When Johnny's Whole Family Can't Read

About 23 million Americans can't read this sentence.

That might surprise many people who see illiteracy as a malady of a bygone era, like smallpox. Or as the stuff of jokes, like Vice-President Quayle's inability to spell "potato" a few weeks ago. But the deficiency is no laughing matter for those who lack English and math skills, and, increasingly, for their employers. Says Gail Spangenberg, vice-president of the Business Council for Effective Literacy, a nonprofit group: "This is not a new problem, but a problem with a new urgency."

The reasons for the problem vary: the dropout rate (a persistent 30% of the high school population), the cumulative effects of schools that promote and even graduate students who fail courses, the decade-long influx of immigrants to the U.S. But primarily, the issue is one of a growing gap between the skills people have and the skills that jobs demand. Paradoxically, while the time spent on recreational reading and writing has decreased, the need for literacy skills professionally has increased.

Jobs are changing--especially in manufacturing. The number of unskilled and even semiskilled jobs is declining. "Once, you could just show up and use your hands to operate a machine. Today, our employees are expected to use their heads as well as their arms," says Don Rice, vice-president for human resources at Torrington Co., which three years ago began noticing a disparity between the average skill level of its employees (7th grade) and that demanded by the work (12th grade). Torrington isn't alone. A recent National Association of Manufacturers survey of 360 companies found that one-third regularly reject job applicants for poor reading and writing skills; 50% reported serious deficiences in basic math and reading skills among their workers.

Current programs--evenly split among such traditional volunteer tutoring groups as Literacy Volunteers of America and government-funded adult education--reach only 5% to 10% of those in need. The National Literacy Act, passed last year, offers some help: It provides $1 billion over the next four years to fund projects--and research on what makes programs work.

`BASIC TASKS.' The more innovative programs focus on what educators call "functional illiteracy"--people whose skills are at fourth- to eighth-grade levels but who can't perform fundamental tasks: filling out job applications, using train schedules, understanding a newspaper. Some 23 million to 27 million Americans--20% of adults--are at this level. Another 12 million are marginally better but still can't function effectively. "We are not talking about the ability to be a nuclear engineer here, but doing basic tasks in a sophisticated factory," says Peter Waite, executive director of Laubach Literacy Action.

At the Stone Savannah River Pulp & Paper Corp., literacy problems came to light when the company started to retrain workers to use automated equipment. In 1987, it embarked on a $346 million overhaul of the machinery in its Port Wentworth (Ga.) mill. But "before we switched from manual controls to computerization, we thought we'd better find out what educational level our employees had," says Butch Branch, personnel supervisor. "What we found out scared us." Despite their high school diplomas, one-third of the mill's 500 workers lacked the 10th-grade math and reading skills needed to operate the equipment. So the company spent $200,000 on an on-site classroom, complete with a full-time teacher and a dozen personal computers. After three years, all but one of the 153 student employees had reached the required level--and the mill set a production record.

Workplace literacy classes--held on-site and often on company time--are becoming more common at companies, ranging from General Motors Corp.'s $30 million investment in 150 of its plants to Eli's Chicago's Finest Cheesecake Inc.'s lunchtime classes. Usually taught in conjunction with a community college, library, or volunteer group, these programs differ from traditional tutoring methods in several ways. They're taught in small groups, instead of one-on-one; they're often shorter and more intensive, meeting several times a week over three to six months instead of the usual two hours per week; and, most of all, the instruction methods are geared to the work at hand, teaching with materials that the employees would use on the job.

NO DROPOUTS. Retention in these classes tends to be quite high, because "people can see the results of what they learn on the plant floor. Where there's relevance, there's retention," says Brenda Pounds, education specialist for Entergy Corp., a New Orleans-based utility. Entergy finances a unique program: a trio of mobile literacy labs that tour factories in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana year-round, teaching 300 employees a week.

Because of the customized nature of the classes, workplace literacy programs are more costly than traditional tutoring--roughly $300 more per student. But they can be more effective. Virtually everyone finishes a workplace course, in contrast to the typical adult education course, where dropout rates can be as high as 80%.

While workplace programs deal with illiteracy on the job, another innovation--the family literacy movement--attacks the problem on the home front. Recognizing that illiteracy is often passed from parent to child, these programs combine teaching reading with general parenting classes; the best of them address both parents and preschoolers. Atlanta's Family Literacy Collaborative, funded by grants from Toyota Motor Corp., First Union Corp., and the local Junior League, runs a day-long program at several elementary schools. While children attend preschool classes, their mothers brush up on basic math and literacy skills. Then the groups come together for a mutual lesson: running a make-believe grocery store or writing a fairy tale.

What more could be done? Certainly companies could redirect their employee training dollars: Corporate America "spends $30 billion to $40 billion a year on job training, but only 10% goes to blue-collar workers where the need is most pronounced," says Jerome M. Rosow, president of Work in America Institute, a research group specializing in workplace productivity. Most important, companies have to learn that illiteracy is their problem--not solely that of the public schools.

      ADOLPH COORS Runs learning center (cost: $80,000 a year) to teach employees and 
      their families to read and work toward general equivalency diploma. Staffed by 
      Coors employees and retirees
      EXXON Teaming with local library to offer English reading and writing classes 
      for illiterate Hispanic employees at Baytown-Olefins plant in Texas
      GTE inancing ($400,000 to date) family literacy programs for the public, run by 
      Literacy Volunteers of America in 10 communities where GTE is based
      MOTOROLA Mesa (Ariz.) plant holds courses on company time in math and reading 
      for workers who test below eighth-grade level; is experimenting with self-paced 
      and home-computer programs
      DATA: BW
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