By Rochelle Riley
Detroit Free Press Columnist and Reading Works Honorary Co-Chair
I remember first hearing it 10 years ago, my mouth falling open and my brain thinking: That’s just a lie.
I remember reading the research then, talking to experts, writing those first columns about a federal survey estimating that 47% of Detroiters and a fifth of Michiganders read below a sixth-grade level.
And I remember people calling to tell me to stop. They didn’t say it wasn’t true. They said I shouldn’t tell.
The dirty little secret.
The silent shame.
I remember the phone call from an unemployment office clerk who lamented that people couldn’t fill out their benefit applications, couldn’t spell the name of their former employers.
I remember an acquaintance who watched a woman mercilessly beat a pop machine in a hospital waiting room — some of her blows landing on the sign that said “Out of Order.”
But because many of us thought, “I don’t know anyone who can’t read,” we turned away from the problem, despite the fact that it has pervaded every aspect of our lives. Who can get jobs to pay taxes? Who can afford to buy a home? Who can teach their children to read?
Ten years later, we are finally paying attention. Good people have begun vital initiatives. The state has opened learning centers in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park — pilots for others around the state. Local Rotary Clubs have pledged 3,000 volunteers to tutor adults. And now, an unprecedented community coalition — Reading Works — has arisen to raise funds for those helping the estimated 300,000 Detroit residents 16 and older who read below a sixth-grade level.
They could fill Comerica Park more than seven times.
Michigan has 1.8 million working-age residents who read below a sixth-grade level. They could fill Ford Field 27 times. Their plight makes them ineligible for most federal job training programs and unable to take jobs for which reading ability is essential.
The new initiatives are among the few good things to have come from the near-Depression that has rocked the nation and especially our state for a decade. It may take a village to raise a child, but it took an economic crisis and more than a million lost jobs for people across Michigan to embrace the cause of helping adults read.
Work and children
Amy Goodman, executive director of the Washtenaw Literacy Council, the state’s oldest, said that before the recession, it was harder to find tutors to help adults.
“The human impulse is to help children,” she says. “Adults aren’t cute. Kids are cute. You can put children on your lap.”
Michigan historically has been a state that didn’t connect the dots between children and adults. Poorly educated children become high school dropouts. Some high school dropouts become adults who can’t read, and those are the adults who can’t land a job that will sustain a family.
Recent surveys found that three-quarters of state residents believed that a college degree was unnecessary. That number matches the number of Michiganders who don’t have one. And until five years ago, the only state requirement to graduate high school was a single civics course — although most high school officials knew and demanded better.
What a difference an economic meltdown makes.
In a state where a 2009 study found that one in three adults read below a sixth-grade level, we finally understand that improved literacy is not just about bedtime stories; it is about work and about children.
“The traditional definition is that a little retired lady is volunteering in the library and helping someone learn to read and learn phonics and ABCs,” Goodman says. “But the fact is, the definition of literacy today is different. We talk about skills acquisition.
“We talk to adults about how you apply this to your day-to-day living, to getting a job, to helping your children succeed in school,” she says. “There’s where the generational impact is. Illiteracy is the root cause of poverty, and it’s not because the children can’t read. Children are not making the money. Children are not sustaining a family. … Teaching an adult to read impacts generations.”
Maybe it was the children and the prospect of families not being able to provide that turned the tide. But whatever is happening appears to be happening in a big way.
Dianne Duthie, director of education and career readiness with the Michigan Workforce Development Agency, says the state’s nine learning labs across southeast Michigan are serving 3,100 people but can handle 5,000. “They’re doing everything from low-level literacy for people who cannot read and write or people who cannot speak this language to helping people who need to be remediated briefly to get a job,” she says.
Nineteen area Rotary Clubs kicked off one of the largest efforts last spring: They collected more than 170,000 books and distributed them to literacy centers and community-based libraries, and they have trained more than 140 of the 3,000 tutors they pledged to the literacy fight over three years. But most important, they are working to partner with churches to increase learning sites.
“If we could get a center in a thousand churches, and each teaches 20 people to read, we could reach 20,000 people,” says Mark Wilson, an attorney at the Miller Canfield law firm and past president of the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club, which is helping lead the effort. “That would be a good start.”
Quality of life
Sixteen percent of the state’s struggling readers live in Detroit, where Mayor Dave Bing says his greatest challenge isn’t balancing a budget, fixing public schools or even convincing companies seeking tax credits and bargain real estate to come. Companies want to come, he says. The challenge “is convincing those businesses that they will have a work force.”
And that begins with a work force that reads.
“We’re starting to see in Detroit more and more businesses that are here that are thinking about expanding, and more and more businesses that are thinking about coming here,” says Bing, whose staff is already writing grants for adult reading programs.
“But the real push-back has been this: Do we have the education level where it needs to be? A lot of the businesses that want to come here are not your traditional blue-collar kinds of jobs, so the education capacity that we have here for our work force becomes a determination as to whether people are going to invest.”
Detroit can overcome great obstacles: population losses, high crime and mixed reviews about whether it warrants a pep cheer or an obituary.
But since the next world war will be an economic one, leaders in Detroit, which suffers double-digit unemployment, must rethink how they deal with and speak about the reading crisis.
“The first thing we have to do is show (poor readers) some love, show them some respect and be honest with them and let them know that we truly want to help them,” Bing says. “But they’ve got to make a decision to help themselves.
“Too often, as adults, when we have those kinds of deficiencies, we don’t want to be real and say we have a problem. And you can’t solve a problem if you’re not honest with yourself.”
That kind of honesty is vital as more and more communities embrace programs to help improve adult literacy across the region and across the state. That is the only way to end the conspiracy of silence and culture of shame among state officials who didn’t want businesses to know and nonreaders who didn’t want anyone to know. We know effective education and improved adult reading will make a difference to our economy. It’s about work. But it’s also about quality of life.
Ten years later, I remember another moment.
I was reading to my daughter. She was 12, but we occasionally still read together. I don’t remember the book. But I remember stopping short. Just for a moment. Because it hit me that there were hundreds of thousands of children who had not experienced, who might not ever experience, that moment: lying in a mother’s arms while she soothes you with sweet words about far-off places or long-ago heroes.
There were hundreds of thousands of children whose father would never read “Goodnight, Moon.”
The challenge for Michigan and Detroit is clear: We can do this. We’ve always been able to do it, whatever it is that needs to be done. In times of war. In times of crisis. We didn’t lose the war. We didn’t lose the auto industry.
We won’t lose at this, if we step up, reach out and offer hands up, not hands out.
We can help residents improve their reading levels. Or we can watch businesses pass us by as they seek cities and regions where reading levels are higher, where education is more important.
We can continue to lament how poorly our children are doing in school. Or we can finally admit that a child’s education is a reflection of their parents’ ability to help them learn. And children without caring parents cannot be thrown away.
Mayor Bing gets it. Gov. Rick Snyder, who increased the adult education budget from zero dollars to $22 million this year, gets it. The Rotary Club gets it. Reading Works gets it.
We must embrace every effort, every chance to help.
“I think it’s something that we absolutely have to do,” Bing said, “because there’s a large percentage of our population in the city that needs help. They are not throwaways. And as long as they are opened-minded and want help, I think we can help them.”
Then they can help themselves, help the city and help the state. Then we will have another milestone to mark in our history, the year we decided to turn things around for good, the moment we helped a dad be able to read “Goodnight, Moon.”