Low Literacy = High Waste in Education

Published June 1, 2000

In the call for schools to be held accountable for results, one measure trumps all others: If public schools simply taught all children to read and write, they would pass any accountability test with flying colors. Literate graduates possess the tools for self-help; they can read to learn; they can prepare themselves for additional tests.

Unfortunately, a new study we conducted recently for the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation shows that public schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia utterly fail in this most fundamental of missions, wasting not only whole young lives but a significant portion of taxpayer resources as well.

The study, titled Waste in Education, draws on data from extensive government studies of illiteracy and school expenditures, from which we developed an index to measure literacy as the bottom-line outcome of education. By that gauge, we figured schools had frittered away 13 to 23 percent of their resources–a staggering $49.2 billion in the 1995-96 school year based on expenditure data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 1998 Digest of Education Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Washington, DC’s schools were the least efficient, with 23 percent of funds wasted when measured against indicators of basic literacy. Alaska, Utah, and Wyoming each wasted 13 percent–the lowest rate among the states, but still the loss of one child out of every eight coming to school and far more inefficiency than any business could tolerate if it wanted to remain solvent.

Between those highs and lows, states shake out on the literacy-inefficiency scale in ways that yield few, if any, heroes. The District of Columbia schools long have been reputed as among the nation’s most troubled, but some major states wasted children’s lives and education dollars, as measured by literacy, almost as briskly as did the nation’s capital.

Mississippi, with 21 percent waste, and Louisiana, at 20 percent, give DC a close run for last place. Next, at 19 percent, came a trio of Deep Southern states: Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina (total wasted: $4 billion). But just one percentage point behind them in the dubious race to the bottom were the three population giants: California, New York, and Texas. Georgia also had an 18 percent inefficiency rate.

Experts measure literacy in varied ways, but the levels used to measure school efficiency in the Friedman study do not ask a lot of public schooling. The U.S. Department of Education’s seminal 1993 study, Adult Literacy in America, categorized literacy as three types–prose, document, and quantitative–and measured it at five levels, with Level I being the lowest. The Friedman study uses Level I and II data for students who are still in high school and high school graduates who have not received additional formal education.

According to a 1998 report by the National Institute of Literacy, adults at Level I of literacy “cannot usually perform” such tasks as finding an intersection on a street map, identifying and entering background information on a Social Security card application, and calculating total costs of a purchase from an order form. They “can usually perform”–note the qualifier “usually”–such functions as signing one’s name and totaling a bank deposit entry.

Level II is just a small step up from the bottom. Persons at this level might be able to identify two pieces of information in a sports article, but likely couldn’t handle a sentence in a news article interpreting a situation. Entering information into an automotive maintenance record would be beyond their grasp. Children leaving public school with only Level I or Level II literacy are ill-prepared for life in general and sorely ill-equipped to participate in today’s increasingly technical society.

That assessment is supported by statistics in Adult Literacy in America, which show that only 4 to 8 percent of the most highly literate were poor, whereas almost half of the persons at the lowest levels of literacy met federal poverty guidelines. The report also documented that blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities were more likely than whites to score at the lowest levels of literacy.

Poverty is a likely consequence of schools failing to teach students the minimum expected from any educational system: the common language needed for landing a good job. Many immigrant children have been trapped in the linguistic segregation of bilingual education, wherein English is disdained while they are taught for as long as eight years solely in their native languages. Many Hispanic parents are among those now rising up against the absurdity of shunning English in the teaching of English.

While some argue that illiteracy is a consequence of poverty and race, there are many examples of schools that enroll high percentages of poor and minority children, yet achieve top scores in reading. One such school, identified in The Heritage Foundation’s No Excuses series, is Los Angeles’ Bennett-Kew Elementary, where eight of every 10 students are from low-income homes.

When Nancy Ichinaga became principal of Bennett-Kew in 1974, an appalling 95 percent of her pupils were illiterate. Within four years, her leadership had elevated performance from the 3rd to the 50th percentile in the State of California. The school’s reading scores now are among the highest in Los Angeles County.

“One of our most successful interventions,” Ichinaga has said, “has been to require kindergartners to know all the letter sounds and to be able to blend three letters to read words.”

That’s phonics. Volumes of research show it works for most children, and Whole Language doesn’t. A billion dollars of federal research in Project Follow Through from 1968 to 1976 also established that teacher-directed instruction does work and that teacher-as-facilitator doesn’t work. Strong principals also are essential.

Recent research by Professor Paul Peterson of Harvard, and others, shows that empowering parents to choose their children’s schools also works, because most parents want the best for their children and will seek out schools that work. School choice therefore may prove to be the strongest boon to literacy of all.

Studies by several other researchers studying voucher experiments in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, and Dayton have found improved test scores and even more sharply rising parental satisfaction and involvement in the schools families choose.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow and Don Soifer is executive vice president at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. They can be reached at [email protected].

For more information . . .

The May 2000 report by Robert Holland and Don Soifer, Waste in Education, is available on The Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation’s Web site at http://www.friedmanfoundation.org. Or contact the foundation at P.O. Box 82078, One American Square #1750, Indianapolis, IN 46282, phone 317/681-0745.