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.

Remember: Senate Immigration Bill Already Requires Undocumented Immigrants to Learn English—Here’s How It Works

It appears that Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) amendment to the Senate’s immigration reform bill, which would change the way the English proficiency requirement would for undocumented immigrants choosing to become legal residents, may be voted on today.

I just want to review again the way the current bill works, and explain why the Rubio amendment doesn’t really make any sense.

Under the Senate bill, currently undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would be eligible to apply for “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI) status if they meet certain criteria (e.g. have never been convicted of a felony, entered the U.S. before 2012 and have not left the country since then, etc.) and pay a $500 fee.

An undocumented immigrant who attains RPI status would then be considered lawfully present in the U.S. He/she would not be subject to deportation, would be able to legally work here, and be able to travel freely outside of the country. However, RPIs would not be eligible for federal means-tested public benefits (such as non-emergency Medicaid). This is important, and one of the reasons why I’ll argue later that the Rubio amendment is a bad idea.

The bill then establishes a minimum thirteen-year pathway to earned citizenship, which includes a number of benchmarks related to employment, income, and knowledge of English language, U.S. history and civics.

First, after six years, an RPI can renew their status if:

  • They pay the fee again; and
  • They continue to meet the original eligibility requirements; and
  • They establish that they have been continuously employed (unemployed no more than 60 consecutive days at a time); or
    • That they have income or resources at or above 100 percent of the Federal poverty level; or
    • Are enrolled in “full-time” education and training.

Secondly, after ten years, (The pathway to LPR status is a bit shorter—five years—for DREAM Act-eligible RPIs), an RPI can adjust to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status (i.e., become a “green card” holder), but to do so requires another fee ($1000 this time) and the following:

  • Again, they have to have been continuously employed (unemployed no more than 60 consecutive days at a time); or
    • That they have income or resources at or above 100 percent of the Federal poverty level; or
    • Are enrolled in “full-time” education and training;
  • And, in addition, (putting aside some exceptions for the elderly/disabled), they must demonstrate the level of English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history/civics that is required for citizenship or demonstrate that they are satisfactorily pursuing a course of study, pursuant to standards established by the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Secretary, to achieve an understanding of English and knowledge and understanding of the history and Government of the United States, as described in section 312(a)” (i.e. the proficiency level required for citizenship in current immigration law. See page 983 of the bill as reported out of the Senate for the full text.) This is a lot more than just signing up for a course—note that you have to show that you are actually making progress. But the Rubio amendment would remove enrollment in a course of study as sufficient to meet this benchmark.

A couple of key points:

  • The RPI renewal step is important: since you can’t apply for LPR status until ten years have passed, all undocumented immigrants who acquire RPI status would in fact have to renew it if they want to stay on track to become LPRs.
  • LPRs will be eligible for federal means-tested benefits, but not until they have been LPRs for five years.
  • After three years as an LPR, individuals would be permitted to apply for U.S. citizenship—that’s why it’s a minimum a thirteen-year process from registration to citizenship.
  • None of the pathway to citizenship provisions kick in at all—that is, no unauthorized immigrant would be permitted to gain lawful status of any kind—until the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) certifies that the border security goals in the bill have been met.
  • Perhaps the most important point: the Senate bill as it now stands requires all undocumented immigrants to learn English. It allows people to adjust to legal residency status before they get to the level of English proficiency needed for citizenship, but they still have to show that they are actually learning the language, something that current green card applicants do not have to do.

I thought it was important to run through all this in order to explain what I think the consequences of the Rubio amendment would be. It’s pretty clear to me that the bill’s authors (a group that included Sen. Rubio, in fact) were trying to strike a balance between the practical reality that we need to find a way to legalize the undocumented immigrants that are here (and also, importantly, encourage them to legalize), yet establish some kind of punitive measures against them for coming here illegally in the first place. You can argue about whether that was the right way to balance things—and whether it was tipped too much toward the punitive or towards helping people to integrate—but however you come out on that, I think it’s clear that this was the balancing they were trying to work out. It’s a balance that involves issues of not just fairness and justice but also pragmatic policy concerns—and politics.

And it’s a difficult, delicate balance that can be thrown off easily. The problem with the Rubio amendment, in my opinion, is that it does just that—it pushes the punitive end too far and throws off the pragmatic balance that was struck in the original provision.

If we assume that the experts are correct, and well over half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country have an English proficiency level below what’s needed to achieve legal residency under this bill, it seems reasonable to assume that a substantial number are well below that level and may not be highly literate in their native language (as is increasingly the case among Spanish-speaking immigrants). I think it’s also reasonable to assume that many of these folks are working in relatively low-paying jobs. And, as discussed above, they are ineligible for federal benefits, like medicaid.

It seems to me that, at the end of the day, for comprehensive immigration reform to be considered a success, we want to have moved most of the undocumented population to legal resident status. It’s legal residents who put down roots, build careers, buy homes, and in most cases, become citizens. I understand that some want it to be a long and difficult pathway for those who came and stayed here illegally, but there’s a point at which you can make it so difficult that it’s no longer feasible for a lot of people. The Senate bill already established a pretty lengthy path. But by requiring absolute English proficiency for LPR status, we’d be moving the goalpost way down the field for many. I know ten years (the earliest one could apply for a green card) seems like a long time, but for those with very limited English, who are working full-time (and remember, most of them will have to be in order to maintain their lawful status under this bill)—in addition to whatever other family responsibilities they may have—it won’t be that easy to carve out the time needed to learn English at that level of proficiency. For many, there will not be a class available, or if there is they will be facing long waiting lists.

As a result, I think Sen. Rubio’s amendment would probably increase the probability that a large proportion of current undocumented people who are living in poverty will stay that way for a longer period. However much you may personally dislike the idea that people in the country speak a language you don’t understand, (which, somehow, other well-off democratic societies seem to manage reasonably well), it’s hard to understand the wisdom of setting up a legalization process that is going to likely confine millions of people to a life where they can’t get ahead.

As I wrote earlier this week, reasonable people could argue that the “course of study” langauge in the bill was too vague (I think it was fine, but that’s just my opinion). If that’s the case, the solution is to work to improve the language—perhaps there are more rigorous standards that could be written into the law, for example. But lopping it off completely is applying a blunt instrument where fine-tuning is needed. And frankly, I don’t get why it makes sense even from a political perspective. The “English only” crowd should be pleased with this bill as it stands, because it requires people to at least be learning English in order to become a legal resident—a requirement that has never before existed for those seeking a green card.

Again, if you don’t like this amendment, today is the day to call your Senator.

Septima Clark

Septima Clark

Septima Clark (center). Date/source of photo unknown.

Septima Poinsette Clark was born on this day 115 years ago. Without question one of most important figures in the American Civil Rights movement, the story of her role in  advancing adult literacy in the U.S.—and in drawing attention to the connections between education, poverty, and political power—should be mandatory reading for anyone interested or involved in adult literacy or education—especially the “education is the civil rights movement of our time” folks who seem to believe that the relationship between civil rights and education began sometime around the year Teach for America was founded.

Clark is best known for her role in developing the Citizenship Schools of the 1950s and 60s, where thousands of disenfranchised African Americans across the southern U.S. learned to read and write in order to pass the literacy tests required by southern states to register to vote. But while voting was the focus, the schools also emphasized the role of literacy as an instrument of empowerment more broadly.

And unlike today, this was at a time—not that long ago—when teaching reading in such a context was truly dangerous. Classes often had to be taught in back rooms of stores and other hidden places. Teaching people how to read helped countless Black Southerners push for the right to vote, but beyond that, it developed leaders across the country that would help push the civil rights movement long after 1964.

Clark wrote two autobiographies during her lifetime: Echo in My Soul and Ready from Within: Septima Clark & the Civil Rights Movement, A First Person Narrative. A  collection of her papers is archived here, although none of it seems to be accessible online. But there is a great online “scrapbook” of  images, newspaper clippings, and correspondence related to her life at the Lowcountry Digital Library site.

Detained Immigrants Facing Prospect of Solitary Confinement Often Have No Access to Counsel

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a proposal by Robert Katzmann, a federal appellate judge in New York, to develop an “immigrant justice corps” program that would recruit and train young lawyers to assist illegal immigrants. I speculated in that post about whether the problem of inadequate legal representation for immigrants in general (especially low-income immigrants) might acquire greater urgency in the near future, once an immigration reform bill is passed.

Last week, in case you missed it, the New York Times reported on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s horrific use of solitary confinement on detained immigrants. (If you read the article—and you should—I think you’ll agree that my choice of the word “horrific” is not hyperbole.) One has to wonder whether better and more widely available legal representation would keep this practice in check. As the author of the piece notes, immigrant detainees are not automatically represented by legal counsel, and about 85% have none, and the consequences can be dire. I wish the piece would have made the connection between this problem and the efforts that Judge Katzman and others are making to address the adequate counsel issue.

I can’t imagine why anyone facing the potentially devastating psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement should not have access to counsel.