MemeBusting Tech & society

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”?

Before I reveal my research, an observation about statistics pairing and how the brain creates/assumes patterns.

I thought that the second statistic would be easier to track down, so it’s the one I checked first.

What surprised me was that the document cited (when web site authors actually used a citation, which was rare) referenced a report that dealt with 4th and 9th grade students. But in my mind, I was looking for pre-school data. Finally, I looked at my search query again, and I saw that this “fact” was not age-specific. However, my brain had linked the two factoids together, which may have been the intent of the presenter in this webinar, since her product is for pre-schoolers.

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. 

What is Reading Literacy in the United States?

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.

In 1989 (Bush the Elder was President), the United States joined the International Association For the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) study. The data, which were collected in 1990–1991, focused on 9-year-old and 14-year-old students. The participating nations: Belgium (French), Botswana, Canada (British Columbia), Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany (FRG), Germany (GDR), Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

The Department of Education report focuses on the U.S. data.

First, the number “61” appears seven times in the document; in no instance does the document say anything like “61 percent of low-income families” are related to anything, much less to books. Nada.

What about “low-income”? Here’s the only time the phrase appears:

Children from low-income families are less likely to attend prekindergarten programs than children from high-income families.[19] They are more likely to repeat a grade and to drop out if they had repeated than those from middle- or high-income families.[20] In high school, a higher percentage of students from low-income families drop out each year, [21] a fact reflected in the larger percentage of 19- to 20-year- olds from low-income families out of school without high school diplomas.


No instances of “low income” (no hyphen).

What about “books”?

There are three matches: one, teacher attitudes towards students reading “ahead” of their grade level (10% oppose 9th graders having access to 10th grade books); two, teachers having discussion around books 9th grade students have read (37 percent don’t); and three, a reference in a bibliographic note.

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

Moreover, this is the theme of the 1996 Department of Education report, that things are “good” not “bad”:

It is indisputable. American 4th and 9th grade students read well compared to their counterparts in the countries taking part in the IEA International Reading Literacy Study. (34)

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 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. (More on this next.) 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 (next section) 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).

U.S. Compared With The “World”

The 1996 Department of Education study focused on how U.S. students compared with their peers around the world:

American 4th graders outperformed students from all other nations except Finland and Sweden. American 9th graders’ performance was closely grouped with that of students from 15 other nations…

At both 4th and 9th grade, white students, on average, read better than black and Hispanic students, and students with at least one parent having a college degree read better, on average, than students whose parents have not finished high school. Students whose families are poor do not read as well as those students whose families are better off. (viii)

I don’t think there is anything earth-shatteringly surprising in that summary. I don’t think it would have been surprising even in 1996. And although there are clear disparities in skill level in the U.S., the report emphasized that the U.S. students are, in the main, “above average” when compared with global peers:

Even the most disadvantaged American students do not differ dramatically from the OECD average…

The poorest quartile of students (in terms of an indirect measure of family wealth) performs at about the OECD average in both grades…

Only the performance of black students in both grades and those in 9th grade whose parents did not complete high school did not consistently meet or exceed the OECD average. (viii – vix)

Also, the literacy gap that is reflected by differences in household income is also tied to parental education:

Although coming from a poor family is strongly associated with poor reading achievement, when parents’ education, minority status, and the like are factored out, the apparent reading achievement gap between the rich and poor is reduced by two-thirds. (x)

That, however, probably sounds too elitist for a sound-bite designed to open wallets.

Moreover, the report analyzes U.S. families not by income but by family structure:

  • Two-parent biological families
  • Two-parent blended families
  • One-parent, mother-only families
  • Other
The analysis?

Among 4th graders, two-parent biological families have an apparent advantage over all other kinds of family structure… The family structure that appears to have the lowest mean achievement is the one we have labeled as “other”—families that students say have other combinations of adults with varying degrees of relationship to the student.  (32)

The authors pull and prod the data, looking for explanations as to performance differences in the 4th graders (emphasis added):

[T]he observed reading comprehension deficit of poor children may not be due solely to poverty. Other family attributes related to family wealth may play roles that, without careful consideration, may be wrongly attributed to wealth. (42)

… The growth of racial and ethnic diversity in the United States is most evident in the nation’s schools, where the minority student population has increased from 24 to 33 percent, and the proportion of Hispanic students doubled, in the period between 1976 and 1991.[24] One in every two of these 114 million minority students lives in poverty.[25] Most minority groups suffer some degree of educational disadvantage—lower high school completion rates and lower levels of college entry. (43)

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. (45)

Verdict: 2-for-2 False

So I’ve spent 3+ hours tracking down two “facts” – neither of which appears to be real. Much less truthful.

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

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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