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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rotary meeting on literacy

With several others, I spoke today at a Rotary District 5450 conference about literacy.

There are a few bits of data worth reporting.

According to the 2008 Report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy:

* the US is now the only 1st world country whose current generation (adults coming of age) is less well educated than the previous generation. (Please read this again. Out loud.)

* 1 in 3 young adults drop out of high school.

* low literacy is correlated with family poverty.

* low literacy is correlated with imprisonment: 56% of current inmates are illiterate (I bet that's low).

* 20 million Americans (about 10% of the total) scored "below basic" in literacy skills. I bet it's twice that.

Also: there is a 90% probability that if a child reads poorly in 1st grade (meaning mainly that the child does not recognize letters), he or she will still read poorly in 4th grade, when children become fluent -- or don't.

* 3rd grade reading scores are the best predictors of the prison population (Iafolla, 2003, "School to prison pipeline").

I won't recapitulate everything I heard and said, but I've been left with this thought: if Rotary really wants to make a difference in literacy, it won't be by launching a host of new initiatives, however innovative. The single most powerful thing it can do is to advocate for strong school and public libraries.

Here's the irony: right here in Colorado, the Library Research Service first proved that strong school libraries are the single best predictors of academic performance. (Start here.)

The LRS also found that the average age of the school library book (copyright date) is 15 years. That would be 1993. Good thing nothing has happened since then, eh?

On the public library side, we have Return on Investment studies, studies that show our value in growing and maintaining literacy skills. (See LRS again.)

Nonetheless, in 2006, the average per capita expenditures for libraries was less than $30 per year. (Source.) But the annual cost of incarceration ranges from $14,000 in Oklahoma in 2006, to over $44,000 in Connecticut. The Denver Post said 2005 stats pegged the average at about $23,000.

You see where I'm going? Supporting your local library is many, many times cheaper than warehousing human beings.

I think it really is time for a general awakening in America that we've actually worked out solutions to some pressing problems. But we don't apply them -- we don't fund the answers we know will do the job.

Problem: illiteracy. Answer: libraries. Is this really so hard to grasp?

1 comment:

Rachel Knight said...

I wish that this was shocking to me! In any case, these statistics are worse than I would have guessed. I hope that more people will pick up on the common sense you're displaying and work out some practical solutions.