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A Fifth of American Adults Struggle to Read. Why are we Failing to Teach Them?

Posted on 01/19/2023

In a special article published by ProPublica titled A Fifth of American Adults Struggle to Read. Why are we Failing to Teach Them?, the writers highlight how the nation's approach to "adult education has so far neglected to connect the millions of people struggling to read with the programs set up to help them."

The article validates a long-held belief that "if... local programs... could teach adults the reading skills they never got, those parents could help educate their kids and get better jobs." Virtually the entire country could benefit from breaking this cycle. Many Americans are being failed twice: "first, by public schools that lack qualified teachers, resources for students with disabilities, and adequate reading instruction; and next, by the backup system intended to catch those failed by the first." For those working in adult education, this is not a new phenomenon.

The U.S. education system "is among the most unequal in the industralized world." Hence, 60 years ago, the federal government first established federal dollars for adults who "could not read to help them improve their literacy and obtain employment." The adult education system, built by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, was meant for people everywhere to be given a second chance at success.

Last year, the federal government funded roughly "$675 million to states for adult education... an amount that has been relatively unchanged for more than two decades, when adjusted for inflation." It is obviously not enough, and states are required to commit their own share of dollars. "A review of adult education spending found glaring disparities between states, with some investing more than four times as much as others for each eligible student. (See table below). A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said in an emailed statement, "Funding levels have not kept pace with the rising cost of service delivery, nor are funding levels commensurate with the millions of people who could benefit from adult education services."

The article lists the following obstacles for adults

  1. Waitlists for adults
  2. Dropout rates within weeks
  3. Resources and certificated teachers are scant
  4. Lack of specialized staff to help diagnose learning disabilities

Many counties that lack programs also "double as hot spots of low adult literacy." These primarily exist in the mountains of Appalachia, the Southern Black Belt, California's Central Valley, and along the Texas border with Mexico." According to the article in 500 American counties, nearly a third of adults struggle to read basic English. These adults may have a basic vocabulary and comprehend short texts but may be limited beyond that.

Heat Map of Literacy in The United States

In contrast with the aim of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, today's adult education has morphed into what is now "a credentialing program largely aimed at pumping out students with high-school equivalency or workforce certificates." This shift led programs "to prioritize more advanced students, often at the expense of those originally envisioned by Kennedy: adults who lacked basic reading skills and needed more help."

As federal dollars stagnated to today's date, National enrollment has "careened down to 700,000 students last year. Despite the country's immense need, less than 3 % of eligible adults receive services." The nation's approach to adult education has so far failed to connect the massive number of people struggling to read with the programs that could help them.

States Vary Widely in Funding Adult Education

State Funding Per
Eligible Adult
Connecticut $149
Oregon $124
Florida $105
Minnesota $103
Vermont $101
Washington $89
Michigan $75
Arkansas $63
Maine $55
Hawaii $55
New Mexico $50
Massachusetts $50
New Hampshire $47
Alaska $44
Indiana $44
District of
Utah $35
Wyoming $32
New York $26
West Virginia $23
Rhode Island $23
Montana $22
Illinois $22
Delaware $21
Maryland $18
Puerto Rico $17
New Jersey $17
South Carolina $16
North Carolina $15
North Dakota $14
Wisconsin $13
Alabama $12
Ohio $12
Pennsylvania $11
Missouri $11
Georgia $10
Idaho $9
Mississippi $9
Iowa $9
Texas $9
Virginia $8
South Dakota $8
Kansas $7
Arizona $7
Colorado $7
Nevada $6
Tennessee $6
Oklahoma $5
Louisiana $5
Nebraska $2

Table Source: ProPublica Article

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OTAN activities are funded by contract CN220124 from the Adult Education Office, in the Career & College Transition Division, California Department of Education, with funds provided through Federal P.L., 105-220, Section 223. However, OTAN content does not necessarily reflect the position of that department or the U.S. Department of Education.