“It’s a hidden shame for far too many people,” says Paul MacNeil, Executive Director of the Bedford-Sackville Literacy Network (BSLN). http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/education/bsln/ “Adults with literacy challenges… tend to struggle on alone… and need a helping hand to get the educational upgrading they desperately need to make it in the world.”
MacNeil is a living example of those struggles. Born in Sydney, Cape Breton, he quit school, went to work at the SYSCO steel plant, and raised four children on short pay checks while being laid off by the company some 21 times. In his late 30s, he used his EI to help finance an education, earning two university degrees. Even then, he struggled to find regular work, that is, until discovering the crying needs in the adult education field.
Adult illiteracy remains largely a hidden problem, even in our larger cities. Since the 2003 International Adult and Life Skills Survey (IALSS), the brutal facts are well known. A shocking proportion of Canada’s adult population simply lack the essential skills required to cope in our 21st century “knowledge-based” economy. Two out of five adults operate at Level 1 (Poor) or Level 2 (Weak) levels in literacy and the numbers are higher for numeracy. Whether observing factory workers struggling with instruction manuals or watching cashiers attempting to make change, the outward signs are everywhere.
Most of those afflicted with illiteracy are powerless to change their current circumstances without “essential skills” training. Many rural Canadians hide their shame and in Canada’s cities the casualt ies of our education system drift along, moving from job-to-job, marginalized in one of the world’s most advanced and affluent societies. It’s so serious that the biggest Canadian businesses, most notably, the TD Bank, have started to take notice.
“One of the biggest challenges we have in business,” TD Banks’s Chief Economist Craig Alexander recently declared in Halifax, “is awareness of the problem.” A few short years ago, he counted himself among those still in the dark. “I was absolutely shocked,” he admitted, “when I looked at the actual figures for a supposedly advanced country like Canada. It stunned me that 4 in 10 young Canadians and 5 in 10 adults are lacking in literacy, and it’s higher (6 out of 10) when it comes to numeracy.” http://www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/td-economics-special-literacy0907.pdf
What’s the root cause of our adult literacy challenges? Provincial Euucation Departments and even publicly-funded literacy associations tend to dance around that issue. “The regular system is failing them, ” says Paul MacNeil, ” They are shunted along in school and they’re still coming out at the end unable to properly read or write. They’re self-esteem is shot… It’s a shame what we are doing to them.” http://halifax.openfile.ca/halifax/text/hidden-shame-adult-illiteracy
“Our number one economic problem,” Alexander claimed, “is abysmal productivity – and a lack of innovation.” A Statistics Canada survey, cited by Alexander, reported that lifting literacy scores by 1% could raise labour productivity by 2.5% and output per capita by 1.5%, boosting national income by $32 billion.
Literacy advocates in Nova Scotia are quick to pinpoint why the problem persists, even in cities like Halifax with five accredited universities and an illiteracy rate of 34 percent. The fight against adult illiteracy in Nova Scotia is largely entrusted to thirty poorly-funded Community Learning centres in the Literacy Nova Scotia Network. While the NS NDP government has tripled funding for short-term Workplace Training from $300,000 to $ 1 million over the past 2 years, the local volunteer-driven Literacy Network agencies are struggling to stay afloat.
Cathy Hammond, Secretary of the Bedford-Sackville Literacy Network, speaks with some authority on the subject. As the parent of four children, including one with severe learning challenges, she is gravely concerned about the current trend. “Adult literacy funding,” she insists, “has changed… providing more of an employability focus than educational upgrading and it threatens to leave some adult learners without options.”
Over at the Dartmouth Learning Network, Sunday Miller put it more bluntly. Government funding for adult learning, she told Chronicle Herald columnist Brenda MacDonald, is “a joke.” http://thechronicleherald.ca/dcw/54795-adult-literacy-can-be-shortest-path-educated-society
“There’s not enough money being put toward adult learning,” Miller insists. “I don’t believe in a free ride…but when people want to start to change their lives, and they hit roadblock after roadblock after roadblock and get doors slammed in their faces, then there’s something wrong with the system.” In short, providing short-term workplace training does not really get to the root of the chronic problem.
Adult illiteracy is still a sleeper as a major Canadian education policy issue, perhaps because it focuses on the products of the K-12 public school system. Why is adult literacy considered to be an afterthought? Who will step-up and tackle the problem head-on in Canada, now that the TD Bank has put it back on the public agenda? What are the political obstacles and structural barriers to addressing Canada’s “hidden shame”?