Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why literacy matters

As a member of my local School Board, I was appalled to learn that 40% of the students in our little northern New England school read below grade level. So I looked on line to see how we compared to other schools around the country. It appears that we’re above average in this dismal statistic.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center reports that nationally 34% of fourth grade students fall below basic reading level and 27% of eighth graders.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scale has measured the knowledge and skills demonstrated by fourth and eighth grade students since 1992. Their 2007 results show that both grade levels have shown only slight improvement during that period. Fourth graders’ average national score has stagnated between 213 and 221 on a scale of 0-500 where 208 is basic proficiency, 238 is proficient and 268 is advanced. Eighth graders' average national score has ranged from 260 to 264. We’re just treading water with our children’s education.

A 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study found the following discouraging statistics:

Our young people are reading less
Teens and young adults read less often and for shorter amounts of time compared with other age groups and with Americans of previous years. Less than 1/3 of thirteen-year-olds are daily readers — a 14% decline from twenty years earlier. The percentage of non-readers among seventeen-year-olds doubled over a 20-year period — from 9% in 1984 to 19% in 2004.

Our young people are reading less well
Reading scores continue to drop among teenagers and young males.
Reading scores for twelfth-grade readers fell significantly from 1992 to 2005, with the sharpest declines among lower-level readers. Reading scores for male twelfth-graders are 13 points lower than for females, and that gender gap has widened since 1992.

Adult reading scores for almost all education levels have deteriorated
From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in reading dropped by 10 points — a 20% decline.

The NEA study also found that American fifteen-year-olds ranked fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 industrialized nations behind Poland, Korea, France, Canada and others.

The decline in reading ability and habit has huge implications for the future of the United States. Young Americans with poor reading skills have lower levels of academic achievement and do less well in the job market. They suffer a lack of employment, lower wages and fewer opportunities for advancement. They weaken our ability to compete in a world economy.

In addition, new technologies are changing what it takes to be literate. Just as 25 years ago, we had no idea about what changes the Internet would bring to society, we don't know what skills will be needed 25 years from now.

But the real danger that this growing semi-literate class of Americans poses is that they can’t fulfill their democratic responsibilities. Being a responsible citizen of a healthy democracy demands reading and problem solving. Twenty-first Century political, technological and social issues require the ability to cope with complexities.

Semi-literate citizens can’t understand the implications of international trade agreements, the need for regulating investment banking or subtle changes to the Constitution.

Semi-literate voters can’t differentiate between lies and truth. They’re susceptible to simplistic explanations and clich├ęs — confused by ambiguity and nuance. They leave our democracy vulnerable to being split into insular, antagonistic factions.

I’ve spent 45 years in marketing and advertising. Political marketers are very skilled at what they do — far more so than most Americans realize.

They know how to create sophisticated political campaigns that use highly manipulated images to “brand” their candidates. They’re experts at substituting reassuring slogans and dramatic personal narratives for real ideas and policy. And they know from years of experience how to gather and use demographic data to precisely target their message. They are master propagandists.

Today’s political campaigns are carefully constructed to eliminate the need for literacy. They’re designed to engender strong feelings of euphoria, empowerment and collective thinking.

They’re based on style and emotion, not content or reality. They’re fine-tuned machines that subliminally alter public mood, emotions and impulses. Their goal is to manipulate the semi-literate into a state of mindless loyalty.

These political campaigns work because an uninformed electorate will blindly cast its ballots for catchy slogans, scripted narratives and contrived sincerity. They depend on public ignorance.

Political leaders in a semi-literate society don’t need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear so. They merely require a narrative, which may be completely at odds with reality. And they don’t want to dilute that narrative with truth.

The consistency and emotional appeal of the narrative is what counts. The ability to repeat it again and again and to have the media repeat it in endless news cycles turns it into truth.

The foundations of democracy— the ability to think rationally and draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when common sense indicates something is wrong, to separate truth from lies, and to appreciate other points of views— are all based on literacy.

We must insist that our young people be proficient at reading and acquiring knowledge. We must equip them to cope with propaganda. We must help them acquire the inquisitive and critical minds that will serve them in circumstances we can’t predict. We must give them true literacy.

Our recent experience with an Administration that tricked us into unprovoked wars, dismantled key parts of the Constitution and raided the national treasury for the benefit of it’s cronies should be a wake up call. The all-powerful United States of America was taken for a ride by a group of greedy political extremists. The next time we might not wake up until too late.

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