Adult Literacy: The Promise of Opportunity

June 27, 2011

Promising legislation currently introduced in Congress gave Robert Wedgeworth’s Coleman Library Outreach Lecture an optimistic outlook.

Wedgeworth, former president and CEO of ProLiteracy Worldwide told the audience about the Adult Education and Economic Growth Act of 2011, which has been introduced in both houses of Congress.

“The lack of a coordinated adult education program is our economy’s Achilles’ heel,” Wedgeworth said, because the information economy leaves adults with low literacy skills behind. While the act’s details haven’t been finalized, Wedgeworth called it “a major step in the right direction” in targeting workplace skills and job preparation.

It marks a shift in the political climate from an emphasis on prevention through elementary and secondary education (which are easier to support in much the same way that “It’s easier to love a puppy than a dog.” Wedgeworth observed that those efforts, while commendable, aren’t enough; children with low-literate parents have a much higher chance of becoming low-literate adults themselves, and immigrants who don’t speak English are not served by the public school system at all.

He acknowledged that there have been many efforts to address adult literacy at the state and local level. “Organizations have created programs and trained staff. But there is no coordinated system to sustain a long-term effort.”

The political climate, however, isn’t necessarily supportive. While “The Declaration of Independence implies a promise, not of wealth, but that each citizen will have the opportunity to pursue his or her dreams,” Wedgeworth said that the unfulfilled promise of the American Dream is no longer a convincing argument. Librarians and educators need data to back up their claims.

That data does support literacy programs, however. “We know that even a modest increase in literacy rates produces a significant increase in GDP,” Wedgeworth said. And he cited examples from other countries. Finland, for example, has few natural resources and was a poor nation after World War II, but grew by investing in its population.

“Perhaps the catalyst to more effective action in the U.S. is to demonstrate the value of investing in our people,” Wedgeworth said.