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Spreading the Word (continued)

    I'm sitting in a cinderblock room in Northampton County Prison in Easton, Pa., talking to Twila Evans, the prison's educational coordinator. She a wiry, energetic, compassionate woman with a shock of white hair and alert blue eyes; I had met her when she participated in a Literacy-Link satellite video conference at WHYY-TV in Philadelphia. At one end of the room are half a dozen Macintosh desktop computers, which some of the prisoners use. (So far, for obvious security reasons, they do not have access to the Internet.)
    I ask her if she's seen a demonstrable gain in literacy since she began using computers.
    "Oh, in terms of a willingness to communicate in writing, yes," she says. "And that's been one of the skills that we've had the least ability with, particularly with this population that has dropped out of school. And when we get the voice thing -- where you can talk into the computer and you don't have to get all hung up with your keys, and then do your editing -- I think that will make even another whole leap."
    She introduces me to a prisoner named Angel, who is doing time for selling drugs. He's a dark-eyed, wary-looking young man who has been in and out of prison for nearly half of his 30 years and is scheduled to be released in 2000. Having finally concluded that the only way to stay out for good is to learn enough to get a decent job, he enrolled in a computer basic-skills class funded by Northampton County Community College.
    The computer, he says, really opened his eyes. "It's more interesting. They've got a picture of the stuff. You know, a book, you just read a couple of pages and just throw it to the side. But a computer, it's just there in front of your face real big, and you can find out more. I started investigating everything -- I was like the police on the computer. I was going through everything -- I looked up a lot of stuff on disks, things about my culture -- Hispanic. I got my diploma for computers. It's taught me a lot. If I didn't have that, I'd still be reading at, I don't know, I'd say a sixth-grade level.
    "I didn't take these classes to try to get out early," he adds. "I took my classes to learn something, so when I get out I'll be prepared for the real world. I learned a lot. Now, I go look for a job, guys that have experience on a computer or typing, I got experience in that."
    I ask Evans how NCAL has helped her raise the literacy level of her segment of adult society.
    "They're on the cutting edge," she answers quickly. "They're asking some of the uncomfortable questions that most of us maybe don't want to think about, especially the public at large. Particularly when it comes to the cost of technology. It's still fairly costly, at least for the average person. And yet when you look at it, even as a taxpayer, the better I prepare these guys to go back out into the community, the less of a burden they will be on any member of society. There are very few jobs out there that you don't have to use some kind of technology.
    "I don't think you can do pure research out there," she adds, "and [be unconnected with us] down here. Somehow you've got to be connected with what's going on in the research field. NCAL has attempted to bring that practitioner and researcher together."
    Five years ago, the U.S. government released some good news and some bad news about literacy, based on the National Adult Literacy Survey. The good news was that nearly 95 percent of adult Americans could read at a fourth-grade level or better, proving that the most basic kind of illiteracy was relatively low. The bad news was that nearly half of all adult Americans scored in the lowest two levels of literacy -- well below levels needed to be competitive in the global economy. In addition, nearly 25 percent of those adults who had an average of 10 years of formal schooling had only fourth-grade literacy skills.
    While there are some 40-50 million adults in need of "retraining, up-skilling, or developing even the most basic literacy skills," Wagner notes -- roughly equivalent to the entire national school-age population -- adult-literacy programs get a tiny fraction of the money spent on teaching and technology for schoolchildren. "This striking contrast between resources allocated and population needs," writes Wagner, "is one of the best-kept secrets in American education today."
    A good 87 percent of adult-literacy teachers are volunteers. Some, of course, are fine, dedicated people. But as Chris Hopey points out, "Just because you're a volunteer doesn't mean you know how to teach. If you get an adult who has all the brain power but has a learning disability -- dyslexia or something -- how does a volunteer help that person? And how do you basically test them without testing them?" He and his colleagues at NCAL are hoping that the interactive aspects of the LiteracyLink project will help on the testing front, and lead to adult learners being matched with the sort of program they need. "We have a belief here that assessment can also be instructional," he says.
    It's hard to know exactly how dire the literacy situation is around the globe, since as Maamouri points out: "Very little assessment has been done according to a strong, solid, scientific base." Three years ago, the World Bank estimated that some 900 million people were illiterate, roughly half of them living in China and India. "Without new interventions," noted a recent ILI report, "adult illiteracy rates in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are not likely to fall much below 40 percent by 2000."

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