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Millions of Adults Lack Basic Reading Skills Needed for Good Jobs (Video)

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In the U.S., 36 million adults lack the basic literacy skills needed to land family-supporting jobs—they struggle to read a street sign, a pay stub, or a menu. Yet education programs for this group serve only about 1.5 million, and funding continues to be cut at state and federal levels. There are also often long waiting lists for classes and challenges recruiting teachers. Meanwhile, the stigma of struggling to read and write can keep adults from reconnecting with the classroom. They also face other problems that make it difficult to attend classes consistently, such as a lack of transportation and affordable childcare.

Maine is one of the few states where the governor has proposed increasing funding for adult education. Its programs are also connected to the public school system, which ensures some standards and accountability. I spoke to two adult learners in Maine—one at the beginning of her educational journey, the other at the end—while reporting a segment on this issue for PBS NewsHour.

Carol Palmer, 63

Jay-Livermore Falls, Maine

Student at Spruce Mountain Adult & Community Education

Carol Palmer's teachers told her she "read backwards," so she was sent to a special education class in the 5th grade. "I couldn't do the work and I didn't get no help to do it. I'd go ask the teachers for help and they'll help me for a few minutes and then say, 'you go and do it yourself.' I said, 'I don't know how to do it, how can I?' And they said, 'well, do the best you can.' I don't think I should have got a high school graduation diploma because I couldn't read or write. They pushed me along."

Palmer found ways to hide the fact she couldn't read by looking for reading visual cues, like the pictures on cans and packages at the grocery store. All her life she held a series of low-paying jobs, such as baby sitting and house cleaning. She grew tired of always asking for help because she said, "people look at you awful funny." She longed to read books to her grandchildren, so enrolled in adult education classes.

Now she's at the 3rd grade level in reading, and 6th grade level in math. She is so grateful for the education she's receiving that she's encouraged several other women to enroll. Many don't have transportation and in this rural region, it's difficult for them to attend adult education classes regularly. So Palmer picks up around six women from their homes for class, three times a week. It's a completely different experience, "I love coming to school. I love everybody in this class."

When asked how her life might have been different if she had learned to read and write, Palmer says simply, "I think I would have been happier."

Linda Crawford, 45

Turner, Maine

Student at Maine School Administrative District 52

Linda Crawford says she had a "rough time" in school. She struggled with simple addition and subtraction. When her parents divorced during her high school years, she dropped out of school. She had three children and supported them through a series of low-paying jobs, such as waitressing and babysitting.

Her children became the driving force pushing her to return to school. "When the kids came home from school, I didn't have the knowledge to help them. I would cry. I always had to rely on someone else." She struggled in other areas as well. She had to ask someone to fill out her food stamp forms and she couldn't write a simple check. "I would always hide," she says.

Three years ago, she went back to school. "I went every day of the week, I had classes three times a day." She worked hard and earned her high school diploma. Crawford says it was a huge accomplishment. "I even received high honors!"

Crawford now has a stable job with benefits as a middle school custodian. And she uses her reading skills every day to read machinery manuals, chemicals on cleaning products, and accident reports. "If the school needs supplies for paper towels and all the soaps and all that, I do that. I have to make sure I have everything in order. Everything has papers."

Crawford says her life now is wonderful because she feels respected by her colleagues and is able to get her and her husband's health needs addressed. When asked how her going back to school has changed her, Crawford smiles wide and says, "My future is amazing!"

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