Why Adult Education and Family Literacy Week Matters

AEFL Week 2013Education is the single-most important criterion for predicting a person’s success. Virtually no one would disagree with such a statement. What’s surprising, however, is that many of those who support education often subscribe to the systematic notion that adult education programs are inferior to k-12 schools.

Take government policy in Florida, for example. Florida spent $9,572 per k-12 student in 2010 compared to less than $1,000 per adult student. Clearly, the idea that adult education matters*just not that much*permeates throughout society.

The reason for this supposed hierarchy at least theoretically makes sense. Many people view adult education as a ‘second-chance system,’ which is false yet understandable. People assume adults without their high school diploma weren’t failed, they failed. Thus to support adult education, that is to support the education of adults who have already failed to graduate, would be investing in our most unproductive members of society rather than investing in our future, right?

We in the field know better.  As part literacy practitioner or administrator, part advocate, we’re the ones who must inform our community that illiteracy is in fact still a crisis. Furthermore, this crisis not only affects those with low-literacy skills who can’t participate in society but also those who are functionally literate.

2.4 million people in Florida haven’t received their high school diploma. According to GED Testing Service, the Florida high school graduate, on average, earns $7,115 more per year than a high school dropout. This amounts to $17.3 billion each year that isn’t being circulated in the state’s economy. By ignoring the 2.4 million people in our state without a high school diploma, we’re doing a great disservice to ourselves and our progress.

More often than not, others don’t understand what having little to no education does to a person. For one, low education directly relates to an increased chance of living in poverty. In 2005 21% of families with no HS diploma were living below poverty, compared to 7.1% of those with HS diplomas. Having no high school diploma means a person struggles to find work, and the struggle will only become more difficult as it’s predicted that 63% of jobs will require postsecondary education by the year 2018. However, it doesn’t end here.

Low-literacy skills follow a person into all aspects of his or her life and those of his or her family members. It’s not uncommon for an illiterate individual to avoid admitting that they’re “dumb.” Instead, they avoid participation in their children’s academic life, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Even placing a lunch order in the presence of friends becomes a terrifying experience. But at least these examples aren’t life-threatening.

You know how some people self-diagnose themselves with WebMD instead of going to seek a professional opinion? Those with low-literacy skills often disregard symptoms of a condition, because they can’t afford a visit to the doctor. On the occasions that an individual visits a doctor and receives a prescription, they’ll have enormous difficulty understanding the medicine bottle’s instructions.

Even if a person understands how many pills to take, they might not understand when to take them, if food is required with their consumption, if alcohol is permitted to drink, etc. To guess in this situation is a serious health risk. The American Medical Association states that “individuals with low health literacy incur medical expenses that are up to four times greater than patients with adequate literacy skills.” This costs the health care system billions of dollars each year for unnecessary doctor and ER visits.

Why there is less than 2% of the necessary funding being provided by our government is beyond me. It’s sure not due to lack of results. In Florida, 67.7% of test takers passed the GED test to receive their high school diploma. With their newly acquired credentials, individuals are able to follow their dreams and improve their as well as their family’s quality of life in all regards.

As for improving the future of adult education, one thing is clear. As Dr. Irwin Kirsch noted this Monday at the First PIAAC, Then What? Live Webcast, “Adult and continuing education needs to play a larger and more strategic role in our immediate and long term goals.” In order to improve the lives of others, we must first improve the capacity of adult education.

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