Education in America: Reading the elephant in the room

If I told you that the majority of American adults would have significant difficulty reading the novel Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, would you believe me? I didn’t believe it until I was shown a 2020 study from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. The study stated that 54% of Americans aged 16 to 74 read at below a sixth grade level.

A sixth grade reading level as determined by the gold standard metric in reading comprehension would be considered “conversational English for consumers.” This metric is known as the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale. The metric was developed for the U.S Navy in 1975 and is the U.S Military standard in testing reading comprehension and ability. The Flesch-Kincaid reading scale is commonly used and found in word processing software such as Microsoft Office.

While longboarding around campus, I took the time to bring this statistic up in casual conversation with students at Oakland University. I asked what they felt created this lack of reading proficiency for the majority of American adults. Responses varied, but circled back to the public school system. The lack of funding, poor administration, teacher unions, focus on standardized tests and inequality in school districts were common answers. One cynic who wished to be anonymous responded with “Well, Americans are just dumb.”

The torrent of different responses made it clear that the answer is complex. If there is a solution to this problem, it is multifaceted. Addressing the funding disparities in school districts is likely to assist in alleviating some of the problems with reading proficiency. It will not solve the lack of reading proficiency for the majority of adults though.

The low reading proficiency for the majority of American adults has long reaching effects. The inability to discern misinformation from information. The incapacity to comprehend the biases in multinational cable news. The citations of anecdotal medical evidence being purveyed as fact. The fervent anti-intellectual movement has lodged itself around science and climate change denial.

A significant question that I asked myself was how are reading proficiency and health outcomes linked. The term health literacy came up in my Google search.

The U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) states on their website

The U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.”   

The American Medical Association (AMA) recommends that educational material involving health be written at or below a sixth grade level. Study after study will show the well documented link between low healthcare literacy and negative health outcomes.

In short, it is inarguable that many Americans are suffering economically and medically due to how linked health literacy and reading proficiency are.

I went into one of the Discord servers for Oakland University and asked students in the General Channel, “what is healthcare literacy, in your own words, just tell me uwu.”

One of the moderators, a student who uses the handle Rouleaux responded stating “When you know how your insurance works.”

Another student under the handle of Brandon B The English Dude stated “going on a limb I’d assume it means you can have a fluent conversation about healthcare and mostly be able to discuss, read, or talk about it without being completely lost.”

Both answers are correct. Being able to understand how your health insurance works and being able to have a fluent conversation with your medical practitioner are essential aspects of healthcare literacy. Unfortunately a significant population of Americans lack the ability to do this. The pandemic continues to strain and burden an already heavily stressed healthcare system.

There isn’t a simple solution to addressing the low levels of reading proficiency and health literacy. Bringing awareness to the elephant in the room is the first step to fixing this American tragedy.