The Wrong Message on PIAAC

(Updated Below)



The initial of set of PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) survey data released yesterday by OECD received a reasonable amount of attention from major U.S. news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the AP. I’ve nitpicked a little about the coverage, but by in large it’s been decent. (My biggest criticism is the lack of voices from the U.S. adult education field. The study is, after all, primarily concerned with adult literacy and numeracy skills, so one would think that one of our national adult literacy organizations would be good for a quote. Or maybe even an actual adult learner or two.)

But today I came across two stories (pictured above) that are accompanied by some pretty distasteful and misleading headlines and graphics, implying that those Americans OECD believes fall below average in literacy skill are, essentially, dunces. So let’s take a moment to explain why this is not only wrong, but also damaging.

Americans with poor literacy skills are not stupid. Many have struggled with reading and writing due to a disability, (including both physical disabilities and learning disabilities), and were never afforded the proper accommodation they needed to compensate for the disability. Some are refugees or immigrants from other countries with poor education systems or where English is not the native language. Others simply were not afforded the same educational opportunities that other Americans have been fortunate enough to have received. I knew an individual enrolled in an adult literacy program in Washington D.C., for example, who grew up black and poor, with an alcoholic father, in a rural area of a southern state in the days before the Civil Rights movement. He dropped out of school at a very young age to take care of his family and never learned to read much beyond a basic level. Worked as a laborer most of his life—but a bright and articulate guy, who just didn’t have the same kind of opportunities that I had growing up. That’s the kind of story that more often than not is behind your typical adult with below average literacy skills. It infuriates me when people label such individuals as “dumb.”

Moreover, employing such labels makes the problem worse. It’s embarrassing to admit that you have difficulty reading and writing. Many people who have struggled with reading all of their lives really do feel like they are stupid, and that makes it challenging for them to come forward and get the help they need.  I used to operate an  adult literacy hotline in Washington, and we used to get dozens of calls every day. I know what I’m talking about. The stories were often heartbreaking. The callers weren’t stupid people, but people who had struggled for one reason or another—usually it had a lot to do with being poor. Not due to some innate lack of intelligence. (Not that all adult learners are blameless—there are plenty of people enrolled in adult education programs who would own up to being serious f*ck-ups when they were younger—making mistakes that led them to failing, dropping out, or getting kicked out of school—but making a mistake, even a serious one, doesn’t mean you are incapable of learning.)

Labeling people as dumb also perpetuates the idea that policies designed to improve adult skills are doomed to failure—if these adults are just “dumb,” after all, then there really is nothing that can be done for them, right? Low literacy in this country exists largely because we let it happen. As the OECD report(s) make clear, there are policies we can put into place to change this. It’s not a question of whether low-skilled adults can learn, but whether we will provide them with the opportunity.

As the Speaker of the House said the other day about the government shutdown, this isn’t a damn game. Thankfully, most of the media isn’t treating it like one.

UPDATE 10/10/13: The Atlantic picked up the Quartz story above. (Apparently Quartz is a “sister site.”) However, for The Atlantic version, the headline was changed from “Americans Are Dumber Than Average in Math, Vocabulary, and Technology” to “Americans Are Way Behind in Math, Vocabulary, and Technology.” It appears from scanning the comments that they might have originally used the Quartz headline, but I’m not certain. Thankfully, The Atlantic version does not include the picture of the boy in the dunce cap either. Instead they opted for a less offensive—but far more inexplicable—screen shot from the movie Legally Blonde, which makes absolutely no sense at all. (If I remember correctly, the main character in that film is perceived as dumb, but is actually quite intelligent, despite appearances. This is pretty much the opposite of what the study is telling us—that a nation, we are not as skilled as people may believe.)

I also want to say one other thing about the media coverage. More disturbing, really, than the thoughtless headlines above (which, as I mentioned, aren’t typical of the coverage), is the fact that from what I’ve seen, none of the major media outlets reporting on this story have mentioned or seem to even be aware of the fact that there is an adult education system in the United States. My hope was that as a field we could use this opportunity to not just point out the the problem, but to highlight the success stories in adult education that demonstrate that the problem is solvable. Maybe I’ve missed something. If you know of any good examples, let me know in the comments.

3 thoughts on “The Wrong Message on PIAAC

  1. The PIAAC report notes that in the U.S., there is a special relationship between poverty and poor readers. For some time, it has been education’s dirty little secret that poverty causes illiteracy. Poor children are plagued by premature births and lack of basic nutrition and health care. When you abuse children, they will not develop normally. Reading and writing are social activities and require an environment with books and a priority given to reading. Studies have shown that a one-dollar increase in a parent’s income increases the child’s readiness for school and progress in it. Read Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Reign of Error,” for more information on the connection between poverty and illiteracy.

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