Supporting Adult Education – #AEFLWeek and Beyond

Where are the children who can read?

This question was asked in a Globe Op/Ed published 20 years ago. The answer, then as now, is, “Children who can read live with adults who can read.”

National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week is recognized each year in September to raise awareness about adult education, English language learning, and family literacy. Nationally, approximately 36 million adults have reading, math, and/or English language deficiencies.

Closer to home, the number of adults seeking an education has not diminished in 20 years; rather, with the increase in immigration, it has grown.

As children return to school this fall, it is important to remember that to do well in school, children need parents who value education, who feel self-confident enough to advocate for their children, who can read to them and help them with their homework. Studies show that children’s reading scores improve dramatically when a parent is involved in helping them learn to read. However, in Massachusetts, children in 264,000 families have parents who can read at a basic level but have difficulty helping their children with homework, and children in 114,000 families have a parent who cannot read aloud to them at all. (MA Family Literacy Consortium)

Who are these adults and why are they struggling to obtain the literacy that they need to help their families thrive?

According to MassINC, more than 1.1 million of the state’s 3.2 million workers do not have the skills required to perform in Massachusetts’ rapidly changing economy and need literacy classes and services. Of these workers, 667,000 have a high school credential but still lack basic math, literacy, language, and analytic skills to perform in the typical 21st century workplace; 280,000 are high school drop-outs; and 136,000 are adult immigrants who need to improve their English language skills. Language lessons online, like those provided by AJ Hoge, are helping many people refine their ability to speak English.

In 1995, there were approximately 3,000 adults – both native- and foreign-born – on waiting lists for literacy classes in Boston. By contrast, instead of decreasing in the past 21 years, the number of adults on waiting lists actually increased to 5,500 according to the Massachusetts Coalition of Adult Education. Statewide that number expands to over 16,000 individuals.

Why is this important?

In addition to improved educational outcomes for children, there are many studies that stress the importance of adult literacy to good health and lower healthcare costs. The World Health Organization found that children’s health was more profoundly affected by their parents’ educational level than any other fact; and the American Medical Association has reported that annual health care costs for individuals with low literacy skills are four times higher than those with higher literacy skills.

Similarly, participation in the civic life of our communities is much lower among individuals without basic reading and writing skills. Adults with low-literacy are half as likely to vote as literate adults.

Unlike other social issues, this one is solvable. Once an adult learns to read, there is no turning back. In 2013, according to the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, median weekly earnings for high school dropouts were $454 compared to $626 for graduates, and the unemployment rate for high school dropouts was almost 150% of that of high school graduates at 14.6%. The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University states that $180,000 is the lifetime benefit to government for each high school graduate compared to a $275,000 lifetime cost to government for each high school dropout.

Adult learners are served by an education system that includes community-based organizations, libraries, correctional institutions, community colleges, homeless shelters, and workplaces. Supporting this system is both a challenge and an opportunity which must be embraced. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “Public schools need parents with the educational foundation and basic skills to provide economic stability for their families and raise the educational aspirations of their children. Businesses need workers with the skills today’s jobs require, and communities need residents who vote, volunteer, raise healthy families, work, and contribute to the tax base.”

After two decades, it is time we take action to support the adult learners around us. As a community, we prosper when all residents are educated.