunch was something that stuck out to me that all three of them have pointed out. These anecdotes were not isolated incidents but part of a larger issue their students were facing. Some students live in situations where their basic needs, such as hunger are not being met. In this light, it’s understandable to recognize that other more specific school related needs are not also being met. Basic necessities such as notebooks, backpacks, pencils, aren’t things children are being equipped with. Things such library fees, school trips, fees related to organized sports and after school activities are an afterthought in this context. Having a parent that is concerned with making ends meet in an economy that seeks to maximize their productivity at an optimal cost, means that there often isn’t energy or time to make sure their child has done their homework, or to find out that their child is struggling with reading and writing.
These issues are especially affecting minorities. As Bonita, Mary and Morgan can all attest to from their experience, black children are especially affected in this respect. A Household Pulse Survey from February of 2023 concluded that the black families with children surveyed were the most likely to report both that they “sometimes” and “often” did not have enough to eat. This is twice the rate of white families with children surveyed.
Though black children are severely affected, they are by no means the only children being affected by an overall trend in declining literacy rates in the United States. The 2022 NAEP reading assessment found that in eight grade reading scores from 2019-2022, there was an overall decrease in reading level, but there was no significant change in most ethnic groups. Despite not having a significant changes, American Indian, Alaskan native, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, mixed race, and Whites, all performed below proficiency level on average. The only group that performed on average above proficiency were Asians. For perspective, despite Asians seeing a one point decline, the proficiency gap between them an all other groups widened between 2019 and 2022.
Some may blame the pandemic and remote schooling for this decline in literacy rates, especially throughout the years surveyed in the 2022 NAEP reading assessment. But one would be missing the forest for the trees by doing so. The pandemic was an event that was more of an intensifier than the cause of these issues, as it was for many issues. Declining literacy is actually part of an overall trend of the past two decades. People have been sounding the alarm for the past decade over this issue.
A study in 2013 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development surveying 166,000 teens and adults ranging in age from 16 to 65 years old in 24 countries, found that American adults performed below average on literacy and basic math. The study also found that American adults were far behind their counterparts in countries such as Japan, Finland, Australia, Canada and South Korea. It is interesting to note that the countries that scored lower than the United States such as France, Italy, Spain, and Ireland were countries that suffered severely from the Great Recession in Europe following the 2007 economic crash that persisted in some countries until as late as 2013.
Inequality seems to be a theme that could be interpreted from that survey. The inequality could be seen between nations, with countries such as Japan and Finland, who were not as hard hit by the global financial crisis, and were already wealthy countries, faired better than countries such as Italy, Spain, and Ireland, among the hardest hit in Europe by the crisis. These countries faced economic difficulties before the crisis and did not have the means to weather the storm as more wealthy countries did. Inequality can also be seen within the countries as well. Regarding this study the Associated Press noted the following:
"Not only did Americans score poorly compared to many international competitors, the findings reinforced just how large the gap is between the nation's high- and low-skilled workers and how hard it is to move ahead when your parents haven't…In both reading and math, for example, those with college-educated parents did better than those whose parents did not complete high school."
This brings us back to the United States. When looking at a distribution of states with low literacy levels among the adult population, several things stand out. The states with the highest percentage of adults with low literacy levels, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are states, with the exception of California, located in the Deep South.
Historically the South has been a part of the country with high poverty and inequality, and low levels of education that date back to its days as an agrarian slave-owning society. Slave owning elites monopolized the wealth of the society at the expense of the poor and the enslaved. The entire economy was built around free labor of the enslaved and then cheap and exploitative labor following the end of slavery. This concentration of wealth and reliance upon exploitation concentrated opportunities and resources among a very small group of elites. In poor white and free black communities, this denied them any ability at economic mobility or opportunities for quality education. The system of racism built around this exploitative economic system further reinforced the rigidity of the class structures in the South. For enslaved blacks, lack education and illiteracy were used as a tool of oppression too keep them ignorant of the extent of their subjugation, and blind to the listened to them on why they were enslaved, often based on “interpretations” of passages from the Bible. Through great strides were made throughout the 20th century to remedy this high level of illiteracy in the Deep South, as evidenced literacy is still an issue.
Though these issues persist in this region of the South, the rest of the country isn’t far behind these states. New York’s literacy rate is only just in front of Florida’s with both of them having around 24 percent of their adult population with low levels of literacy. Not coincidentally both of these states have high levels of economic inequality with New York taking the second spot behind Puerto Rico, and just in front of Washington D.C., and Florida taking the eighth spot. The only states that had a percentage lower than fifteen percent, were Wyoming, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana which were all clustered around 13 and 14 percent. On the inequality index, these states hovered around the middle to the bottom.
But of course inequality is also relative. When looking at the US Gini coefficient, the number used to measure income distribution, the US had a coefficient of 41.1 placing the US in the upper middle of the pack. It’s not as high as South Africa’s index of 63, but it’s higher than its neighbor Canada which is at 32.9. Compare this to the countries in the literacy survey, with Australia’s at 34.3, Japan’s index of 32.9, Finland’s at 27.10. Though these statistical analyses are by no means perfect, and there are many other factors at play they do begin to paint a picture of inequality and how that can affect literacy.
Why this all matters
In a country like ours, that has a high level of income inequality, it doesn’t just mean that there is a large gap between those who make a lot of money and those that who do not. One has to look past the numbers to see the implications. Those who have the means of making in the society will do so, and those who do not won’t. In this respect we are bifurcating our society and its resources along these lines of haves and have-nots. With respect to education, those with money, capital, and resources will make sure that their children will receive a good education in someway shape or form either sending their child to the schools in the city that performs above average, or sending them to a private school. Those who don’t that have to rely upon public resources are subjected to chance depending on where they live. Not everyone has the good fortune of living in a district where their local public schools are of high quality. With students being separated in this way, it makes sense that this kind of educational inequality affected by income inequality would perpetuate itself. With inequality in the United States rising, the number of people who are falling into the ranks of the “have-nots” will only swell compounding the issue for many more people. If nothing is done to address this issue, in due time it may happen that the number of 130 million Americans who have low levels of literacy may swell and represent upwards of 60 to 70 percent of the country.
Bringing the subject back to literacy, low literacy levels have a great impact upon the lives of individuals. In terms of the students, when reading difficulties persist well into middle school and on to high school, reading morphs from a vital skill into a source of shame and frustration. This can lead to disengagement academically which can plague their lives well after their years of schooling. Finding employment can be difficult and the kinds of jobs available offer little in the way of social mobility. This can lead to a cycle of inequality that is perpetuated from generation to generation. Low levels of literacy are also linked to issues with mental health. Basic social interactions and socializing as a whole and basic economic interactions such as buying or ordering food are made all the more difficult. This results in aggregate in chronic health issues from mental health issues like alienation, anxiety, and depression leading to a lower life expectancy.
Just as the problems confronting students snowballs from the early learning years, into middle school and high school, it does not stop there. In this light, teaching is one of the most important professions in society. It should be an imperative for our societies to have great teacher in great numbers at every level of education. Teachers need to be valued as we value medical professionals and lawyers and their salaries should reflect this. Schools also need the resources to be able to support a healthy number of teachers with manageable classroom sizes. This brings the issues that students and teachers face out to a higher level of management. In future articles I will examine the issues facing school administrators and how their work contributes to the overall ecosystem of education.