Paul Fain Highlights Illiteracy

Paul Fain writes a newsletter called The Job. The newsletter typically presents a few paragraphs one topic and then provides summaries and links to relevant news and current research. I subscribe because I write on and teach labor economics. The title of the letter this week is “Skills and Employability”.

As federal and state governments mull big spending on skills training, some experts say more resources should go toward boosting the literacy and numeracy of Americans without college degrees.

And despite the widespread belief that a quality liberal education in a college degree program is the best way to develop the sort of highly sought skills that pay off in the job market, many college degree holders also lack proficiency in literacy and numeracy.

Fain’s cites a recent essay by Irwin Kirsch calling for more opportunities for illiterate adults to achieve literacy, so that they can take advantage of continuing professional education. Kirsch is calling for more education so that the adults can do yet more education. I’m an educator and find myself sympathetic to Kirsch’s plan.

I’m also transported back to the graphs I encountered while reading Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. Caplan also reported statistics on how many American adults cannot read or who cannot comprehend written communication.

For adults with very poor basic language skills, it is going to be very hard to re-skill through further education. My blog post just yesterday was about a study that compared learning to code to foreign language acquisition.  It’s hard to imagine how to teach a coal miner to code without assigning them some reading material.

Caplan looks at those statistics and concludes we should have less education – because education didn’t work the first time. Kirsch concludes we should have more education – so that education can work the next time.

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