| August 29, 2012

Preventable illiteracy crisis is costing us dearly

Not only are too many Oklahomans unprepared for college or careers, thousands have an even more serious problem. As Kyle Fredrickson reports in The Oklahoman, there are roughly 130,000 functionally illiterate adults in Oklahoma City and some 400,000 statewide.

These are men and women “who struggle with elementary level reading and writing, able to secure low-paying jobs at best, doing just enough to get by. It would be a group relying heavily on government assistance, prone to health issues and incarceration.”

Sadly, this problem isn’t new. And as I wrote nine years ago in The Oklahoman, news reports of our illiteracy crisis almost always ignore the elephant in the living room.

Surely I’m not the only one who wonders, “How did we end up with 421,000 illiterates in this state? I thought schools were supposed to teach people to read.”

“The full truth can't be told,” Joseph Sobran once remarked, “if some subjects have to be danced around like Uncle Harry’s drinking problem.” Let's be honest: Our illiterates have been to school, for crying out loud. Oklahoma doesn't have a mere 100 literacy programs, as one source indicated. We have more than 1,800 of them. They’re called schools, and taxpayers pour billions of hard-earned dollars into them.

Let us review: (a) Oklahoma has a compulsory attendance law which mandates school attendance from ages 5 to 18; (b) 95 percent of Oklahoma students attend a public school … and yet (c) 1,127,482 Oklahomans—nearly half the adult population—are barely literate at best, with a literacy repertoire ranging from practically nonexistent to “quite limited”!

Isn’t it about time someone confronted poor Uncle Harry? I mean, this is getting a little out of hand.

This human tragedy is preventable. I’ll never forget the Tulsa teacher who told me that “in my 30-some years of teaching, I have not met a child who couldn't read” when taught properly. Moreover, it’s costing us dearly. As a 2009 report from McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, said of America’s achievement gap: Our “underutilization of human potential” imposes “the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession."

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