Meme Chasing: Literacy In America

The data points sound horrifying:

  • 46 percent of American children enter kindergarten lacking the basic language skills they need to learn to read
  • 61 percent of low-income children have no children’s books in their homes

The verbs convey urgency (currency is an intentional affect, as the factoids are used for fundraising, establishing organizational mandates) and imply that the data are current. But are the data points true, for any definition of “truth”?

Oh. And a reminder. When a “factoid” hits all of your emotional buttons, try to engage your mental brakes before hitting RT, Like, Share or Forward. If it seems too good or too bad to be true, chances are, it’s not.

No Children’s Books?

Check it yourself. Whether using Google (2.8 million) or Bing (10.1 million), the search string <61 percent low-income no children’s books> yields millions of results. Conclusion: it’s a widely cited figure by sites such as BooksForAmericaBookSpring, JumpStartReachOutAndRead and the Wauconda Area Library as well as news stories.

Here’s one manifestation:

61 percent of low-income families have no books at all in their homes for their children. Families living in poverty must use their financial resources to pay for food and shelter, not books. Reading Literacy in the United States

And another:

In fact, 61 percent of low-income families have no age-appropriate books at all in their homes for their children. Reading Literacy in the United States, Findings from the IEA Reading Literacy Study. 

Reading Literacy in the United States, Findings From The IEA Literacy Study (NCES 96-258), was published in 1996 by the U.S. Department of Education. It is based on data from (wait for it) 20+years ago. The Department of Education report focuses on the U.S. data.

I searched for key words:

  • 61 percent : AWOL
  • Low-income: AWOL
  • Books: AWOL

So what do you think? How could the “fact” that jerked my chain have been pulled from this research report?

Note: in the 2006 study (pdf, 44 MB), U.S. fourth graders dropped from #2 to #18 in reading achievement score. So yeah, we seem to have a problem, but let’s make arguments for change based on solid data, shall we?

Poorly Prepared At Age Five?

In a 2011 press release (pdf) for her iPhone/iPodTouch/iPad mobile gaming application, Footsteps2Brilliance, founder Ilene Rosenthal says:

I created this company after reading a statistic that 46 percent of U.S. children enter kindergarten at risk of failure because they lack essential oral language and literacy skills.

Hmmm. We know from the 1996 report that income and education are contributors to literacy. How many low-income, no-high-school-diploma families have an iPhone, iPodTouch or iPad for their 4 year old? Conversely, how many high-income, college graduate familes have one?

But I digress. Rosenthal provides no source for her factoid (either in the press release or in the webinar that sent me down this rabbit hole).

Here’s what I found:

In a Missouri school district study, 46 percent of 191 kindergarten teachers said that half or more kids in their class had trouble following directions. (MyOptimumHealth – no source)

In a 1995 survey of 3,500 kindergarten teachers from across the country, many reported that large proportions of their students lacked important school readiness skills. For example, 46 percent of the kindergarten teachers reported that at least half the students in their classes had difficulty following directions, 36 percent reported that at least half of their class lacked academic skills they needed, and 34 percent reported that at least half of their class had difficulty working independently. (National Institute for Early Education, pdf, cited Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Pianta, R. C., & Cox, M. J. (2000). Teachers’ judgments of problems in the transition to kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 15 (2), 147–166.)

Here’s a little more from that referenced study (emphasis added):

Teachers [perceived] that 16% of children had difficult entries into kindergarten… Rates of perceived problems were related to school minority composition; district poverty level; and, for certain behaviors, school metropolitan status… Teachers’ ethnicity showed a significant relation to their rates of reported problems.

Hitting a digital brick wall, I changed my search query from <46 percent kindergarten lacking skills> to <enter kindergarten lacking skills>.

Hit number one, and back we go to Jumpstart’s report. Note, Jumpstart exists to solve the “early education crisis” so we know that they are biased towards presenting a problem (emphasis added):

According to a national longitudinal analysis by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), economically disadvantaged children may know only one or two letters of the alphabet when entering kindergarten, while children in the middle class will know all 26. Only half of the children from low-income families can write their own name, while more than 75 percent of children from higher income families can do so. Researchers also estimate that before ever entering kindergarten, cognitive scores for children of low-income families are likely to average 60 percent lower than those in the highest socioeconomic groups, something that remains true through high school. (Jumpstart, pdf, cited Lee, V. E. & Burkam, D. T. (2002). Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences in achievement as children begin school. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.)

The factoid that Rosenthal uses does not seem to exist, but Jumpstart makes an argument that an unknown number of “economically disadvantaged” children are entering the educational system “behind” more affluent peers. Let me point you to the U.S. Department of Education report (longer analysis at WiredPen) which reminds us that household economics may be a proxy for household educational level.

And let me remind you, gentle reader, that correlation is not causation.

I did find references to one-in-three children entering kindergarten (as well as “nearly half”) lacking necessary early reading skills, but alas, no sources given. One presentation credits (pdf) the 1-in-3 datapoint to unnamed research from 1985. One 1998 report (pdf) quotes then-Gov. Zell Miller (R-GA).

A report from UCLA (pdf) asserts (emphasis added) that “[u]p to one-third of American children enter kindergarten lacking at least some of the skills needed for a successful learning experience.” Their source, a 1998 book: Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

I’m going to walk out on a limb and suggest that this 1998 book (or maybe the 2007 report) is the initial source for the cannot-be-verified <one-in-three kids enter kindergarten lack reading skills> meme (3.3 million returns on Google).

What we do know is that parental education is correlated with childhood literacy (emphasis added):

Irrespective of whether we are looking at father’s or mother’s education, students whose parents have not graduated from high school have reading comprehension scores well below the U.S. average. Students whose parents have completed college have reading scores above the national average. (Reading Literacy in the United States, Findings From The IEA Literacy Study (NCES 96-258, p 45)

Verdict: 2-for-2 False

I can hear you thinking (laughing):

OMG! Someone is wrong on the Internet!

That’s not my point. It’s not being wrong on “the Internet” that sets my teeth on edge.

It is the use of sloppy/inaccurate/misleading data to craft persuasive messages.

It’s wrong. It leads to bad policy decisions (and maybe inappropriate foundation grant awardees).

And if done with intent, it’s unethical, too.

:: A longer version of this article (more analysis) appears at WiredPen
:: Follow me on Twitter!

6 Comments

  1. thanks Kathy. There need to be far more investigative inquiries like yours and far more snopes-like places that are somehow more ‘present’ than having to google snopes and the ‘factoid’ to get there… I’d like to see perpetual sidebars on many many websites that have several factoid checkers. Not left/right/center. But for a change just facts. Thanks again. keep it coming.

    dr.e

  2. This makes me feel better. I know that my children were well-educated by my wife and me long before they got to kindergarten. We both have college degrees. We have never had lots of money (my wife chose to stay home with the kids).

    It is much more likely that the most telling ‘statistic’ is the reading readiness based on parents’ education levels.

  3. My mother instilled a love of reading in all her children at an early age. (for which I am forever grateful) I taught my little brother to read before he started school, he was smart little guy then, and is a smart big guy now! I was two years older then he was at the time. Anyway, I worry a LOT when I see stats like the ones being thrown around. Looks like new research needs to be done. I think it’s a crime for children not to learn to read and a crime for them not to be taught to enjoy it. Apologies for digressing and for speaking the obvious.

  4. Hmm…sooo much to reflect upon…

    Mom was a high school drop out.
    Dad was a functioning alcoholic during high school, but managed to finish.
    Step-dad, while extremely intelligent, didn’t fit well in the traditional school system.

    While I wouldn’t change who I am and neither do I not appreciate (but I do like a double negative, but only for emphasis) the amazing life I have been able to live…I wonder what if… what if my parents had known the things that i know now.

    I am lucky enough to be one of those that the system saved and lucky enough to have parents that love me…even if they too now wonder… what if…

    Headstart.
    Extremely strong public schools.
    College scholarship.

    I worked my butt off, but I am not “self-made”.

  5. Thanks, Dr. E. And Zephyr, I agree, it seems like research is sorely lacking. Rcoutme that is important, but it is also tied to household income, ie, it is correlated (not causative). ShannonLee — good for you!

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