This report from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education is a call to transform adult learning in the U.S.  36 million Americans (17.5% of the adult population ages 16-65) have low literacy skills, nearly 24 million of whom are part of the workforce. In addition, nearly 46 million Americans (29%) struggle with numeracy. These skills issues have significant negative impacts on individuals, their families, and their communities. In our digital age, low literacy also is compounded by lower levels of digital literacy. Among adults with the lowest literacy, 44 percent report having no computer experience and 16 percent failed a simple digital literacy screening assessment.

In contrast, higher skills are linked to improved economic and social outcomes, such as better employment, earnings, and health; social mobility; and greater civic engagement. For example, almost one-third (29 percent) of Americans with low literacy skills are more likely to report having “fair” to “poor” health, which is four times more than those with strong literacy skills.

Low literacy and numeracy disproportionately impact already vulnerable populations:

  • Hispanics and blacks are three to four times more likely to have low skills than whites. Thirty-five percent of black and 43 percent of Hispanic adults have low literacy skills compared with only 10 percent of whites. Nearly two-thirds of those in the lowest numeracy skill level are black or Hispanic
  • Non-English-speaking immigrants in the United States with low-educated parents are 10 times more likely to have low literacy skills (on a test in English) than native-born adults whose parents have at least a high school education
  • Among those with a diagnosed learning disability, 35 percent have low skills compared with 17 percent of those without a diagnosed disability; about half of those with an learning disability have low numeracy skills compared with just one-fourth of those without a learning disability
  • One-third of low-skilled U.S. adults ages 16–65 are under age 35

The report provides seven strategies for improving the conditions that create and perpetuate poor literacy, numeracy, and problem solving:

  • Act collectively to raise awareness and take joint ownership of solutions
  • Transform opportunities for youth and adults to assess, improve, and use foundation (literacy and numeracy) skills
  • Make career pathways available and accessible in every community
  • Ensure that all students have access to highly effective teachers, leaders, and programs
  • Create a “no wrong door” approach for youth and adult services
  • Engage employes to support upskilling more front-line workers
  • Commit to closing the equity gap for vulnerable subpopulations

The report also provides examples of how these strategies already have been successfully implemented.  The strategies do not distinguish between public and private obligation, nor do they compartmentalize actions at the federal, state, regional, tribal, or local levels. Instead, they are based on the principle of shared responsibility and acknowledge that America’s skills challenge is too large to address by any stakeholder group independently.

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