Friday, November 18, 2005

Reading and Poverty

My friend, Jerry Mosman leads Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) here in Dallas.

He spends his days attending to the learning needs and ambitions of people who cannot read, but who desperately want to learn.

LIFT's research indicates that 49% of adults in the greater Dallas area read at or below 4th grade level--a staggering statistic, don't you think?

Consider the following facts of reading life in our communities:

  • 22% of adults in the US read at the lowest literacy level (National Institute for Literacy)
  • 23% of adult Texans read at the lowest literacy level (National Institute for Literacy)
  • Texas has the second largest number of under-educated adults in the US (US Federal Census of 1990)
  • 43% of adults with low literacy skills live in poverty, compared to less than 5% of those with strong literacy skills (National Institute for Literacy)
  • The number one determinant in the success of a child's education is a parent who reads (US Department of Education)
  • Adult illiteracy carries an estimated annual price tag of more than $17 billion as a result of lost income and tax revenue, welfare, unemployment, crime and incarceration and training costs for businesses (National Adult Literacy Survey, US Department of Education)
  • In a recent poll, 90% of Fortune 1000 executives expressed concern that low literacy is hurting their profitability and productivity (National Institute for Literacy)

Here in Dallas, LIFT provides training for over 4,500 individuals in basic adult literacy, English as a Second Language and GED preparation courses.

Earlier this week I enjoyed a tour and lunch with Jerry. I was amazed at his organization and the amazing outcomes he and his team are achieving with adults who come to them reading at second grade level or below.

A common challenge that Jerry faces daily among his eager students is dyslexia or "print blindness."

Our public education system is geared to the needs and learning styles of mainstream students who have no problem with print learning. The tragic problem is that our standard approaches leave out thousands of children who grow up to be illiterate adults.

Poverty is complex.

Think about it just in terms of reading or the inability to read.

Many people these days, maybe most people, have the idea that folks are poor because they are lazy, don't try hard enough, operate with some notion or expectation of entitlement and/or are simply stupid.

Most of the time these are the impressions of uninformed privilege.

Jerry shared with me how being illiterate affects people.

People who can't read are made to feel stupid, when, in fact, they are not.

People who can't read feel inferior and tend toward underachievement.

A large percentage of people who can't read end up being homeless.

The biggest barrier to learning to read is the fear of being singled out as inferior, stupid or worse.

Jerry's team has figured out that by teaching people to read in groups everything changes. If I can look around a classroom and see 20 or more fellow students who can't read either, I immediately begin to believe that there may actually be hope for me!

Rather than depending on a one-on-one model, LIFT harnesses community power to assist groups of people in learning to read.

Just as important is the respect that students receive when they walk into LIFT. The atmosphere Jerry and his team have created exudes appreciation, gratitude and confidence.

The good news is, thanks to LIFT, people are being successful!

Jerry Mosman is a community leader and hero in my book.

But then, so are his students!

There are very clear reasons why people are poor. Our nation needs to wake up, change its ways and come together to create opportunities for all of our people rather than for just a privileged few.

Think about where you would be today if you couldn't make sense of the words you've just read.


Jerry Mosman said...

Thanks for calling attention to illiteracy in our community. Here is one LIFT student's comments: "I am a custodian. When I am at work now I can read the instructions on the cleaning products better. I think LIFT has done a good job for me. My teacher Marilyn is real good." Thanks again, Jerry Mosman

Anonymous said...

Larry, Just wanted to post a note to say thank you for your blog. I read it often and it truly inspires me to do what I can and at the least to be more aware! I have always wanted to do "something" for those in poverty and for those that are at a disadvantage with our current education system. I have been on the brink of poverty myself and went through a period of time where I didn't know where or how I would get the next package of diapers my baby needed. Thankfully, I had supportive family to help through that hard stretch of time and thankfully it was a short stretch of time. I can't imagine not having anyone to turn many find themselves in that situation- no family, no church, no friends. I think it saddened me so much it was easier not to do anything and pretend I couldn't REALLY make a significant difference because I don't have that much myself. Through your blog, I've been challenged to think differently and make poverty issues a priority when I vote at the polls, when I teach my children, when I attend church and on my daily journey of this life. I now know I can give my time and money but I can also expect more from our government in this area and let that be known every time I vote at the polls. This thing we call the "American Dream" can be such a cruel game of luck of and unfair advantage and it's time we start leveling the playing field in my opinion. So again, thanks for this blog and for your work in your ministry!
In Him,

c hand said...

My wife tutored a neighbor boy this summer. I also did a little bit back in college. It’s a good thing.

Did I misread something or was there a near criticism of GOVERNMENT schools? Are we saying government schools failed to deliver, that some teachers don’t do a good job? Anyone ready for vouchers?

Larry James said...

Poverty, not teachers, is our main problem in failing public schools. And our public school aren't "government." They are public, community, as in us--of course, this is true of government too, c hand. Government is something we create. It is no monster forced upon us.