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Published: Monday, 7/14/2008

Marshall Plan for literacy

ONCE again, America is an educational trailblazer. Unfortunately, it isn't blazing trails in a direction we would prefer.

According to a recent study by the National Commission on Adult Literacy, the United States has produced 30 million citizens who have scored "below basic" on literacy tests, with 63 million more unprepared for the rigors of postsecondary education.

The report, released last week, said the United States is the only country among 30 of the world's most developed in which the younger generation (adults age 25 to 34) has a lower percentage of high school diplomas than the older generation (ages 45 to 54).

To arrest the erosion of adult literacy, the commission called for a huge effort - like the post World War II "Marshall Plan" - that would ramp up spending for literacy programs to $20 billion by 2020. Twenty million adults would be served by this new effort. It includes overhauling, updating, and bringing into agreement the disparate standards of federal literacy programs now administered by the Departments of Education and Labor.

The reforms must go beyond the narrow (though important) needs of work-force development because the decline of adult literacy has profound implications for the nation, its politics, and our standard of living. It is as much a disaster and drain on society's resources as a botched war.

At one time, the United States had one of the most literate populations in the world. Now we're in the unenviable position of being a country where adult illiteracy is growing despite broad access to education by even the poorest of our citizens.

The National Commission on Adult Literacy didn't mince words in its gloomy assessment. To ensure an adult literacy rate that is consistent with American aspirations and values, the nation will have to spend billions more than it does now.

Some will argue that $20 billion is excessive. Whatever the final price of education reform, it will be worth it if it means Americans can once again reclaim a spot among the world's most literate.

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