Adult illiteracy

Nearly one in five adult Alameda County residents can’t understand simple, written English, according to a new estimate released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

But the state’s adult English literacy rate is even worse. California ranks 51st — last in the nation, behind the other 49 states and the District of Columbia — with 23 percent of the adult population unable to glean information from brochures, newspapers or other sources of information.

In 1992, it ranked 33rd. The recent study is based on data collected in 2003.

Neil Gonzales, a fellow education reporter who writes for the San Mateo County Times,  wrote this story about the report. He notes the obvious immigration factor:

In general, states with large immigrant populations had the most residents who were unable to read and understand information from such sources as newspapers and brochures or could grasp only short, commonplace language, the study indicates.

Well, at least the test scores of Oakland’s English learners improved this year. A program at one elementary school even brings in parents and teaches them to read. In Oakland Adult & Career Education, “mobile ESL,” an adult education teacher goes to the homes of OUSD parents.

One teacher recently wrote me about Oakland’s adult literacy programs, saying that in some cases, the older students need to learn how to hold a pencil:

Teachers are challenged with teaching what is often elementary school level material to adults who may be as young as 18, but just as often are in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and beyond. 

I’d known that children of non English-speaking immigrants often find themselves placed in the role of interpreter, but I hadn’t fully appreciated the literacy factor on top of that. I wonder what it’s like to have that responsibility at a young age — and to have your parents rely on you for survival.

photo by LindaH from flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nancy

    What access do these students have to social workers and/or other mental health resources do these students have in their schools and/or communities? And, if the student assumes the adult role, then what resources are available for the adults to avoid parent-teacher- student triangualation?

    City of Oakland Measure Q is funded for the next 15 years for community libraries;

    There is funding through the schools for English Language Learners and through Adult Education for the parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles/etc that these students live with; many of these families are multigenerational groups living together who don’t necessarily value education and literacy…many of their students are achieving…

    Without negative or positive attribution: Immigration over the past 17 years in Oakland and other parts of California has impacted illiteracy rates…and…budgeting…

    Achieving literacy is a value that needs to be actively pursued in addition to parenting, working, taking care of other basic life responsibilities…

    The burden of funding literacy and prioritizing all of the necessary resources needs to be determined by the people through voting and legislating…when at a time in California the State is going broke…

    What to do?

  • Nextset

    Nancy, What to do is to shut down all of the CA social service nonsense that supports and engenders 3rd world invasion of CA. The economy is collapsing and the only priority is to maintain law and order and basic commerce (ie food distribution, PG&E, Water & Sewage, etc.). All the spending the liberals have instigated on social services is coming to an end. All Of It.

    Those who can’t make it in CA on their own can leave for Mexico or one of the other states. It’s that simple.

    It’s later than we thought and we can see the collapse coming.

    There will be triage – and that doesn’t include education or social services as priority. Physical Survival of the people and the government are the priority.

    The national government is trying to delay the coming “adjustments” by unlimited printing press money. That was done in the Weimar Republic. We saw how that ended. This will end the same. And Soon.

  • Sharon

    Having worked with OUSD parents for seven years, this does not surprise me. I know that many parents don’t, and probably can’t, read the school newsletters, OUSD parent guides, principal’s letters, and other types of written communication from the district and from their child’s school. The limitation is obvious for some of the non-English speaking families, but is present in some of the non-standard English speaking families as well. Many parents strain to fill out simple forms.

    Since school-to-home communication is restricted to being mostly verbal, it would take having a tiny class size for teachers to compensate for this barrier by regularly contacting parents by phone. The illiteracy of parents is just one more obstacle that prevents them from making a deeper connection with their child’s school.

    The challenges to the mission of OUSD are immense, and outsiders don’t comprehend them at all.

  • Nextset

    Sharon: Why is the present situation any different than early 20th Century America where the East Coast Public Schools absorbed European Immigrants and their children by the boatload? There was a language barrier then also.

    Could there be an issue now of immigrants refusing to assimilate – not making English a priority? Or maybe that’s not really now than then.

    In any event, immigrants exist to serve this country, not the other way around. Balkanizing the USA by catering to and preserving Ethnic enclaves is a road to ruin for both sides.

    When it’s sink or swim time, people take swimming lessons. I believe that the immigrants tend to do pretty well all things considered. It’s the home grown underclass that have the real problems. They speak English – at least nominally. What are we doing to get the underclass to move up in society? Teach them the rules of society? I wish the schools did that. Our schools have value free education.

  • John

    Sharon says: “The challenges to the mission of OUSD are immense, and outsiders don’t comprehend them at all.”

    That’s why literate, capable, financially able OUSD insiders & their children need to become OUSD outsiders ASAP!

    Bon voyage

  • Judy

    John: My daughter reaffirmed our decision to leave OUSD and start again on a mortgage payment, when she said that “…she is learning more at her new school.” Whereas she received a slight math curriculum at her past 1st grade hills class, she spends MUCH more time doing math (at a significantly higher level) AND writing, spelling, science, reading, PE, and computers in her new class. I will admit that she receives less art than she received in Oakland, which had seemed to occupy a great deal of her time. This is fine with me, since her after-school care provides her with these enrichment opportunities. I want her to be challenged in school and not just baby-sat.

    Sharon: I am now an outsider and feel that I throughly understand the challenges of OUSD, having followed it for the past 15 years as a resident. I voted for all school bonds, until the past one. I will tell you that parents in many school districts would not tolerate the lack of leadership of OUSD. As long as this is tolerated there will be no change. Don’t even get me started on the school board!

  • Sharon

    Nextset: Those were the days when children attended schools that weren’t forced to declare they had a “college-going culture” and dropouts could get a blue-collar job that would support a family.

    What schools are popularly expected to accomplish these days (supposedly preparing every single student for college) is totally disconnected from what it would actually cost for them to do. If they truly wanted the things they say, they would have to be willing to pay, at least, for inner-city class sizes of 8:1. I doubt that will ever happen.

    The extremely unrealistic expectations are effectively distracting people, and are probably also a ruse for something else.

    By the way, I want to recommend a book to you, “The Way We Were: The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement” by Rothstein. In the section about earlier immigrant groups, he explains that what is expected now is unprecedented. “Americans have never successfully educated the first or even second generation of children from peasant or unskilled immigrant families,…” He details why there weren’t any golden, good old days of education.

    As for the underclass, my heart goes out to Poissant and Cosby who are passionately trying to do their best. Maybe some inspired leaders will emerge.

  • Nextset

    Sharon: I am surrounded by immigrants – especially Asian immigrants (and I’m not talking about Japanese). Indians who lived on dirt floors as children – Vietnamese who were infants in relocation camps – and Mexican Indians who had nothing – Africans (and not the white ones) who lived in a barbarian culture — all who I have seen come into the USA as infants or children and wind up in the professions. Some of these people are in-laws, some of them were law clerks who became lawyers and associates. And then there are the court reporters and the interpreters. My own primary physician is an East Indian Woman. (and Tracy Ulman’s Padma Parkesh character is close to the mark…)

    And these people, these 1st generation immigrants did it with California public schools – Urban California public schools. Their children are also high performers albeit by the 2nd generation often but not always in private or church schools.

    If they can do it anybody can do it.

    Unrealistic my behind.

    The problem with the black students (and the “Gap”) is largely black culture and being “black”… Sad but True. And our public schools have not the slightest intention of fixing that. Too bad, it should be fixed.

  • Caroline

    I don’t see how it’s realistic to expect public schools to change the culture of a community. I’m not sure what you do for a living, Nextset, but why should teachers (whose job is to teach kids to read and write) be expected to achieve something so far outside their job description — and not you? How about Katy Murphy, for that matter — why teachers and not reporters? Just get out there and change the culture!

    I don’t buy that immigrant families are refusing to assimilate — in fact, I think they are trying harder to assimilate than immigrants of the past. I know a lot of people my age of Italian descent, and they all had grandmas who spent most of their lives here without ever learning English — or even trying to learn English. (They lived in neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Excelsior District, where the business of homemakers was simply done in Italian.)

    By contrast, I have a couple of friends who teach English as a Second Language through community colleges, and Spanish-speaking immigrants (menial workers with little education) flock to their classes. They may struggle in the classes, but they’re trying — and those Italian grandmas in the Excelsior weren’t trying in the slightest. And my kids’ San Francisco public middle school (Aptos, total span 2002-2008) was full of Latino kids whose parents barely spoke English — but the kids were fully bilingual. Of course they’re assimilating.

  • Nextset

    Caroline – of course I never said the immigrant kids aren’t assimilating. The negroes aren’t assimilating and the public schools are no longer getting them to do so.

    And that’s the problem I complain of most here. While immigrants legal or not come to the USA and wind up moving up the social and economic ladder, the home grown blacks are moving down the ladder. The public schools were once here to keep this from happening (1950s for example) and now the public schools are part of the problem.

    The (urban) public schools are where ghetto culture is validated, where ebonics are perpetuated, where victimhood is engrained – the stories go on. Not so prior to the civil rights movement. Our society once used the public schools to iron out the lower class and to enforce middle class mores. They did it openly without a care or concern who didn’t like it or was offended. Now the black ghetto youth have to go spend 2 years at Delancey Street Foundation to learn how to speak, dress, and behave in public – after they get out of prison – if they are lucky enough to be accepted.

    I disagree with you if you think the public schools can’t teach deportment and the english language. They have before and they can again.

  • John

    Some food for thought on illegal Latino immigrant assimilation:


  • Nancy

    I have a problem with broad speculation about diverse groups…there are many in any ethnic group who are, for whatever reason, not “trying” to move up the socio-economic ladder, Can you blame them?…Many are too street smart to be bluffed into “striving” for the American Dream which today is largely based on access to Non-Working Wealth…Does the “ladder” to the American Dream even exist today…white trash are no exception…

    School culture is more important than home culture…however, children reflect the negatives and positives of the environments they are exposed to…Remember, Oakland is the 5th most violent City in the United States…

    There often appears to be like a “civil disobedient” internal feature among Berkeley/ Oaklanders (of any group) for anything that comes up, rather than a pause followed by critical thinking and then followed by quiet but thoughtful action…people around here appear to be so quick to jump someone…smoke their “xxxxx” with negativity etc, etc…and wanna “tag” someone with their own hate and negativity…

    There are good schools engaging in positive change with many diverse communities…Take Osmond-Church School near JFK in NYC for one…


    I don’t think it is fruitful to apply such a broad stroke to all in the statistically low achieving ethnich groups…there are many reasons for success and failure…

  • Nextset

    Nancy: I very much do blame the home grown Americans who don’t learn to speak standard English, read and write the same language. I very much blame native born Americans who fail to learn the basics of their civilization, their history, and the rules of society. I have a real problem with those who grew up in the most advanced society of all who can’t maintain basic sanitation and health – who court addiction out of boredom and ignorance, and who can’t control their reproductive or criminal tendencies. And I don’t care to tolerate those who abuse their children by bringing them up to be trash like themselves.

    I don’t care what color they are. And I don’t believe this society should ever allow such people to call themselves citizens, to vote or serve on juries, or to be treated as fullfledged members of society.

    I have seen enough in my life to know that people can maintain a certain level of civilization especially if they are made to understand – by their schools if not their parents – that terrible and certain punishments await those who go outside certain boundries of decent living (ie Lead Poisoning, Megan’s List, San Quentin, Bad Credit Bureau scores and having your cell phone turned off).

    And we are not trying to transmit this knowledge (or a lot of other common knowledge) to certain people who the government is just too willing to allow to grow up feral. Regardless of who your parents are you should get educated by high school’s end in the common things in this society without having to go to a Delancey Street to learn it. The public schools used to transmit (and enforce) minimum standards, they can again.

    For one thing they can resume using teaching materials that say clearly that certain behavior and values are good and right, and some are bad and wrong. And that those who chose the latter are to be shunned and avoided. This thread is on illiteracy – well the students can read about such things and kill two birds with one stone. The fact that some students have criminal or degenerate parents is no reason for the school to not explain the facts of life to them that their parents don’t. It is never an acceptable excuse for a school district to use the Parent’s failures for the kid’s failure.