Illiteracy in America

June 24, 1983

Report Outline
Its Extent and Consequence
Search for Causes, Remedies
Remedial Efforts Under Way
Special Focus

Its Extent and Consequence

New Round of Scorn for Public Schools

Each year 850,000 students drop out of school. Most of them cannot read well enough to follow TV dinner instructions; they are too weak in math to compute sales tax. Thousands more who do manage to graduate are no better off; their diplomas mock the system. Together they swell the ranks of an almost invisible underclass of functional illiterates — as many as 23 million Americans, according to one estimate “Not only are most people unaware of the [illiteracy] problem, but those who are illiterate understandably try to hide it,” observed Rep. Paul Simon, D-Ill., who conducted congressional hearings on illiteracy last fall.

Prospects for reducing the number of students who fall through the educational cracks are not immediately promising. The National Commission on Excellence in Education recently concluded that the education of all children is so deplorable that the “nation is at risk.” “The educational foundations of our society are … being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity,” the commission reported. One indication of this erosion is the incidence of illiteracy among 17-year-olds, estimated at 13 percent.

The problem appears even worse among adults. Another study determined that one of every five American adults, some 23 million, flunk “the simplest tests of reading, writing and comprehension.” They cannot respond to a help-wanted ad, read directions on a medicine bottle, write a check or make change. That was the conclusion of the Adult Performance Level study, released in 1975 by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. The study, based on a nationwide survey of 7,500 individuals, remains the most frequently cited study of illiteracy. According to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, there is no reason to believe the number of illiterates has diminished.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
May 19, 1995  Learning to Read
Jun. 24, 1983  Illiteracy in America
May 01, 1963  Illiteracy in the United States
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