Literacy is the low-hanging fruit in improving education


A top policy goal of the new Trump administration is to put millions more Americans back to work.

But in addition to providing incentives for industry to remain in the U.S., we must build a sufficiently skilled workforce and focus on education for adults who lack sufficient academic credentials or job training.

The unemployment rate among U.S. adults lacking a high school diploma or with very little college-level experience is high.

{mosads}The latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from January show that the overall national unemployment rate stands at 4.8 percent, yet for those with no high school diploma it is 7.7 percent.  An even more troubling picture emerges when examining the labor force participation – which measures the share of workers who are either employed or actively looking for work – among those who lack a high school credential. Only 45.3 percent of these adults are employed, compared with the overall national average of 62.9 percent.

Greater education results in greater levels of employment. Among those with a high school diploma, the picture begins to improve, with unemployment at 5.3 percent. And for U.S. adults with an associate degree from a community college the unemployment rate drops to 3.8 percent.

While there is a direct relationship between level of education and earnings, an even stronger, more fundamental connection exists between the lack of a high school diploma and low literacy.

Approximately 32 million adults in the United States can’t read, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. And of those that can, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 50 percent can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level.

The problem quite literally is on the doorstep of Betsy DeVos, the new Department of Education Secretary.

According to data from the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau, 21 percent — or nearly 60,000 — of working age adults in Washington D.C., lack a high school diploma. At the same time, 19 percent of adults cannot read a newspaper, much less complete a job application, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The knock-on effect is enormous. Adults with low literacy are at risk for lower earning power and serious threats to their long-term well-being. District residents without a high school diploma, for example, are seven times more likely to live in poverty.

Not surprisingly, low literacy has stark ramifications for the next generation and our communities as a whole. The children of parents with low literacy skills are more likely to live in poverty as adults and are five times more likely to drop out of school.

The Department of Education accurately notes in a 2015 study that “because foundation skills connect to so many social and economic priorities—addressing the skills crisis really is everyone’s business.”

The agency concludes, “The problem requires multifaceted solutions that no one public or private partner can successfully implement alone.”

So how to educate or re-skill an under-served segment of the U.S. population to take part in the Trump administration’s hope-for economic revival? At the grassroots level, many would be surprised to know there are charter schools aimed at addressing low literacy in adult learners, and ideally, putting them on the path to community college for further education and vocational training.

As leader of Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School (AoH) in Washington D.C., an institution providing education and other necessary services to adults with low literacy skills, every day I see the impact of this vital innovation in the charter school concept.

Our program helps adults fill the gaps in their education and work toward high school diplomas through the GED exam or completion of the National External Diploma Program.

Because 90 percent of AoH students arrive at or below a sixth-grade level in reading, math and computer literacy, we have our work cut out for us. But despite these tough odds, Academy of Hope has helped more than 6,000 adults rebuild their education and job opportunities, since 1985. Even better, an astounding 60 percent of graduates surveyed said they are continuing on to college or further education.

The demand for our services is so great that we recently moved to a larger building, in part thanks to significant financing by PNC bank, The Alice and Eugene Ford Foundation and other donors. The vital injection of funds made possible by our charter means more space, better services and more seats for adult learners ready to turn their lives around.

With the Trump administration mapping out a far-reaching economic program, charter schools are providing adults with the fundamental skills necessary to thrive.

Johnson is CEO of  Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. She is a founding board member of the Workplace DC and the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition and was formerly a U.S. Department of Education Institute for Rehabilitation Issues Scholar. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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