D.C. One-Third Illiterate

When I saw the YahooNews headline “Study finds one-third in D.C. illiterate,” I presumed it was some sort of play on Mark Twain’s line that, “Those who can read and don’t are no better off than those who can’t.”

Apparently, they’re serious.

About one-third of the people living in the national’s capital are functionally illiterate, compared with about one-fifth nationally, according to a report on the District of Columbia. Adults are considered functionally illiterate if they have trouble doing such things as comprehending bus schedules, reading maps and filling out job applications.

The study by the State Education Agency, a quasi-governmental office created by the U.S.
Department of Education to distribute federal funds for literacy services, was ordered by Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 2003 as part of his four-year, $4 million adult literacy initiative.

The growing number of Hispanic and Ethiopian immigrants who aren’t proficient in English contributed to the city’s high functional illiteracy level, which translated to 170,000 people, said Connie Spinner, director of the State Education Agency. The report says the district’s functional illiteracy rate is 36 percent and the nation’s 21 percent.

D.C. is a strange town, consisting of one of the most highly educated workforces in the country, those working in politics and the various industries that seek to affect public policy and which mostly lives in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland and an underclass that constitutes most of residential D.C. Still, it’s unfathomable that a third of even this latter group is illiterate, even factoring in the immigrant population. After all, the literacy rate of the United States and other developed nations is variously calculated at somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent.

Certainly, filling out a job application or, much less, reading a map, is a more complex task than basic literacy. Then again, a bureaucratic agency in the business of pretending that we have a substantial problem with adult illiteracy and seeking places to hold out money in support of combating same will likely be able to find it.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. A Third of DC Residents Functionally Illiterate? James Joyner is surprised at a recent study that says so, but sees another factor: “a bureaucratic agency in the business of pretending that we have a substantial problem with adult illiteracy and seeking places to hold out money in support of

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Lots of problems with measuring literacy. For one thing there’s no standardized, uniform definition across countries. That results in some countries claiming 90%+ literacy rates when the reality probably is that they’re half that.

    That said given the definition used for this study I’m surprised the rate of illiteracy is so low. Have you looked at a bus schedule lately?

  4. Eneils Bailey says:

    “Study finds one-third in D.C. illiterate,”

    And the other two-thirds are only marginally literate.

    As an inhabitant of fly-over country, I have assumed that for years.

  5. Eric J says:

    The study by the State Education Agency, a quasi-governmental office created by the U.S. Department of Education to distribute federal funds for literacy services, was ordered by Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 2003 as part of his four-year, $4 million adult literacy initiative.

    So a government agency does a survey and finds that the problem it’s supposed to solve is even bigger than they thought. If that’s not “Dog-bites-man” and Press-Release Journalism, I don’t know what is.

  6. Tano says:

    James,

    You are clearly making an unwarranted comparison.

    In the article that you quote, they claim that 1/3 are FUNCTIONALLY illiterate, compared to 20% in the rest of the nation.

    So your later reference to 99% literacy is clearly talking about a different standard.

    Given that the population of DC is 500,000, and the difference between their functional illiteracy rate is 13% (33-20), that means there are an “extra” 65K functional illiterates in DC, compared to what they would have if they were like the rest of the nation. That seems entirely attributable to immigrants.

  7. Bob M says:

    For the family of literacy assessments used in this survey, we’re talking about roughly reading at third grade level. In the nation, 21% of adults are below the cut point, but only about 3% can’t really read at all (in English — that’s all this survey addresses; some are excellent readers in another language). The rest can decode words, and could read you the questions and answers out loud, if not necessarily fluently. But they have trouble building the mental model of the situation the text is addressing, and reasoning through it to get information and solve problems.

  8. Tim C says:

    It has long been said that Washington is a first world capital trapped in a third world city.

  9. A Third of DC Residents Functionally Illiterate?…

    James Joyner is surprised at a recent study that says so, but sees another factor: “a bureaucratic agency in the business of pretending that we have a substantial problem with adult illiteracy and seeking places to hold out money in……