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Half of Detroit’s Adults are Functionally Illiterate

Detroit was once the symbol of American wealth and industrial capacity. It is now everybody’s emblem of decline.

The data about Detroit grows more depressing by the month.  This report may be the most depressing thing you’ll read all year.

In a nutshell, it says that roughly half of all the people who live in Detroit are illiterate. They can’t read the back of a cereal box.  They can’t read a weather report.  They can’t read at all.

They can’t read the back of a cereal box

Matt Yglesias points to this study (PDF) from the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund that shows that nearly half of Detroit’s adult population is functionally illiterate.

That’s close to 200,000 people – about half of whom have high school diplomas or GED’s. Matt writes:Under those circumstances, I find it difficult to be seized with worry that schools are going to be ruined by teachers “teaching to the test” too much.

It is true that school districts that have started taking testing more seriously now need to step up and also take the possibility of outright cheating more seriously. But the fact that huge numbers of kids are passing through school systems and not learning basic literacy drives home the fact that districts also need to take checking to see if the kids are learning anything more seriously. That means tests, and since it’s good to be able to compare different schools to one another that means standardized tests. It’s a limited tool, it shouldn’t be the sole criterion on which the effectiveness of anything is measured, but it’s also an important one.

I’m fine with using tests to measure improvements, literacy, and so forth. The problem is when those tests become high-stakes and yes, when teachers begin “teaching to the test”.

When you teach to the test you end up teaching kids how to take tests and not much else. So yes, let’s use tests to measure education outcomes, but let’s use them the way tests are meant to be used and not as a cudgel hanging over the heads of students and teachers. Trust me, Detroit’s problems go way deeper than anything testing can fix – especially if that testing is used to unilaterally close schools or shame teachers.

You can’t expect to revive an economy where 200,000 of the city’s residents are functionally illiterate.

On that note, however, I do think more choice is probably a good idea for Detroit in particular. The school system, city government, and just about every other institution in Detroit are so corrupt and dilapidated, something has to give. And yes, the unions in that city are part of the problem, though I think not as much a part of the problem as corrupt government leaders.

And of course the economic decline of Detroit is the real villain here. Efforts to revive the economy are probably the most important thing anyone can do, but then we have a chicken-and-egg situation. You can’t expect to revive an economy where 200,000 of the city’s residents are functionally illiterate. But you can’t expect education reforms to solve the problem either when the economy is in such a mess.

The fact is, nobody has a good answer when it comes to Detroit, because there are no good answers. At this point, though, I’m game for throwing whatever we can at the problem and seeing what sticks.

via forbes

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