High Price for Low Literacy

Jason White, 35, dropped out of school in the 11th grade. He grew up in Louisiana and has worked all over the country as a construction worker.

At restaurants, he would say, “I’ll have the same thing my friend is having,” because he couldn’t understand words on menus. He’d ask for directions based on landmarks because he couldn’t read street signs. After work, he’d spend hours with a dictionary preparing for a routine visit to the permit office.

Marilyn Block is helping Jason White learn to read. “My education has really hurt my work, as far as advancement,” White said. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

“I would look up, or write down every word I think I would need to spell,” White says. “If I was changing a support beam, we would write ‘support beam,’ ‘change,’ ‘existing’ — all the words you think you would need so you don’t get in a spot. Because if everybody’s adults, and you’re the only guy that can’t spell, how do you ask for help? You don’t let nobody know.”

For many years White didn’t tell anyone, including his wife. But his lack of education has finally caught up with him.

He needs to get his contractor’s license to advance in his career.

“It’s like being a very good fireman, but you’re not really a fireman,” White says. I’m very handy, but I’m technically not a contractor until I pass that exam.”

In a sense, White is far luckier than most dropouts, who are more than twice as likely as high school graduates to be unemployed.

High price for low literacy

For most high school dropouts who do get hired, employment often means low-end jobs — part-time or seasonal — and in tough times, they’re usually the first ones laid off, says Stephen Fuller, an economist with George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He says the whole economy suffers when so many adults have limited skills.

You train a worker, they for to work, earn money, spend their money, support other jobs, they pay taxes. So the return on investment if done right is extremely high and it surprises me that we haven’t take control of this.

— Stephen Fuller

“You train a worker and they go to work, earn money, they spend their money, support other jobs, they pay their taxes. So the return on investment, if done right, is extremely high, and it surprises me that we haven’t taken control of this,” Fuller says.

Many advocates say education looks expensive until you look at the costs of a lack of education. Several states, including Texas, Nevada and Arkansas, have quantified the return on investment, looking at how much less they spend on unemployment checks, food stamps and subsidized housing when adults are better educated. Fuller says this makes sense.

“If we fail, it’s a double expense, because the economy isn’t healthy, and we have increased social services. We just think that we are accomplishing the purposes with good K-12 programs or good colleges. That misses a very large segment of the population.”

Fuller says adult education and training programs are going to be even more important in the future as the nation faces a predicted shortage of workers.

“It’s not a social purpose behind this effort to bring these workers into the workforce more fully and effectively,” he says. “It pays, and it will benefit all of us if we use our workforce.”

Education reduces crime

Adults who are poorly educated or lacking job skills are also far more likely to end up behind bars. Stephen Steurer heads the Correctional Education Association, an advocacy group for educators in jails and prisons.

“We find that half of the people that come to prison didn’t finish high school,” he says.

The latest research from the U.S. Department of Education shows that, on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not. Each year approximately 700,000 individuals leave federal and state prisons; about half of them will be re-incarcerated within three years.

“It’s not a hard sell to convince congressmen — whether Republican or Democrat — that education reduces crime,” Steurer says. “But who wants to make the choice — are we going to build another grade school or another prison school?”

Literacy improves health

Some adult educators say improving adult literacy rates would not only make for a safer and more prosperous country, but also a healthier one.

Dr. Karen Mazie shows Eulalia Flora and her daughter Jennifer that good health and early learning go hand-in-hand. (Photo by Jim Graham)

Alis Marachelian runs the health education program at Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C. The clinic serves approximately 25,000 patients each year, and Marachelian says the barrier between caregivers and patients who can’t read, write or speak is a “huge problem, every day.”

“We use illustrations for medicines, we would draw the sun and the moon (so patients will know) when to take the medicine,” Marachelian says. “Sometimes we help them put it in a pillbox because they can’t count either.”

For some common conditions such as diabetes, the least compliant patients are the ones with low literacy.

It’s not that they’re resisting medication; they just don’t know how to measure the amount of insulin or understand the potentially fatal consequences of a wrong dose.

Leslie Kronz encounters stories like these every day. She works at Inova Health System, one of the largest medical providers in Northern Virginia, and says all these challenges have a price tag.

“We talk about health care costs in this country, and when people come into the system, if they’re not diagnosed accurately, if they don’t follow what they’re asked to do or readmitted because of lack of understanding, all of that adds costs to the system,” Kronz says. “It’s not simply the patient’s problem, not simply the hospital’s problem. It affects every one of us.”

Some researchers have estimated the cost of low health literacy is at least $100 billion a year. Often, Marachelian says, the cost of a parent’s low literacy is borne by children.

“For example, giving cough syrup — measuring how much,” says Marachelian. “They might be overdosing their children, and it’s absolutely unintentional. Or for asthma, some of these inhalers have the same color, so confusing the ones that are short acting or long acting is a problem.”

Marachelian says when children don’t get better, doctors may increase the dosage of a drug or change the medication, thinking it’s not working. As a result, there are more emergency room visits, and absences from school and work. With a chronic condition, this could mean the child falls behind academically or the parent gets fired.

Learning together

Children are one of the most common reasons adults go back to school; they want to help their sons and daughters with schoolwork.

At Literacy Partners, a nonprofit in New York City, immigrant mothers sit around and remember what prompted them to join the program. Salina Begun from Bangladesh was motivated by a confusing conversation with her physician.

“One day doctor said, ‘Today, your appointment is cancelled.’ And I heard ‘cancer.’ I scared, and I am crying, and my husband said, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I said, ‘You know, I have cancer.’ And he said, ‘No, they said your appointment is cancelled.’ Then I feel ‘Oh my God, I need to know English!’”

Everyone laughs, but they all have their own stories, and at this family literacy program, those stories usually involve children.

“My kids, they didn’t want to pay attention when I didn’t know English,” she says.

Nube Guaman is from Ecuador. She and her 17-year-old daughter Vilma talk about her early education.

If she would attend the parent-teacher conference, she would just nod her head and leave.

— Vilma Guaman

“If she would attend the parent-teacher conference, she would just nod her head and leave,” says Vilma.

“I was afraid I didn’t go,” Guaman says. “Really, I didn’t go.” Vilma’s parents constantly talked about the value of education. But her father works long hours at a restaurant, and her mother didn’t speak English. So a lot of the burden fell on Vilma.

“I would translate my newsletters,” Vilma says. “I would attend my little brother’s and my littler sister’s parent-teacher conference. And sometimes it was like, ‘I’m tired.’”

Seven years ago, Vilma and her mom joined this family literacy class, where they worked on reading skills separately and together. Vilma says seeing her mother study so hard motivated her.

“She still has dreams for being a nurse because she was a nurse in Ecuador,” Vilma says. “So it’s like a race in my house, ‘who’s the smartest? Who’s the best?’’

As someone who was once scared to even enter her children’s schools, Guaman eventually found the courage and confidence to join her Parent Teacher Association.

“Some parents, they decide me to be parent representative in the class. I feel very, very proud of me.”

Salina Begun says she wishes she had joined the program earlier so she would have known how to help her older daughter apply to schools.

“There is lots of things when I don’t know then I don’t do it for my children,” she says. “Now my son goes to the gifted program. Before I don’t know, that’s why I don’t send my daughter (to the gifted program), because I don’t understand English. They send me paper, but I don’t know what to do.”

Research shows parental involvement improves a child’s academic performance, resulting in higher test scores, better attendance and improved graduation rates. Anthony Tassi, who runs Literacy Partners, says educating adults has a multiplier effect.

“The numbers are quite shocking,” he says. “But by focusing on parents, you can at once help cure the problem today and also prevent it long-term. Because as you enhance parents’ skills they will automatically transfer those skills to their children; you don’t need to do anything extra.”

Challenges for immigrants

Heide Wrigley, a researcher with LiteracyWork International in Las Cruces, N.M., is often asked ‘why can’t immigrants just learn English?’ And she says she has to remind people how difficult it is to learn another language and how long it takes.

Sally Choi (South Korea), Hyunok Hong (South Korea), Carol Dymond (England), and Ludmilla Rosenfeld (Russia) practice conversational English at the Literacy Council of Montgomery County, Md. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

“It doesn’t just require that you learn the grammar and the pronunciation,” she explains. “You need thousands of words. And you have to build what we call ‘communication competence’ that allows you to know not just what to say, but to whom and when. And what not to say.”

“I tell them it’s ok for me to say ‘I’m fat’ but it’s not ok for them to say ‘Carol you’re fat.’ And a lot of these things they’re not aware of, until I point it out,” says Carol Dymond who teaches a conversation class” at The Literacy Council of Montgomery County in Maryland.

Like most programs across the country, there’s a long waiting list at this center. Heide Wrigley says classes that help immigrants learn English can strengthen communities.

“It’s really a way to support social cohesion within a community,” she says. “And to feel like you’re part of that fabric of a U.S. community because you can talk about ideas not just with your own group at home, but with the wider English-speaking community.”

The human cost of low literacy

What happens when we fail to achieve these goals, not just with newcomers to the U.S., but for all people struggling on the margins? Perhaps the biggest cost is one that can’t be measured. It’s the invisible cost of what-might-have-been.

Milton Whitley knows a lot about that. He grew up in North Carolina, and his bad experiences with school started early.

Milton Whitley holds up his autobiography “Learning to Read at Age 52.” He said, “School gives me strength. Reading more, learning more gives me strength. I want more, more, more.”(Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

“When I’m in the first grade I had a teacher named Ms. Randolph,” he says. “She used to spank me because I didn’t know how to read. It sort of put fear in me. I believed that I were unteachable. And that hurts when you believe something about yourself like that.”

Whitley dropped out of school, worked as a bricklayer, got married. All the while he managed to hide his illiteracy. He would go to the store and ask strangers for help. Or pick items based on the colors and pictures.

“I used to stay in a store so long and really might be picking four items. I didn’t know which milk was which — low fat, whole milk, skim milk, goat milk, I just didn’t know,” hes says. So, when I found out about them tops, the red tops for whole milk, the blue top for the low fat, the green top for-you know.”

Whitley spent a lot of his time sad and angry.

“I didn’t believe nothing because I couldn’t read it, you know,” Whitley says. “I couldn’t do the stuff that I see people do like filling out a puzzle, I’d love to do that, I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to read a newspaper, you know small stuff.”

He used drugs, spent time in jail, moved to a homeless shelter. Then one day he went to the dentist, and asked the receptionist for help filling out the forms. He asked several times, but kept getting denied. Finally, he ended up checking all of the boxes on the form, including the one that asked if he was pregnant.

The receptionist asked, “you pregnant?” and everyone laughed.

That was a turning point. At 52, Whitley found a tutor at the Literacy Council of Montgomery County and started learning to read.

“There’s two sides of this world,” he says. “Like some have, and some don’t have; some educated and some not.”

It’s been a slow, hard slog, but now Whitley can read his medicine labels, he can write out checks and he can keep up with the latest news on his beloved football team.

“I love the Redskins so much,” he says. “I know all those terminologies, like: offense, quarterbacks. So when I get the paper, I don’t have to skip no words. I can just read it all the way through.”

He recently accomplished what once seemed impossible, he wrote and published his autobiography.

“I know I’m liberated now because I can read,” he says. “I can write. When you can do things on your own like that you more free. It’s beautiful. People are beautiful. And I’m not just happy. I’m happy, happy, happy, happy!”

That happiness is Whitley’s hard-earned prize after years of heartache— a victory for the man who vividly remembers those spankings he received from his teacher.

Looking at Whitley’s life, it’s easy to see what his inability to read has cost him. It’s also easy to see why he and other students who struggle in the classroom, day after day and year after year eventually give up and drop out of school.

What they can’t always see is that the path after that is hard — a lifetime of dreams that lie just out of reach. It means a business not started, a song unwritten, a bedtime story never read.

Even those who go back to school often struggle to earn a diploma and a steady job. But for many of yesterday’s dropouts, there’s something else at stake as well: a chance to emerge from the shadows and finally be seen.

‹ Previous
From Class to Career