Mississippi: Literate at Last (Aug. 1990)



In the little brick town hall in Bolton, Mississippi, a dignified elderly black man in wire-rim spectacles, denim overalls, and bright-red basketball sneakers sat curled in concentration over a booklet of fifth-grade math problems. While the sunset reddened the horizon and the town’s ancient cotton gin clattered through the twilight, Bryant Mack, Jr., age sixty-two, was finally learning to read and write and do arithmetic.

“See, my daddy didn’t have no learning,” he said shyly. “He didn’t think it was important. I was one of twelve children. We all had to work in the cotton fields. Only time we went to school was when it rained. There were no real schools for black kids back then, anyway. Truth is, I didn’t have a childhood. I know I’m not alone in that.”

Not by a long shot. By now the figures are familiar: there are said to be 20 million to 40 million adults nationwide who cannot read and write and add well enough to perform ordinary tasks like passing a driver’s-license test, reading a warning label on a medicine bottle, and–Bryant Mack’s goal–balancing a checkbook. What is not so well known is that a disproportionate number of America’s functional illiterates, black and white, live in the South, where their economic situation is deteriorating rapidly. In Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and the Carolinas the average earnings of male high school dropouts aged twenty to thirty-four plummeted 35.5 percent from 1973 to 1985.

Cotton hasn’t been king for several generations, and the days when southern states could attract sweatshop industries with cheap wages, strong backs, and low taxes are over. Employment in the textile and apparel-manufacturing industries has dropped because of automation and competition from low-wage labor in Third World countries. The road to economic growth nowadays is paved with a high level of reading comprehension and sophisticated technical skills.

In the era of the information economy and flexible production, the old Dixie politics of exclusion–keeping blacks uneducated and poor whites ignorant–seem as irrelevant as Stalinist dogma must now seem in the Soviet Union. Mississippi’s young governor, Ray Mabus, a Democrat who is believed to have been elected with 90 percent of Mississippi’s black vote, has arrived at a difficult crossroads, where the utilitarian needs of industry for skilled labor intersect the legacy of segregation: illiteracy, poverty, and despair. How well Mabus and other politicians negotiate that intersection could determine whether the Democratic Party has a chance of winning back the once solidly Democratic South–or whether the Republicans can win the black votes they seek by recognizing a human issue that has a relatively small price tag and big potential in terms of its economic multiplier effect.

Mississippi under the Mabus administration has launched the most ambitious initiative in the nation to combat adult illiteracy. Having come through in 1988 on his campaign promise to give teachers their biggest pay raise in the state’s history, Governor Mabus and his wife, Julie, a former high school math teacher who tirelessly preaches the new gospel of education for economic development, have vowed that nine out of ten Mississippians will be functionally literate by the year 2000, a monumental task that amounts to a holy war on illiteracy. Mabus has staked his political future on a comprehensive education-reform program, including a proposed $13.5 million worth of new state funds to be earmarked for adult-literacy programs over the next three years.

When education fervor swept the United States after Russia’s launching of Sputnik, the deep South was preoccupied with school desegregation and the civil-rights movement. The Mississippi legislature repealed legislation that made schooling compulsory, and encouraged white flight from the public schools by allowing the schools to deteriorate. By 1982, when Governor William Winter finally got an education-reform law through the Mississippi legislature, on his third try (the law made school attendance mandatory to age sixteen and established kindergartens statewide for the first time), the Mississippi school system was a wreck. Each year approximately 6,000 children didn’t even start school. The state’s high school students had among the lowest achievement-test scores and among the highest dropout rates in the country. But it wasn’t only support for integrated education that was lacking. “The ideal of universal education was itself absent in Mississippi,” Winter, now a lawyer in Jackson, the state capital, told me recently.

The anti-intellectualism of the rural South often attached more importance to football and cheerleading than to learning to read local authors like Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. Some fathers quit their jobs, and sons left school, on the first day of hunting season; a vestigial frontier mentality held that “too much book learnin’ ruins your shootin’ eye.” And it is often said in Bible Belt churches that “Satan can quote Scripture”–even if the deacons can’t. In Mississippi 714,000 adults–46 percent of the state’s adult population–lack high school diplomas. Roughly 400,000 adult Mississippians have less than nine years of schooling, a level that is often used as a definition of functional illiteracy.

Certainly this definition makes for a conservative estimate of illiteracy, given that Mississippi high schools share the national tendency to graduate anyone who occupies a desk long enough. “I went through twelve years of school and two years of community college without ever learning to read, and passed with flying colors,” Treaise Williams, a twenty-five-year-old woman in Jackson, told me. “I found out early that if I was always the teacher’s pet, they wouldn’t fail me. I always listened real good to what the teachers said. When you can’t read, you figure out all kinds of ways round your handicap. A lot of times illiterates are intelligent, but they been made to feel dumb.”

Williams was spunky enough to find her way to a program in “life coping skills,” where she works one night a week developing the reading skills she will need to pass a cosmetology licensing exam, her hope for economic improvement. But such success stories are rare. For the vast majority of miseducated adults, made to “feel dumb” all their lives and to hide their shameful “handicap,” adult-literacy programs up till now have also been failures.

In the South such programs reach only about one in thirty of the undereducated population. A recent study by the Sunbelt Institute, a think tank convened by southern congressmen and governors, concluded that the federal Adult Education Act of 1966, which makes block grants for state literacy endeavors, “has never been funded at a level sufficient to provide much more than a token response to the nation’s literacy needs.” New federal literacy legislation, introduced by Senator Paul Simon, of Illinois, and Representative Thomas Sawyer, of Ohio, has thus far failed to win support from the Bush Administration.

Once federal funding trickles through state bureaucracies to the local level, it usually disappears into programs that have never been made to develop standards or evaluate results. Few programs, for example, take account of what motivates illiterate adults to enroll in the first place, although countries like Brazil and Nicaragua have been most successful in cutting their illiteracy rates by relying on the educator Paulo Freire’s method of teaching reading with what the nonreaders actually want to be able to understand–such as a tractor manual for a farmer. Even fewer American literacy programs address the shame, sense of failure, and everyday problems that most poor nonreaders must overcome before obtaining help. Elloris Cooper, the supervisor of adult reading programs for Mississippi’s Hinds Community College, says, “There’s a whole constellation of things poor people face that make potential adult learners hard to reach, hard to recruit, and even harder to keep in programs, beginning with transportation to classes and child care for young mothers.”

Nationwide more than half the adults who enter literacy-training programs simply abandon the effort after a few sessions of instruction, without having improved their reading skills. In Mississippi only 10 percent of adults stay with literacy classes long enough to complete two workbooks of the standard Laubach method of reading. This brings them, at best, to a fourth-grade reading level after a hundred hours of classes, at a typical cost of $3,500 per student.

In rural areas the difficulty of reaching and keeping students is compounded by the problem of finding competent tutors. The much-publicized effort of Barbara Bush to enlist volunteer literacy teachers ignores the facts that the highest illiteracy rates often occur where the fewest volunteers are available, and that little national effort has been made either to mobilize young people in a literacy corps or to professionalize the teaching of adults to read. “In one community we service, only six percent of the population have graduated from high school,” says Betty Jo Dulaney, the literacy-coordinator in Tunica County. The county is Mississippi’s poorest; more than half the population there lives below the poverty line. “There’s no industry here, so anyone with job skills or gumption takes the first bus out. Now, where am I supposed to find reading tutors?”

Nonreaders are ineligible to enter most job-training programs. For many, then, succeeding in an adult-literacy class is the last chance to lead a productive life. Isiah Charleston is an electric-utility technician who has been active in literacy and community-development projects for the past fifteen years in the backwoods of Warren County, outside Vicksburg. Ride the dirt roads with him and you descend into a social maelstrom, where teenage pregnancies, incest, and alcoholism are common, and apathy has become a way of life. Charleston fights back tears when he assesses the lost generation of rural black youth which has followed formal desegregation. “After having dropped out of school in the eighth or ninth grade, our young people get into a pattern of quitting,” he told me. “They quit school, they quit jobs, they quit literacy programs–finally they just quit trying to improve themselves altogether. They lack what my teachers used to call stick-to-itive-ness. Only way Mississippi’s going to get up off the bottom is if we give these kids something to stay in school for, something to work toward in their lives.”

Mississippi’s initiative focuses on the concept of context. “First, we are looking at the whole system of literacy programs and making fundamental structural changes,” Julie Mabus told me in an interview at the governor’s mansion. “The old way of teaching adults to read–in a vacuum, without taking into account their own immediate hopes and aims–is just no good.”

To direct the program overhaul, the Mabus administration created a new Office for Literacy and chose a nationally recognized literacy expert, Karl Haigler, the head of the Adult Literacy Initiative at the U.S. Department of Education, to run it. Haigler had worked under William Bennett to co-write the federal manual on designing effective work-force literacy programs whose curricula are based on specific job contexts and the real-life needs of workers. Haigler’s arrival in Mississippi, in 1988, presaged a wholesale redirection of the state’s effort. The state intends to concentrate on parents and adults needing job-related basic-skills training. It also intends to enlist the business community as the political backbone of a long-term, high-profile literacy campaign.

“We’re getting rid of the ‘grade-level’ thinking that says a person is literate when he or she obtains a high-school-equivalency diploma,” Haigler told me. “Literacy is better defined as a continuum of skills, ranging from simple decoding of written matters to high levels of critical thinking and problem-solving. Programs need to be redesigned to meet a whole array of actual social needs, from the assembly-line worker who needs to read charts and manuals to the person whose greatest desire is to read her Bible.”

Thus an innovative mobile unit, mounted on a tractor trailer donated by the Frito-Lay Company and outfitted with computers and educational software under various grants, was dispatched to Iuka, in the northeast corner of the state. The town had an unemployment rate of 23 percent. Construction started this spring on a NASA plant in Iuka that will manufacture rockets for the space shuttle. The idea is to provide on-site, job-specific, walk-in reading help to those applying for the 1,800 construction jobs. The state plans to have additional mobile units available for short-term spot literacy missions in a few years. Also, the Office for Literacy has been instrumental in making available to businesses and communities “literacy audits,” to assess their particular reading needs, and suggesting local resources available to meet them, such as a nearby community college or military base.

In order for literacy programs to qualify for a portion of the $2 million in federal funds that Governor Mabus set aside last year for adult literacy training, they must develop an individual education plan for every learner. The plans–an innovation in literacy work borrowed from the special-education field–are designed by students together with their tutors, and are meant to ensure a high level of student commitment by tailoring the curriculum to the student’s goals. Now, for example, the teenage mother who hopes to break a generational cycle of ignorance by learning to read stories to her child won’t find herself in a literacy class struggling through a ninth-grade social-studies textbook.

Such reforms make the state’s literacy programs more effective and accountable, Haigler argues, without bureaucratization. “We’re looking for diversity and local initiative to drive this campaign forward,” he told me. “We’re not going to have the bureaucrats come in and dictate literacy policy.”

Another area in which Mississippi is breaking ground is in the use of computer technology to teach reading. After an initial flurry of interest from software developers when the national literacy crisis hit the headlines, the industry turned hesitant in the face of a flat, small, and penniless market for literacy programming. Nevertheless, Julie Mabus looked at the small pool of volunteer tutors available in Mississippi and decided that one-on-one volunteer tutoring alone would not solve the problem.

The emphasis on technology has helped rally the Mississippi business community behind the Mabus initiative, and a variety of high-tech literacy-training programs have been launched. In a joint venture with Peavey Electronics, one of the state’s largest manufacturers, Mississippi became one of the first states to use a civilian version of the Army’s computer-based Job Skills Education Program, used to train military recruits.

Although the emphasis on high technology has drawn attention from foundations and industry, and brought new outside funding to Mississippi, it has some literacy activists worried. Liberals are worried that narrowly focused, business-oriented reading instruction will fail to achieve literacy’s primary civic mission of preparing underprivileged citizens to participate in the democratic process. Other critics simply think that the pressure to be technologically innovative is warping priorities. “You can’t bring down the thunder every time you write a funding proposal,” says Ronnie Blackwell, who heads the Hattiesburg Education Literacy Project. “We don’t need fantastic new software, we need okay software that illiterates can actually use. With all the talk about literacy technology and the funding for it, the grass-roots programs where people actually learn to read are really suffering. Our staff–the people who do the one-on-one teaching–haven’t been paid in six weeks. We need long-term funding or we’re all going to sink.”

In the event, Mississippi’s illiteracy problem is likely to get worse in the short run. And literacy trainers admit that even with all the effort and funding the state is marshaling for its initiative they are barely scratching the surface of the problem. Children, they point out, are quitting school every day. If the state is to make progress against illiteracy, it must stem the tide of school dropouts and teenage pregnancies. Thirty percent of the babies born in the Delta are born to teenage mothers.

Perhaps the most significant initiative is Governor Mabus’s attempt to prevent teenagers from dropping out. Mabus has proposed to cut the school-dropout rate in half by providing schools with funds to identify youths at risk of dropping out and to design alternative programs that will keep them in school. The governor has also called for a new “family literacy” program, modeled on the award-winning Kenan Family Literacy Project, in Kentucky, and others. In these programs young welfare mothers can obtain reading help together with their preschool offspring. Mississippi’s new programs, however, are to be paid for by Governor Mabus’s education-reform package, which has been threatened in the legislature for reasons related to funding, as the “read my lips, no new taxes” mentality takes hold at the state level.

The literacy initiative is bringing Mississippi unaccustomed positive national prominence. The program reforms and technological innovations will be studied as models and inspiration elsewhere. Yet the odds may be against the Mabuses in their war on illiteracy. Their commitment may not be sufficient to make up for years of purposeful educational neglect, and few states, let alone the poorest in the nation, have the resources to reverse the trends of illiteracy and underdevelopment. “There is a national interest involved here,” William Winter, the former governor, told me. “We cannot just isolate sections of the country like the Mississippi Delta and leave them to their own devices. We don’t live in separate enclaves. Unless we have a national commitment to sustain an adequate standard of education, health care, and child welfare, the level of performance of the country as a whole ultimately suffers.”

The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1990; “Mississippi: Literate at Last”; Volume 266, No. 2; pages 28-33.

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