Literacy Crisis in American Workforce Readiness

A study from a blue ribbon panel calling for sweeping changes in adult literacy and basic education programs "deserves urgent attention from Congress and the new administration," said David C. Harvey, president and CEO of ProLiteracy, the nation's largest adult literacy organization.

"We applaud this critically important study at a time when the U.S. economy is hurting, a debate is raging about the role of immigrants in the U.S. workforce, and unemployment is on the rise," Harvey said. "With 30 million adults in immediate need of literacy and adult basic education, the U.S. is at risk of becoming a second-rate economy."

The report, Reach Higher, America: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce, is the result of two years of study by the National Commission on Adult Literacy, an independent panel of leaders from labor, business, government, education, literacy, and philanthropy. The report recommends new legislation to provide reading, writing, math, and English language instruction to people who are unemployed, low-skilled workers, immigrants, and high school dropouts. It recommends that Congress commit $20 billion by the year 2020.

"ProLiteracy urges that any such legislative reform address the needs of adults across the continuum of adult literacy and basic education -- from the very newest readers to those who are struggling to earn a GED or ready to transition to a community college or vocational program," Harvey said.

The most recent survey of adult literacy skills in the United States indicated that 30 million people over age 16 have difficulty with daily tasks such as reading directions on a medicine bottle or understanding the main facts in a short newspaper article. The effects of low literacy ripple throughout the U.S. economy and impact health care costs, children's literacy, and crime.

"Many adults who are most in need of literacy and basic education services are outside the workforce, but they need to read to make good health and financial decisions, too," Harvey said. "ProLiteracy will work to make sure there is support for adult literacy and basic education programs that serve every adult who needs them."

Reaction from David C. Harvey, President/CEO, ProLiteracy Worldwide to Reach Higher, America: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce, the report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy:

"It's about time the issue of adult low literacy and its crippling affect on all aspects of life in the U.S. is getting the attention it deserves. Recommending change is one thing, however, and implementing change is another. The real test of this country's commitment to a crisis not just in our workforce, but in our communities, and in families as well will be what happens in the follow-up -- drafting legislation and then stewarding that proposed bill through Congress and the appropriations process. ProLiteracy will do everything it can to support implementing change."

"There's a great deal in this report for ProLiteracy to support -- more money for programs, more adult learners getting instruction, Pell grants so adult learners can move on to college, incentives to businesses that help incumbent workers get basic instruction. ProLiteracy is ready and willing to do what it can to help make these things happen; however, there are some recommendations that need some additional thought and more discussion so that we don't lose the good work and lessons learned by the existing network of people and programs who have been working with adult learners for years. For example:

-- The Commission calls for a "redefining" of the fundamentals of adult education and setting standards for teachers -- who will be involved in creating the language and standards for these? ProLiteracy supports representation from all types and sizes of adult education and literacy service providers, not just those programs receiving state and federal funds.

-- Will focusing on the needs of the unemployed and measurements based on numbers of GEDs earned, adult learners admitted to college, or jobs obtained make it more difficult for those outside the workforce to get instruction; the grandfather who wants to learn to read a bedtime story to his grandchild, for example, or the elderly woman who wants to make an informed decision in the voting booth? ProLiteracy considers reading, writing, and math skills to be basic human rights and necessities for success in today's world.

"ProLiteracy offers to assist those continuing the Commission's work to ensure that a new adult education system meets the needs of adult learners at all levels -- from those not yet ready to prepare for a GED to those transitioning into college -- and that there be fair and equitable access to resources for the many different programs that serve them."

"ProLiteracy certainly supports the Commission's recommendations that call for expanding services so more students can be served -- as long as programs can be supported with the financial resources and qualified instructors they'll need to meet new demand.""

"We support the use of Pell Grants to support adult learners' efforts to further their education and earn the postsecondary degrees that are critical to getting jobs in today's environment that pay a living wage."

"ProLiteracy supports the Commission's recommendations that incentives be given employers who provide basics skills training for incumbent workers. Our network of local literacy providers are ready, willing, and able to work with employers in their communities to help workers gain the skills they need to do the jobs they have today and to prepare for the jobs that will need to be filled tomorrow, but we often find that we can't engage the employers in such programs. It is our hope that tax credits, using unemployment insurance tax money to fund employer-based programs, and matching grants to groups of employers with similar needs will encourage business and industry to partner with adult literacy programs for everyone's benefit."

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