And the question is . . . .

Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well.
– Margaret Atwood

An article in the local newspaper caught my eye today. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I am inevitably drawn to issues surrounding education or, more specifically, to matters concerning public education here in New Brunswick and, by extension, elsewhere in Canada and in North America as well. The conventional wisdom throughout my career in the classroom was that ideas coming from the States made it to Ontario first and found their way to NB approximately five years later. Another pillar of that same wisdom suggested that those ideas only made it this far after they had been proven ineffective in the previous jurisdictions. Perhaps that can be a topic for another day.

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Anyway, in this article, a representative of a local adult education group (one that is best known for working to improve literacy among adults) voiced the concern that many students graduating from high schools do not possess sufficient literacy and numeracy skills “to cope at colleges and universities”. Chances are, this comes as no surprise to many people. Certainly employers, for some time now, have lamented the lack of fundamental literacy and numeracy among prospective employees, a matter distinct from the lack of “skilled” workers in any number of fields. In light of their concern it shouldn’t come as any great revelation that many receiving a diploma might not seem, according to traditional notions of why one SHOULD receive a diploma, especially deserving.

But that’s a field upon which most are very afraid to tread. Nowhere in the course of the article was any mention made of it being inappropriate that someone would graduate from high school without having achieved at least a passable level of literacy and numeracy. The article mentions that over half of New Brunswick’s population “over 16 lack minimum literacy skills”. We are told about the remediation efforts of universities, specifically the institution of tutoring programs and writing centres where students can get help with those basics that they seem to have missed through their years in the public system.

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This unwillingness to confront something fundamentally ineffective in our schools has become a predominant theme in many of my musings about public education in New Brunswick. Among any number of things that regularly come from the Department of Education about purported improvements in the public system, statistics about graduation rates has long been a favourite. Side by side with that number, you might find another, related percentage concerning student retention. Those reporting such numbers will also usually offer some kind of historical comparison suggesting that in the last 20 or however many years, both numbers have increased substantially and – here comes the conclusion – this proves that education in New Brunswick is constantly improving.

I have long decried the emptiness of this particular claim. How can the QUALITY of an education be summarized by a numerical assessment of graduation and retention without some accompanying account of the real achievement of those staying in school long enough to graduate? If New Brunswick’s functional literacy rate remains less than 50% among adults after almost 35 years of ongoing adjustment, change, innovation, tinkering , etc., surely someone should ask the simple question: “What’s wrong with this picture?”

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But that question is not one that either governments or those responsible for changes in the educational system are eager to confront. Here in New Brunswick we have created an educational system that costs over a billion dollars to operate year over year. Class sizes at all levels have been reduced on numerous occasions; specialists and experts have been hired in great number and work in schools or district offices; programs are added, subtracted, modified, replaced. You get the picture. And yet, something as simple as a measure of literacy suggests that all such innovation has amounted to virtually nothing in terms of real improvement.

But then, “improvement” is another one of those complicated words. The official who trumpets retention and graduation rates can’t really be faulted in one way. The measure of success in his/her account is clear and simple and can be reduced to a statistic. 20 years ago, let’s say, 75% of 18 year olds graduated from high school and now it’s 90%. Who can argue with the contention that this suggests an improvement of sorts?

As I was reading the article that served as a springboard for this blog, I was struck by how much it avoided any suggestion that something was wrong with the system itself. It chose to focus on remediation, reassurance, suggestions of circumstances external to schools that might contribute to the situation.

Strange where the mind can go. As I was reading this article and wondering how it was that no one was wondering WHY students were graduating in such numbers even though they did not possess what might be thought of as the bare essentials you could expect from 12 or 13 years of formal education – being able to read, to write and to do basic math – I thought of the movie I, Robot where a hologram of a dead scientist cautions the lead character, played by Will Smith, to “ask the right question”.

So it is with education in New Brunswick and, again, as far as I’m concerned, in many other jurisdictions. One of these days someone is going to have to ask the right question, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to do so.

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3 thoughts on “And the question is . . . .”

  1. I’m enjoying reading the blog posts you’ve been posting here and many of them make me want to respond, often with a cheer or a clarification question or other type of comment, and finally today I’m doing so because this question has been bothering me for years. Could part of the problem here be that this measure of “functional literacy” among adults 35 years and older (or whatever it may be) is tested incorrectly? Who is doing these tests? What are they based on? I find it hard to believe that there is such a high percentage of adults who can’t read and write. I’m certainly not disagreeing with your point about the increase in graduation rates being an indication of a successful education system, but I am wondering about that statistic. And what does basic or functional literacy really mean? To succeed in university or college I think one requires more than basic literacy, and I do agree that many students who graduate from our high schools are not equipped for such success, but simply to function in society? I’d like to think that the vast majority of the 90% graduation rate grads could do so comfortably without a need for additional classes.

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    1. I have no problem believing the statistic, Paul. Any evidence I can offer is almost purely anecdotal – at least personal evidence; I haven’t conducted a study – but I’m convinced the statistics are correct. Functional illiteracy doesn’t mean you can’t read or write; rather, the functionally illiterate adult struggles to construct meaning out of what he/she reads and asking him/her to write a coherent accounting of something is substantially unrealistic. Functional illiteracy suggests that someone can read words, and even write them, but grasping and/or expressing meaning is a supreme challenge. When I think of the students I had over the years, I can recall far too many who looked to me or to someone else in class to explain elements of content, certainly, but, more importantly, to clarify significance having been unable to determine any. Functional illiteracy suggests that the most someone can do is decode, a skill which makes texting possible, raw information manageable and other very mundane tasks (a grocery list perhaps) doable. Anything more complex – completing an application form which might contain some requirement for a “brief synopsis” of something or other, following a set of instructions for operating a camera, perhaps – can prove intimidating to the point of abandonment. It’s not that, with time, the functionally illiterate couldn’t do these things; rather, the effort required to do so isn’t appropriate to the inherent complexity of the task. An unwillingness to confront this reality helps explain why we have seen the move away from making students in English classes responsible for understanding content. The “experts” dismiss such requirements as stultifying, as though knowing what you’ve read and being able to construct an account of the same stifles creativity. Further evidence is the focus on “literacy” as something that can be taught. No one can teach literacy. It is possible, however, to teach people to read and write thus enabling them to become literate. I’ll leave you to ponder that distinction. I know from experience that I receive either blank looks or sneers when I try to make that argument in certain circles. Thanks for taking the time both to read and to comment.

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      1. I guess I understand the distinction, but in that case I still marvel at the statistic because I think that once a student leaves the hallowed halls of education it would be incredibly hard to test their functional literacy because they are not often in a situation where demonstrating such literacy proficiency would be required and assessed. See, my assumption about where these statistics come from (and yes, I know what assuming does) was that they must be based on how people interact with texts in society in areas like filling out government forms, applications, etc. If this is the case, I’d have to say that I am functionally illiterate myself because when reading Karen’s application form for Permanent Resident status, I was baffled by the very first question. I wish I could recall it now but basically it seemed to say “no matter how you answer, it will be wrong”. It took me days to work out what the question was actually asking, and yet I consider myself a fairly literate person, what with my three degrees, all in fields requiring a fair bit of reading, understanding and interpretation. It also reminded me of the civil service exam I once took which was foolishly difficult even for a smart person. Under these criteria I guess I must classify myself as functionally illiterate and if that is the case I’m ok with it and it leads me to the conclusion that perhaps the “horrifying” statistic about 50+% of NB’ers being “functionally illiterate” is not so strange or horrifying at all.
        As for your distinction between teaching literacy and teaching reading and writing, I appreciate it and agree with it to a point. This is why I like teaching literature and language and not just reading and writing in high school. Thanks for the ideas. Keep them coming!

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