The Pragmatic Sophist


Rick Sorrels

What is “literacy” and do our schools attain it? 

For centuries, the term “literacy” referred merely to the ability to read, write and count. That definition no longer applies. The world is now far more complex and much more is required to function in today’s society. 

The Workplace Investment Act of 1998 (federal legislation) defines literacy as “an individual’s ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual and in society.” In other words, literacy is the knowledge necessary to function adequately in the workplace and society. 

The term “functional literacy” came into use in the 1960s and places literacy into its real-life context. For example, an American visiting a foreign country without knowledge of the local language is considered functionally illiterate. 

Literacy requirements are different for a date peddler or camel driver in Yemen or Somalia compared to the requirements for a programmer at Microsoft, a welder at the Bremerton shipyard, or even a new car salesperson in Puyallup. 

You would think that our governments would have established at what grade levels or what subject completion an individual would achieve literacy in reading, writing, math, et cetera. Not so. Very few such references exist. There are no established standards to measure literacy, and some of the published results of “literacy testing” are so bizarre that they must be read along with a bucket of salt. 

A few connections have been found, however, between functional literacy in America and specific grade-level equivalents. The West Virginia Department of Education cites that during World War II, the average worker was expected to perform at a fourth-grade level, with the standard for functional literacy rising to an eighth-grade level by the 1960s, with new jobs today already requiring a 12-grade education. A second source stated similarly, expecting for a grade 12.6 requirement for today’s 2015 workforce. 

Washington state has adopted testing requirements for graduation, but the last tests are conducted while the students are still in 10th grade, measuring only a 10-grade achievement. This obviously does not test for achieving the grade 12, or grade 12.6 workplace requirements for functional literacy. It should also be noted that only 76 percent of Washington students receive a high school diploma. 

More is needed from our children’s schools. Even computer literacy is required today for a minimum-wage burger flipper working a computerized cash register, or somebody frustrated at home with a vehicle or a computerized appliance they can’t get to work. 

 The Washington state Constitution requires the state to adequately fund “basic education” as the state’s “paramount duty” “to make ample provision for education of all of the children residing within its borders” (Wash. Constitution, Article IX, section 1). Education is the only funding activity identified as “paramount” in our Constitution. All other funding is secondary to education.  

At statehood in 1889, basic education requirements may have been met by the fourth grade. Today at least some college or trade school, beyond high school, is a necessity. 

President Obama recently proposed that the federal and state governments need to pass legislation that ensures free education for any student qualifying for community college. The state of Kentucky has already implemented a free-tuition program. 

Our legislators should take note that a K-12 education funding, by itself, is now insufficient. Community college funding should have the same priority as K-12, and a high school graduation rate where only three out of four students receive a diploma is unacceptable. 

Failure to attain functional literacy in school condemns those individuals to low pay and low achievement for life, something our Founding Fathers sought to avoid, at all costs. 

Our state Legislators will have a tough time this budget year fully funding education, while avoiding a constitutional crisis, and a threat from the Washington State Supreme Court to find the Legislature in contempt under its 2012 McCleary decision and their 1978 Seattle School District decision. 

I wish them well in finding the billions of dollars needed. The voters will be watching.