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Discouraged and Disjointed


maths (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

While I was on Facebook this morning, I read a short conversation that took place yesterday between two of my closer friends; one from years past and close to my heart, the other newly formed and also close enough to hear my heartbeat.

What struck me as interesting was the subject of their discussion. They talked about poetry. Not just any poetry, but about well-known Sufi poets, both those of many decades or more past, as well as those of more contemporary times.

That subject isn’t one you can find lying around the average library when seeking good reading material. It struck me as relevant, too, that my older friend hasn’t been reading from these poets for very long. He’d discovered them after taking a recommendation from a newer acquaintance. An early morning discussion of Sufi philosophy isn’t usual FB fare, but it happens sometimes between educated people.

I realize that this doesn’t seem significant to the average reader. What makes it significant is that it came on the heels of a report I read this past week on the Illiteracy Reality that was released recently. The numbers on that report would make anyone stand up and protest or sit down in total discouragement.

According to the latest and greatest research, the current number of American adults, classified as functionally illiterate increases by 2.25 million each year.

Stop and think about that for just one second. It equates to having an equivalent population to the city of St. Louis joining the ranks of those who’re reading below a 5th grade level. The number of people who are able to do routine math is even more dismal.

Here’s another factoid for you. When I worked corporate, albeit many years ago for one of the Fortune 500, I was asked to simplify my internal memos. Why? Because, my informant replied, the language structure accepted by upper echelon never exceeds 8th grade reading level. Everyone else, used 5th grade level to communicate.

I was stunned, to say the least. I suppose it comes from jargon needs. Jargon? Oh yeah. Every industry as its own jargon/language. Even fast food joints. This verbal shorthand makes communicating between employees faster, easier, and less likely to confuse the employees.

My question is this: if top level executives at some of the largest corporations in the world need to have internal memos at such a low level of reading competency, can we expect our school children to perform any better?

For long years now, a controversy has been slowly gaining momentum regarding the dumbing down of our school children and our overall population. Here are some numbers that were in this recent report. Once you’ve read them, think about the impact of those numbers on the future. Then go back to the top of this post and think about that conversation between my two friends.

The report cited these numbers:

  • 42 million Americans can’t read at all
  • 50 million read below the 5th grade level
  • 20% of graduating HS seniors are classified as illiterate
  • Only 42% of Americans can order two items on a menu, add them up, and calculate the tip
  • Only 1 in 5 can calculate mortgage interest
  • 1 in 5 can’t calculate weekly salary when given an hourly pay rate
  • Only 13% are “proficient” in math: 1 in 10 women, 1 in 25 Hispanics, 1 in 15 African Americans made the grade
  • 20 million Americans pay someone else to fill out a 1040EZ tax form w/10 blanks to fill in
  • US is ranked 25th in the world of industrialized nations in Math, while US students believe their scores are the highest in the world.
  • One half of all 17 yr. olds don’t have the math skills to work in an auto plant

If these numbers are a mere 50% accurate, we’re worse off than anticipated, dreamt, or feared. I suppose that’s why I had such a strong reaction to reading the FB discussion yesterday. Below, you’ll find the links to find the raw numbers that produced the report I found. Try them on for yourself.

If you come to different conclusions, please bring them here and air them out. I’d like to think that this isn’t true.






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  1. May 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    If you work in education like my wife and I do, you know that the literacy problem is deep and multi-faceted. In New Jersey over 80% of incoming students have at Rutgers have to take remedial education. It’s easy to blame the Pre K-12 component of education for this situation; but the reality is that the national obsession with testing is sort of a one size fits all solution that ignores the reality of many of the social problems, such as poverty, that no one wants to address. The reduction in funding to education, which leads to larger class sizes among other things, doesn’t help.

    • claudsy
      May 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      That’s very true in most places, now, JP. Even the small community colleges are using the Compass test, at the very least, for any enrollee, regardless of age. And you’re right, there are so many factors involved, from learning slyles to presentation formats, and how much sunlight reaches into the classroom.

      It’s big and messy, and there’s no way around it right now.

  2. May 9, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Hi Claudsy,

    I wanted to confirm your statement about simpler language for communications to higher level management in Fortune 500’s. I used to describe it as “primary colors, basic shapes, and grade school words.” At first, I looked down upon that practice until I started rising in such roles myself.

    I found that by asking for information distilled in that matter, I was testing whether or not the individual could articulate the problem statement or finding very simply. If they could, it meant they were seeing the forest despite the trees. It made me trust their recommendations more.

    The 10 commandments, so pivotal to many societies, are simply stated. Yet, I have seen tomes expounding each commandment into a 30 page analysis. It is my belief that fundamentals should be easily understood by all when stripped bare of all personal conjecture.

    On your note on education, I wholeheartedly agree. I find the following videos to be really compelling ones:
    1. Changing Education Paradigms ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U )
    2. Did you know ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TKbIidbyhk&feature=related )


    • claudsy
      May 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm

      I think the problem with language shorthand is that it encourages a lack of overall language understanding, Meena. But it also (I’m referring here to speech and reading habits outside the workplace) creates a laziness toward literacy. It’s one thing to not be offered any kind of learning. It’s another to have the opportunity and a. not take advantage of it because it might be difficult, or b. not be given the very best shot at learning that you can have.

      The problem, I think, doesn’t arrive full-blown overnight. It’s been creeping up for decades and nothing substantial has been done to overhaul the educational structure. Theorists keep rearranging the letters, the math rules, etc. trying to find a solution for the problems they see.

      I watched kids each day struggle with concepts that were simple, while at the same time, grasping those of complexity without a qualm. I had to ask myself Why? How could spacial concepts and interactive relationships be seemingly second nature to a 7 year old, but addition of double digits be impossible. The only thing I could come up with was the fact that today’s kids learn much of the world through video; games, TV, movies.

      Those in my generation had only the occasional movie, very restricted TV usage, and lots of books. I learned through words, through practical problem solving. Everyone I knew learned that way. It’s no longer the same process, or the same learning patterns.

      Teaching older adults by today’s rules doesn’t work. Their brains weren’t originally programmed that way. Kids today have trouble learning without visual components throughout the lesson. That’s how their brains are being wired.

      The problem, as I see it, is that the two major learning modes–visual and rote/hands-on–are in conflict, both behind the teacher’s desks, and in the student’s chairs. And no one seems to have come up with a solution that can be standardized, as the powers that be seem to desire.

      Ultimately, we all pay a huge price for the problem that didn’t have to be.

  3. May 9, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is
    a really well written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your
    useful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly comeback.

    • claudsy
      May 9, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. May 9, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    In my *#&#@* opinion, 50% is a conservative estimate. One acquaintance of mine says it this way, “You can’t fix stupid.”; another believes only a Social Revolution will fix it. I’ve come to this conclusion: I am glad to be the age I am, as I see no real solution and the term “devolving” comes to mind.

    If you can’t blame the K-12 component of education whom can you blame? Society as a whole? The parents? The government? Monsanto? Poverty does not make one stupid. Social problems created by who…society, what part? How about over-population?

    There is nothing we as a society can do (that) will solve this problem. Throwing more money at it will most likely make it worse. Being in denial (an accepted state of being by many today) will certainly not solve it, alas.

    I believe the reality is that humans are choosing to be stupid and are using stupid as an excuse to feed from the “entitlement trough”. There are, as we speak, generations being conditioned to “not look up”. And finally, I see, metaphorically speaking, a coming generation using cell phones with only three buttons: Grunt, Groan, and Whatever. I see a coming world where the 99% will owe their very souls to the company store.


  5. May 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Sorry Claudette, I’m not real good at editing when I should and clicking on the wrong button does not help either…what I really need is just three buttons…:)

    • claudsy
      May 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      Not a problem, Jack. I took care of the extra posting and the rest. I’m glad you chimed in with your two-cents. Sometimes it helps to have someone who isn’t in the business or teaching to explain what they see. It gives perspective, which is always needed.


  6. May 9, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    When you say Jack that poverty doesn’t make you stupid you show a lack of understanding of the effects of poverty. And when you say people chose to be stupid, I’ll just bow out of this conversation because it’s going nowhere.

    • claudsy
      May 9, 2012 at 5:13 pm

      To be fair, JP, I think Jack referred to a desire to learn, whether poverty-stricken or not. And there is such a thing as being deliberately stupid. It surrounds those who refuse to see the physical reality and then claim that they didn’t know about it. Perhaps a better term for this condition is “Plausible deniability.” Maybe?

      You’ve been around long enough, JP, to have seen many who couldn’t have missed what was going on socially unless they turned a blind eye to it, haven’t you?

      This whole subject is a powder keg that will blow up one of these days, in a flurry of recriminations, foot-stomping accusations, and lots of other unpleasantness. Examples will be held up of systems around the country that work very well and they’ll be used to force change in education. It’s happened before.

      The real problem here is exacerbated, as someone else, pointed out, the standardization process. What works well for one area, one region, even one town, is dependent on the specific factors involved with that population. The same factors don’t always come into play across the board or across the nation.

      Perhaps that’s one of the primary reasons standardization hasn’t worked in a long while. There are too many gaps in an issue that has this many factors. The population has shifted; in culture, ethnicity demographics, industries, personal mobility, the economy, you name it. What was taught as important information and skills, even 40 years ago, is a parsecs away from what’s felt relevant today.

      I feel that until educational consensus defines those areas absolutely critical to everyone’s “standard” curriculum, adding elective subjects peculiar to individual school districts, there will be an every widening gap in educational coverage for the population.

      I could be really wrong this. I admit that. It just seems that this, to me, makes more sense than what we have now.

      • May 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm

        Claudsy, I think it’s very kind of you to characterize Jack’s statements as a failure of a desire to learn. That aside, we’re in some agreement. I don’t support the national obsession with testing. I think education should be based on local issues. Im’ not a teacher. i’m a grant writer, so I do get a global perspective on education. There are many forces at work to bring us down in comparision to other countries; but the euphemism of those that don’t have a desire to learn, sort of hovers precariously on bias.

        it’s finger pointing – as it is in national politics – based on the supposition that someone, or groups of people, are responsible for the decline. There are forces no one controls and there are issues, mostly societal, that politicians dare not touch. And so it goes on and on…

      • claudsy
        May 9, 2012 at 5:57 pm

        I can certainly agree, JP, that the problem is too big to be easy. I often wonder whether we’ll ever create a system that takes into consideration individual differences regarding educations needs. I say that because policy is always political which tries only to pigeon-hole the population as to approximate fit. It’s a case of sticking everyone who looks like they wear a size 8, male or female, into the same shaped, sized, and heeled size 8 shoe. My feet won’t fit. Too big.

        “Okay,” they say,” we’ll wedge you into the next size up but don’t grow anymore.”

        Curriculums aren’t much different than those shoes. Test anxiety can guarantee that someone does poorly. Stress, fatigue, and not eating a good breakfast can do the same damage. But tests are the only way that pigeon-holing can be done.

        Political systems like things nicely categorized. It’s easier to manage people that way. It’s easier, that is, until it’s unmanageable.

        And that’s close to where we are right now: unmanageable.

      • May 9, 2012 at 6:26 pm

        Exactly. And the inability to eat a good breakfast is one of the devastating effects of poverty. And teacher are supposed to compensate for this. It’s just not fair. But again. The problems are so massive that we have to be thankful for small gains.

      • claudsy
        May 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm

        I’ve seen so much of that in some areas. It’s heartbreaking on the best of days. We weren’t allowed to so much as give a child a cup of milk for snack. It was considered inappropriate, even when we knew a child would not eat again until the next day at school.

        The problems as massive. It would be easier in so many ways to scrap it all and begin from scratch. That, too, is heartbreaking. It’s like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

        I’m so glad you stopped by, JP, for this little discussion. Please come by again any time you have a free moment away from writing.

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