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Why Family Learning?

The United States faces a labor force productivity crisis brought on by illiteracy. According to a new study by Gallup supported by the Barbara Bush Foundation, low adult literacy levels are reducing employee productivity to the tune of as much $2.2 trillion a year. That represents 10% of the gross national product.


How could that be? Illiteracy in the United States was only 4% as far back as 1930. Yes, but that measured only basic reading and writing. The country's current definition of literacy is “the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential.” Under that definition, only 46% of Americans age 16-74 years old are functionally literate; 54% are not. The average American reads at roughly a sixth grade level, but 2/3 of jobs require at least some college or an associate’s degree; meaning at least 8th grade reading and writing skills.


How does this happen? The U.S. education system is rigidly divided into silos, none of which can solve the problem on its own.




ABE & Prison

Education Silos

Wkforce Dev'T

Corp. Training

46% Functional Literacy

More than half of children arrive in Kindergarten unready for the learning they will need to accomplish, in part because only 41% can access publicly-funded Pre-K programs. Attending K-12 schools doesn't come close to ensuring that a child becomes literate. In fact, only 34% of 8th graders can read at grade level, and that drops to 15% by 12th grade since most students never advance beyond 8th grade reading, handicapping their potential to attend or graduate from college. 

Once an American leaves school illiterate, the odds of catching up are very small. There are slots in Adult Basic Education programs for less than 2% of the 130 million functionally illiterate adults in the United States. Even if an adult enters an ABE program, the average annual expenditure per adult learner was only $1,021 in 2017; a fraction of the amount needed to overcome a multi-grade level deficit.  


Workforce development programs typically assume reading skills, and screen non-readers out of their  programs to maintain high graduation and job placement rates. And, corporate training very rarely includes literacy skills, focusing instead on teaching job knowledge and technical skills. Ironically, the  only population likely to gain literacy as an adult are prisoners. Approximately 1/4 of state and federal  prisoners achieve a GED, although many do so with 6th grade or lower reading level. 


If education silos are not able to help most Americans become literate, how can we break down the silos and create learning to achieve functional literacy? It turns out that the answer is known: family learning. 

Family learning means organizing learning so that parents help their children learn rather than fully delegating that task to schools and other organizations. It also means including children in adult education so that they can help, and/or motivate, their parents to work hard and succeed. 


Family learning builds on the fact that parents are a child’s first, and most important teacher. When we help parents prepare their children for reading, their children are more likely to be ready for Kindergarten. Programs and interventions that engage families in supporting their children’s learning at home are also linked to higher student achievement. And interestingly, when parents participate in family literacy programs their children, they become more likely to improve their own literacy skills. 

In May 2016, the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education (ED) issued a joint Policy Statement on Family Engagement stating, "Strong family engagement in early childhood  systems and programs is central—not supplemental—to promoting children’s healthy intellectual, physical, and social-emotional development; preparing children for school; and supporting academic achievement in elementary school and beyond." A 2002 review of 51 studies found that, “students  with involved parents, no matter what their income or background, were more likely to: 


Universal Literacy

  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs, 


  • Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits, 


  • Attend school regularly, 


  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school, and 


  • Graduate and go on to postsecondary education.” 

So, family learning improves the outcomes of all types of education by leveraging the power of family relationships across the silos and breaking them down. Family learning also improves each family  member’s engagement in learning so that they are more likely to become proficient as they learn each new skill. That engagement works in both directions: children engaging to please their parents, and parents engaging to model for and help their children. And, the shared activities improve family relationships, strengthening the family unit so that it’s members can do even more together. Padak &  Rasinski found 16 ways that children benefit from family learning, 8 ways that parents benefit, 5 ways that families benefit and 6 ways that society benefits including better health, lower violence, less teen  pregnancy and less social alienation – all due to practicing family learning. 


Now, it’s interesting that most of the research I cite here on benefits of family learning were published  in the early 2000’s, measuring the impact of the first great wave of family learning programs during the 1990’s. By the mid-2000’s, most of those programs had been replaced with standards-based approaches to teaching within the silos, measured by high stakes tests. The results haven’t even been close. People do not respond well to external measures that produce extrinsic stimuli for learning. People learn first to understand and participate in their families, next to have an impact on their workplaces, and often to build wealth and a better life for their children. 


So, the time has come to do what works. Every education program should have a family component;  even corporate training. In the long-term, that means changes in funding formulas, organizational designs, curricula and more. In the short-term, it means that we must simply include parents and other adult relatives whenever children are learning, and include children whenever adults are learning. The results will pay for the long-term changes that will institutionalize the change. 


We can start today.

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