Putting a Focus on Adult Literacy

by Alan Lesgold

In various ways, the Pitt School of Education focuses on many points in the developmental span. We have programming in early childhood education, in effective teaching in the K-12 world, in the leadership and management of universities, and in teaching people at all ages to live healthier lives. One area we have not addressed much in the past is adult literacy. However, adult literacy has become a more important social issue in the information age, so we are beginning to look into ways to leverage our existing programs and capabilities to find ways to improve adult literacy.
A few years ago, I was chair of a committee of the National Research Council that looked at adult literacy. It was a sobering experience. Here’s how my colleagues and I summarized the situation: A high level of literacy in both print and digital media is required for negotiating most aspects of 21st century life—supporting a family, education, health, civic participation, and competitiveness in the global economy. Yet a recent survey estimates that more than 90 million U.S. adults lack adequate literacy. Furthermore, only 38 percent of U.S. 12th graders are at or above proficient in reading.
That’s a statement of the general problem. When we look at particular groups of people with low income or people of color, the numbers are far more troubling. Put simply, in a world where the ability to interact with information is necessary to being able to lead a full life and support a family, we fail a substantial portion of our youth by not providing learning environments that allow them to become sufficiently literate and able to access and generate information in our information economy.
A Pitt alumnus, Richard Goldman, has worked with others to develop an online adult high school that is beginning to at least repair some of the damage that results in dropouts and inadequate adult literacy. The experience of Smart Horizons Career Online Education that he helped create provides some real hope.
First of all, when learners have some control over when and how they work at learning, they are more likely to persist and succeed. The average student in Smart Horizons left high school with just over half of the coursework left undone. Yet, they finish the over two years of work in 12-14 months on average. And, the completion rates are at 70 percent, which is extremely good considering that these are the same students who dropped out earlier and thus were in the 10-50 percent, depending on which school they were in, who did not finish high school. Second, adult learning success is affordable. Those missing two years of schooling would have cost between $11,000-$35,000 in a public school district, but they cost $1,300 in the COHS program. While there may be alternatives that are comparably effective and affordable, COHS at least provides a proof of concept. We can achieve much more adult literacy if we focus on getting the best solution to this problem.
 We will be working with the City of Pittsburgh and other local bodies to bring an adult high school capability of this kind to Pittsburgh. It won’t be the only possible path for adults who want to learn enough to succeed. We already have GED programs at CCAC and currently one program operated by a local community organization at Hill House. Having multiple approaches will allow us to identify the essential ingredients for adult learning success. 
I hope that we at Pitt can play a role in that research effort. With new centers in our School of Education that focus on urban education and on motivation, we are building the kind of scholarly depth that we will need to study good deeds of the CCAC’s and Hill Houses and Goldmans of the world and to help educators and those who support them to do a better job at assuring that the path is always open to acquiring adequate literacy to be a full participant in the information age.