Second Opinion: Texas literacy a glass half-full

2nd opinion

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Paul Stripling, interim executive director of missions for the Waco Regional Baptist Network, knows firsthand the anxiety associated with not being able to read. When his parents moved the family during his elementary years, he fell behind in reading. He remembers that embarrassment. Sue Bennett, a teacher in Gladewater, offered to tutor him. Her efforts yielded success and thank-you notes from Paul upon high school and subsequent graduations. The world is a better place because of Sue Bennett and Paul Stripling.

Your own participation in this conversation—otherwise known as reading—is no accident. Your ability to read marks the intersection of your learning and someone’s teaching (likely more than one). Not everyone in Texas is so fortunate. In the Lone Star State, more than 3.2 million adults 25 and older lack a high school diploma; another 6 million people have marginal skills in spoken English. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Texas ranks 47th in literacy. But the glass is half full—really.

Nationally, 45 percent of the adult population, or 93 million people, have limited reading, writing and math skills. Thirty million of these have below-basic skills; 11 million of these do not speak English. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, literacy levels in our country did not significantly improve between 1992 and 2003. Strains on funding of adult education and an increase in immigrant populations with no corresponding increase in services are just two reasons for a continued demise in literacy.

Illiteracy a problem for all 

Lack of literacy skills is a problem not just for the people who can’t read or read well. Their struggles affect their families, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Lack of literacy skills limits employment opportunities, influences politics and threatens health. Consider the plight of people who cannot read medicine labels or use a computer to complete a job application. Recognize the greatest predictor of the educational capacity of the next generation is the literacy of parents of school-age children.

Just thinking about literacy statistics is heavy. Can’t something be done? Don’t we have an adult education system?

In Texas, we spend less than $7 million annually on adult education. This figure sounds like a lot unless you compare it with what we spend just advertising the lottery at $23 million-plus. California spends more than $640 million on adult education. In Florida, the number is $294 million. And in New York, $66 million. Embarrassing isn’t it? And for this investment—the lowest as compared with other states—we help just over 102,000 adult students annually. Depressing, eh?

According to the 2000 census, 75 percent of adults in Texas age 25 and older have a high school diploma. Of course, this means one in four adults in Texas does not have a high school diploma. Not everyone who has not completed high school lacks literacy skills. But not everyone who has a diploma is up to the rigors of today’s techno-print society, either.

Giving back 

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I am tutoring a high school graduate who sought help with reading and writing. He is one of those among us who would not feel comfortable reading aloud in public or writing a paragraph describing a workplace accident. A general correspondence exists between the number of people in a given geography without high school diplomas and the number of people in that area in need of literacy help. These are not necessarily the same people, but approximately the same number of people.

Changing the literacy landscape in our state is a complex equation. Increasing the amount of money spent on adult education is an important variable in that equation. Literacy Texas is working with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission to encourage our legislators to significantly increase funding in adult education in Texas. But even if we began to spend more on adult education than on advertising the lottery, we probably still would serve just a fraction of the need—less than 10 percent.

Back to the water glass. Just over 23 percent of adults 25 and older in Texas have a college diploma—roughly the same percentage as those without a high school diploma. The glass, then, may be seen as half full. We can define the literacy problem in terms of need or in terms of assets. I choose the latter.

Local congregations can fuel the change. In the 1800s, Sunday school was begun in England—not to teach the Bible initially, but to teach street children who worked during the week how to read and write. There are many ways local congregations can impact their communities in literacy and education.

Almost a century ago, Frank Laubach launched the volunteer literacy movement with the slogan, “Each one, teach one.” Just imagine the impact in our state if each one with a college degree gave back the gift of literacy—just one time. Children need books. Youth need mentors. Adults need classes in English as a second language. Many in all categories need one-to-one tutoring. You, too, can make a difference.

The future of Texas depends on it.


Lester Meriwether directs Literacy ConneXus and recently was elected president of Literacy Texas, the state literacy coalition. He is a member of Western Hills Baptist Church in Fort Worth.


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