Magazine article Management Review

Confronting Illiteracy

Magazine article Management Review

Confronting Illiteracy

Article excerpt

It's the year 2031 and the commuter railroad has just eliminated its last reading car for lack of interest. From now on, the soothing if somewhat metallic voice informs us over the speaker system that all cars will be equipped with the latest video newspaper equipment. All we need do, we're told, is sit back and watch the world go by No need to even turn the viewer on; the mere act of sitting down brings this electronic marvel to life ... and it will only go off when we stand uP to get off the train.

Before boarding we stop at a kiosk for a pack of gum. The clerk takes our $5 bill and holds it before a screen. Another voice responds: Please give the customer a quarter, a dime and a nickel. "The voice says, Thank you. The clerk says nothing.

If you think this is a far-fetched view of the future-one in which reading and the ability to do simple math have disappeared-just take a look at the average test scores on the SAT They are both a national tragedy and a national disgrace.

For businesspeople, the decline in reading and math ability should also be a signal of impending disaster. We are rapidly becoming a second-rate intellectual power, just as we are becoming a second-rate economic power. There is more than coincidence here. Brain power, not computer power, is the ultimate engine of business. Yankee ingenuity-smarts-made America king of the economic hill, and when it disappears we'll no longer be the world's business leader.

The good news is that this black view of the future can be altered. Indeed, there is movement in that direction already. Community-based literacy programs are proliferating. And AAM's yearly survey on literacy in the workplace shows that there is an upward curve in the number of businesses and organizations providing basic skills training for their employees.

These programs are needed and worthwhile. The problem, however, is that they supplement and, in many cases, substitute for the training that our school system should provide. To get results on a large scale-to reverse the trend-we, as business people, need to attack the root of the problem. We need to get behind a national program to reform the educational process itself.

There is certainly no lack of experimental programs and ideas. The Boston Compact is just one of a number of programs now underway. There is also an interesting amount of support growing for a national testing program similar to the ones in Japan and Great Britain. These tests would certify a minimum level of competence in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades. …

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