National Research Council Committee Chaired by Alan Lesgold Addresses National Adult Literacy Crisis

Issue Date: 
July 9, 2012

With more than 90 million U.S. adults lacking the literacy skills needed to lead fully productive and secure lives, the U.S. Department of Education called on the National Research Council (NRC) to review the problem and suggest solutions.

Because adults with low levels of literacy have lower rates of participation in the labor force, earn less than those with higher levels of literacy, and have less ability to access, read, and use health information, their contributions to the nation’s economy tend to be limited and their care is often financed by the nation’s taxpayers.

The NRC Committee on Adolescent and Adult Literacy, a committee of experts headed by Alan Lesgold, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, recently released an NRC report that recommends the development of more effective training programs to teach adult literacy, more use of technologies so adults can practice reading and writing at home, and the allocation of resources to make it possible for illiterate adults to become literate, contributing members of society. The committee also recommended better training for adult literacy instructors, better tailoring of courses for English language learners to build on the literacy skills some of them have in other languages, and more research focused specifically on adult literacy learners.

Titled “Improving Adult Literacy: Options for Practice and Research,” the report examined general research on how people learn, on teaching reading and writing to younger populations, and on teaching spoken language. But, according to Lesgold, “Today’s literacy courses aren’t adapted to the needs of adults who have literacy learning issues. The courses are hard to get to, often taught at locations not easily accessible by poor people. Also, because these folks are lucky if they have full-time minimum-wage jobs—and too often have to work two or three part-time minimum-wage jobs—they tend not to persist in classes long enough to read and write well. Therefore they need help with childcare and transportation costs and supplemental online technology so they can spend more time learning and less on long bus trips to classes.”

Integral to the development of an effective adult literacy-teaching program will be research, Lesgold adds, noting that currently those who teach literacy to adults have received no specialized training in that area. Almost all research on effective literacy teaching studied elementary, high school, and college students, not older adults. What has been inferred from studies of these other groups needs to be tested for effectiveness on adults who need to improve their reading and writing skills.

Another important factor is illiteracy’s cost to society. According to Lesgold, about $600 is now spent per adult literacy student taking classes at a community college or local public school, too often with inadequate results. Adults who lack literacy and who have less than a high school education often are a societal cost—they receive more money from the government than they pay in taxes. A person who graduates from high school may break even, contributing as much in taxes as he or she takes from the government. Once people get more than a high school education, there is a much higher likelihood that their incomes add to the tax base rather than take from it.

“If you spent $10,000 on each illiterate adult student—the cost now spent on one year of high school for a teenager—instead of $600, the return on investment in more taxes and less health and welfare payments over the course of a worker’s life would be 12 percent a year, and I don’t know of any other way that the government could earn 12 percent a year outside of printing money,” said Lesgold. “Such an investment would result in increased tax revenue instead of the billions of dollars massive illiteracy currently costs us.”

The committee also notes that implementing these recommendations will require leadership from the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Labor, and other sponsoring agencies as well as the enlistment of business leaders and community groups in the effort.

The new NRC report was released recently at a Washington, D.C., meeting attended by, in addition to Lesgold, Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant secretary for Vocational and Adult Education in the U.S. Department of Education; Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president for education in the White House Domestic Policy Council; Henry Kelly, senior advisor to the president’s science advisor in the Office of Science and Technology Policy; Josephine Reed-Taylor, deputy commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia; and Andrés Henriquez, program officer in the education division of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

A professor in Pitt’s School of Education, Lesgold also is a professor of psychology and intelligent systems at Pitt. His organizational involvement includes being a Lifetime National Associate of the National Research Council (National Academies), fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) in experimental, applied, and educational psychology, and a member of the Association for Psychological Science and the American Educational Research Association. In 2001, Lesgold received the APA award for distinguished contributions of applications of psychology to education and training, and, in 1995, he was awarded the Educom Medal. Lesgold served as president of the Applied Cognitive Psychology division of the International Association for Applied Psychology from 2002 to 2006. He also was appointed by then-Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell as a member of the Governor’s Commission on Preparing America’s Teachers in 2005 and served on the state’s commission on cyber high schools. Lesgold serves on the board of A+ Schools and has served on the board of Youthworks.

Lesgold received his PhD in psychology from Stanford University in 1971 and holds an honorary doctorate from the Open University of the Netherlands.