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
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
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
"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
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
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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