Ford Motor Co. had a good idea. Officials decided to improve manufacturing at the company's Ypsilanti, Mich., plant by training the entire work force in statistical process controls.
It was a great plan, but it didn't work. Program implementers found that half the workers lacked sufficient reading skills to understand the materials. The company took a giant step backward and initiated a reading program for employees.How widespread illiteracy is in the United States is hard to determine because no on has settled on a formula for defining the problem. The same holds true in Utah, said Brent H. Gubler, State Office of Education specialist in adult education services.
"It depends on who's doing the counting," said Gubler. Various groups define illiteracy as total lack of reading, inability to read functionally, reading only at sixth-or ninth-grade level, inability to read English even if the individual is literate in another language or insufficient skills to get a job.
By some measures, Utah does better than some states. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Utahns have less than a ninth-grade education; 199,000 have not obtained a high school diploma, Gubler said. Among the states, Utah ranks 10th or 11th in the percentage of youths who complete high school, he said.
Even so, illiteracy is a significant problem that has an impact on crime, welfare, unemployment, homelessness and other costly social ills. An estimated 70 percent of the inmates in Utah State Prison never acquired a high school diploma. The welfare rolls are heavily weighted with people who lack the education to get a job.
Many Utahns can't cope with daily living demands as seemingly simple as shopping, managing credit and paying taxes.
"We have many mothers, particularly among the refugees, who take their kids out of school to do shopping," Gubler said. Children in non-English-speaking homes learn the language faster than their parents, many of whom never become functional in the language of their adopted country, he said. About 10,000 to 11,000 refugees live in Utah.
Utah has taken a three-pronged approach to improving literacy through the Governor's Access Committee. The state was one of 10 selected by the National Governors Association to develop recommendations for dealing with illiteracy as it affects economic development.
The committee is looking at how the state's schools can improve the number of students who leave school literate and prepared to enter the job market; how prisoners can be encouraged to upgrade their reading skills before parole; and how economic development can be enhanced through increasing the state's literacy levels.
A master plan is being developed and is supposed to be completed in June, Gubler said.
Utah's schools are becoming more attuned to seeing that students don't march out the door prematurely or, after the required 12 years, without being trained in the basic education skills that will gain them employment.
A tougher "No read, no graduate" policy, increased emphasis on educational basics, and periodic testing may reduce the problem at this level.
Unfortunately, Gubler said, schools get a lot of pressure from parents when "Johnny gets held back. It's a complex problem with many factors." Social or chronological promotions allow many students to slip through the system without learning basic skills.
A companion "No read, no parole" approach probably couldn't be legally enforced, Gubler said. However, intimating a more favorable response to a parole request for prisoners who have taken remedial courses may provide incentive for them to become literate, he said.
The committee has made the least progress in the area of literacy and economic development, he said. Identifying potential employees who are not literate at the point of job entry would be only one aspect of a successful program. Providing programs for remediation would then be a necessary second step to improving the work force in Utah.
The costs of trying to reduce illiteracy are high. The State Office of Education alone earmarks more than $3 million annually to address the problem, Gubler said.
"Divided among 199,000 (the number who don't have a high school education) that isn't much," he said. However, if the effort serves to reduce the number of Utahns involved in crime or dependent on welfare, the money is well spent. As people learn to read and write and join those who are employed, they become contributors, rather than a drain on society.
Illiteracy and homelessness are a deadly duo for thousands of Utahns or transients who make temporary quarters here.
A $750,000 federal grant will be used to address education for this group, Gubler said. Plans are being formulated how best to use the money. It is essential that services be taken to places where the homeless gather, he said. Efforts to get the homeless to participate in established programs have not been successful because these people have transportation problems.
Because Salt Lake and Weber counties have the largest numbers of homeless, the money will be concentrated on programs in these counties.
"If other parts of the state believe they have needs, we'll have to address them, but it would water down the prospects for success." With thousands of homeless in Salt Lake City alone on any given day, the money will have to be stretched effectively to make the program worthwhile, he said.
Gubler said planners hope to get a basic education program housed in Salt Lake City's new transient shelter, or in a nearby building.
Many Utah programs are addressing illiteracy, Gubler said. All 40 Utah school districts and six area vocational centers provide adult education programs for those who lack basic literacy skills. The state Library Commission has a program and many volunteer programs have been established that provide tutoring for adult non-readers. A number of private companies also offer basic education programs.
The state office is attempting to compile a directory of all the resources as a guide for those who need particular remediation services.
The problem is not likely to go away, he said. High technology is increasing the educational standard for today's workers. The definition of illiteracy may undergo additional revisions, leaving Utah and other states with new problems to address.
"The poor and the illiterate we're likely always to have with us," he said.