Thirty million Americans struggle with basic reading and math skills, including some 64,000 right here in the District. Illiteracy affects their ability to read an electric bill, make change or even tell where a bus is going. The costs to these individuals — and society — are high, both socially and economically. Programs serving adults can make a difference, allowing someone a second chance and often better job prospects, but many programs are oversubscribed. WAMU education reporter Kavitha Cardoza’s new radio documentary explores adult literacy in the U.S. and our region.


  • Kavitha Cardoza Education Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
  • Lecester Johnson Executive Director, Academy of Hope

Volunteer Opportunities With Adult Literacy Programs

Share your time with the Adult Literacy Helpline at D.C. Public Library (202-727-2431). Ask for Ben Merrion, literacy outreach specialist, who can help match people with programs suited to their interests.

Find information about volunteering at the Academy of Hope on their website, or email volunteer coordinator Mary Cabriele at volunteer [at] aohdc [dot] org.

The Literacy Council of Montgomery County and the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia also need volunteer tutors and teachers.

Sample Questions From 2014 GED Test

Test yourself with sample questions from the 2014 GED exam. Start the test.

Adult Literacy Across The United States

Compare adult literacy rates by county and state in this map. Hover over the infographic to see the percent of adults with low literacy living in a U.S. county. Darker shades indicate lower literacy rates. For example, 22 percent of adults in Prince George’s County, Md., have low literacy, compared to a statewide rate of 11 percent.

literacy map U.S.


  • 12:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. A staggering one in three adults here in the District struggle to read a newspaper, a menu or a map, much less fill out a job application. They're among the 30 million adults in this country who lack basic reading skills and 46 million who have trouble with even simple math.

  • 12:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey're likely to be permanently trapped in a cycle of poverty, and since they aren't able to read their children a bedtime story or help with homework, the ripple effect means their kids are at much higher risk for dropping out themselves. If the cost to the individuals is high, it's even higher to society as a whole. This is the landscape that WAMU 88.5's education reporter Kavitha Cardoza explores in her new documentary series, "Breaking Ground: Yesterday's Dropouts."

  • 12:07:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to discuss it with us is Kavitha herself. Kavitha Cardoza is the education reporter for WAMU 88.5 news. This new documentary series, "Breaking Ground," focuses on issues faced by the poor and disenfranchised. The first program in the series, "Yesterday's Dropouts," airs tonight here on WAMU 88.5 FM. Kavitha, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:08:09

    MS. KAVITHA CARDOZAMy pleasure. Thank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:08:11

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Lecester Johnson, executive director of Academy of Hope. That's a nonprofit dedicated to adult education and literacy. Lecester Johnson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:23

    MS. LECESTER JOHNSONIt's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

  • 12:08:25

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@ In these tough economic times, what kind of priority do you think adult education should be? That number again, 800-433-8850 or you can send us a tweet at kojoshow. Kavitha, you've been reporting on education for more than a decade, including a prize winning series on high school dropouts. Can you talk a little bit more about why you decided to focus on adults with low literacy in this documentary?

  • 12:09:02

    CARDOZABecause when I was focusing on high school students, Kojo, everyone kept telling me what the research showed, and I wanted to see for myself, looking backwards, whether people who had dropped out 20, 30, 40 years ago -- did that actually come true? What were their options? How did they get back into the education system? And I actually start the documentary from a place of guilt. I put it out there.

  • 12:09:26

    CARDOZAI said, for 12 years, I've been covering education, and I had never thought about adult education. And so that was really my starting point.

  • 12:09:35

    NNAMDIHow many adults in Washington, D.C. lack a high school diploma or other credentials, Lecester Johnson?

  • 12:09:43

    JOHNSONThere are approximately 64 thousand adults in the District of Columbia who do not have a high school credential.

  • 12:09:50

    NNAMDIWhat percentage of our working age adult population is that?

  • 12:09:54

    JOHNSONEstimates are that it's about 19 per cent. There is some controversy about the number. It's anywhere between 25 and 19. The national assessment of adult literacy reports that it's about 19 per cent of District residents.

  • 12:10:11

    NNAMDIKavitha, what does it mean, and this for you too, Lecester, what does it mean for job and life prospects if someone lacks a high school diploma or can't read or do basic math?

  • 12:10:22

    CARDOZAIf you don’t have a high school diploma, you're more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Let me tell you a story, Kojo, that will illustrate this really well. Costco opened a few months ago now in D.C. 850 people applied for jobs, right? These were people who had passed the drug test, had passed like the pre-screening. 850 for 150 jobs and they could get the jobs because they did not know how to -- what an afternoon shift meant, how to use the computer. Basic employment skills they didn't have.

  • 12:10:55

    NNAMDIAnything you can add to that?

  • 12:10:56

    JOHNSONSure. More and more, a high school credential is becoming a requirement, even for entry level employment. And it's going to grow. It's not just high school credential any longer.

  • 12:11:08

    NNAMDIIt's not just those who lack basic reading and math who are affected by this. What are some of the hidden costs to society of having so many members of society struggling with these basic skills?

  • 12:11:20

    CARDOZAOh my gosh. Let me count the ways.

  • 12:11:22

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 12:11:23

    CARDOZASo, to kind of run through the most obvious is the economic, right? When you have people who cannot get into the work force, you spend more on unemployment checks, subsidized housing, things like that. The estimate is that people who are locked up, approximately half of them don't have a high school diploma. Family literacy, do you want to take that, Lecester?

  • 12:11:48

    JOHNSONSure. And in terms of the K-12 system, the impact on young folks, or children, when their parents can't read, or they have low literacy, is significant. There have been a number of studies, particularly one from NIH, that indicated that the greatest predictor of a child's success in school is a mother's literacy. Urban Institute also released a study last fall looking at poverty and the longevity in poverty with parents without a high school credential.

  • 12:12:18

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, this is a conversation about adult literacy with Lecester Johnson. She is the executive director of Academy of Hope, which is a nonprofit dedicated to adult education and literacy. She joins us in studio along with our own Kavitha Cardoza, the education reporter for WAMU 88.5, whose new documentary series, "Breaking Ground," focuses on issues faced by the poor and disenfranchised. You can also find out more about that documentary series by going to our website,, where you can also ask a question or make a comment.

  • 12:12:50

    NNAMDIBut you can call 800-433-8850. Kavitha, as for all the cost to society, about half the prison population did not finish high school. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 12:13:02

    CARDOZAIt's just -- and there was a -- we see also what happens when they are given a chance to be educated. The US Department of Education just, less than a month ago, came out with a study that showed people who were given educational opportunities are 40 percent less likely to commit another crime and be locked up again. And so, you know, it's a public safety issue, Kojo. And there have not, you know, one person I interviewed said, you know, it's not -- you can Republicans and Democrats.

  • 12:13:33

    CARDOZAThere are enough studies that show, you know, education and prisons work, but who wants to make a choice between funding a K through 12 school and funding a prison school?

  • 12:13:44

    NNAMDIThis intersects with another population, non native speakers of English. What are some of the issues that non native English speakers have?

  • 12:13:51

    CARDOZAThere are approximately 23 million adults in the US, mostly immigrants, who cannot speak English. And, as you can imagine, this poses huge challenges. I was at -- interviewing people who -- there was one woman from Bangladesh who said, I got a call from my doctor and he said your appointment was canceled. But I heard, you have cancer. And so she sat there like weeping, thinking she had cancer. And so it plays out in so many different ways. When they can't speak English, they are nervous to go to their child's school.

  • 12:14:28

    CARDOZAThey don't want to meet their doctor. They are worried about making friends. It impacts their life in huge ways.

  • 12:14:35

    NNAMDISpeaking of going to the doctor's office, I think that is what Anne in Fairfax, Virginia would like to talk about. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Anne, are you there? Anne, we can't -- we can't hear Anne right now. And you should know that we are broadcasting today for the first time from WAMU's new media center in northwest Washington. So, let me try Anne again. Anne, you're on the air. Can you hear me now?

  • 12:15:03

    ANNEYes. I can hear you now.

  • 12:15:04

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Anne.

  • 12:15:05

    ANNEThank you for letting me on the show. I did get to hear part of the show, which I thought was excellent. Especially about the man who couldn't fill out the form at the doctor's. And the doctors wouldn't help him fill out the form and it took him all those hours. And what really came across to me was, with his medicine, if he couldn't read it properly, and I don't know if the doctors went through it with him line by line, he could overdose on his medicine.

  • 12:15:44

    ANNEAnd what a horrible doctor he was at. This is for everyone who is in that situation. They could kill themselves if they didn't know how much to take or took too much.

  • 12:15:59

    NNAMDIAnne, thank you very much for calling because Anne underscores the point that it's not just in the doctor's office that this could be a problem, but it goes on to getting medications and knowing you're taking the right medications and the right dosage of the medications. Lecester?

  • 12:16:13

    JOHNSONSure. We've had adults, who are in our program, who've had a difficult time understanding what the post surgery requirements are for them. So, they'll come home with written instructions, but we've done quite a bit of work with some of the students that we serve to help them understand those post surgery requirements. There was a woman who had breast cancer, and was going through radiation, but really had difficult time understanding what that meant and how to do it. But she could read.

  • 12:16:43

    JOHNSONI mean, I think it's important to also point out that some of the adults that we're working with -- there are adults who cannot read at all, but even for those who can read, it is really understanding the written word in a way that they can apply it and use it in their daily lives.

  • 12:16:57

    CARDOZASometimes with math, Kojo, I spoke to someone from a NOVA health system and they said they see these challenges of low literacy adults. And they said especially with diabetes, because diabetes involves a range, and adults, sometimes they can understand well, this number, or that number. They don't understand a range of numbers. Sometimes it spills over to the next generation. One woman said that they see patients who accidentally overdose their children on cough syrup, because they don't understand how much they should be giving them.

  • 12:17:32

    CARDOZAOr, they don't understand the difference between inhalers, you know, for asthma, short acting and long acting. And so this has, like, profound implications. We talk about health care all the time. Think about the costs that adds to the health care system.

  • 12:17:48

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation about adult literacy. You can also send us an email to Math is another basic skill that, along with literacy, can hold people back and leave them vulnerable. Some people struggle with something as simple as making change, for example. What does that mean for their prospects?

  • 12:18:13

    CARDOZAIt's kind of, really, kind of depressing. This was a person I met who said he would do yard work for people, but no matter how many hours he worked, he only charged 20 dollars. And I said, why? And he said because I didn't know how to make change.

  • 12:18:34

    NNAMDIOoh, yeah. That can be difficult. Lecester?

  • 12:18:35

    JOHNSONAnd it just creates victims, in some ways. Financial victims. If you're unable to make change, we have a number of people -- they may not be able to get, you know, employment in an establishment, but they're running home based businesses, hair care, and just really not making the kinds of dollars that they could to even begin to pull themselves out of poverty.

  • 12:18:59

    NNAMDIHow many of those who cannot read are embarrassed about it? How do people try to cover the fact that they can't read or do Math? I looked at the documentary in which you talked to Shirley Ashley. Tell us a little bit about how she does that.

  • 12:19:13

    CARDOZAShe was like this lovely, gentle woman. I mean, I was so touched by her, and she's talking to me, and we had a good conversation. And then she pulls out this folder, Kojo, and she points to something and said, that's my favorite recipe. And I said, that's not a recipe. That's a bill. And so she said, well, I don't have my reading glasses. And this, I don't have my reading glasses was something I had heard before. And I thought, one sec, what is going on here that so many of these adult learners forget their reading glasses?

  • 12:19:42

    CARDOZAAnd then I realized, one sec, this is me. I did not realize, that's like, what they're covering up is that they can't read. So there are many ways. I forgot my reading glasses, or they go to a restaurant and they say, oh, I'll have whatever, when their friend orders, I'll have whatever my friend is having. They'll point to pictures. They ask for directions based on landmarks. Like, at WAMU take a right, rather than say, at such-and-such street because they can't read. There are all these ways. Right?

  • 12:20:10

    JOHNSONAbsolutely. And, you know, you think about the quality of life that folks are able to lead with low literacy, that they are really confined to what they already know or what they've become accustomed to. So the opportunity to go outside of your community is very limited because you may not be able to get back.

  • 12:20:31

    NNAMDIAnd we talked earlier about non-native English speakers. I think that's what Lee in Centerville, Va., would like to address. Lee, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:41

    LEEYes. My comment was I know people are embarrassed to learn a language, but at some point they have to want to learn the language where they're living. When I lived in Brazil I had to learn how to speak in the local dialect because it wasn't my local dialect. It was either that or go hungry.

  • 12:21:02

    NNAMDIWell, Kavitha and Lecester, you can talk about this also, the extent to which people who may want to learn the language have limited opportunities to do so.

  • 12:21:12

    CARDOZAI'm really glad, Lee, you brought up that point because that is something that comes up frequently. I think what is less well-known is that there are long waiting lines all across the country. So people are desperate. Time and time again you hear of people desperate to learn English, but long waiting lines. For example, one public charter school in D.C. has 1,000 people waiting on their waiting list. I was at a breakfast this morning where someone said, in their school there were seven slots and 500 people on the waiting list.

  • 12:21:43

    CARDOZAThat is just D.C. alone. In Northern Virginia, in Montgomery County, you know, even surrounding communities, long, long waiting lists.

  • 12:21:52

    JOHNSONI would say the same thing. We run into waiting lists. It's not that people aren't interested in learning the language. There aren't enough services to access to learn the language.

  • 12:22:02

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll be continuing this conversation on adult literacy, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have a GED? How has it made a difference for you, if at all? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. Email to, or you can go to our website,, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:09

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on adult literacy with Kavitha Cardoza. She is the education reporter for WAMU 88.5. Her new documentary series, "Breaking Ground," focuses on issues faced by the poor and disenfranchised. The first program in the series, "Yesterday's Dropouts," airs tonight, here on WAMU 88.5. You can find out more about that at our website Also joining us in studio is Lecester Johnson, executive director of Academy Of Hope, which is a non-profit dedicated to adult education and literacy.

  • 12:24:40

    NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Kavitha, in this documentary you speak to a construction worker named Jason White. We'll hear a little bit of what he said, but first, can you tell us a little bit about him?

  • 12:24:54

    CARDOZAHe was a construction worker. And he actually was employed, which was kind of unusual because he didn't have a high school diploma. It's much harder for them to get work. He said he was very good at what he did, but he couldn't get to the next level. He could not read and write very well. He hid it even from his wife for many years. And, like many adult learners, getting a better job was a criterion. Another reason he was desperate to learn was he had two little children he wanted to read to.

  • 12:25:29

    NNAMDIWell, he would spend, apparently, hours with a dictionary the night before a routine visit to a permit office for his work. And here's how he'd describe it.

  • 12:25:41

    MR. JASON WHITEI would look up or write down every word I think I would need to spell. If I were changing a support beam, we would write, you know, support, beam, change, existing, all the words you think you would need so you don't get in a spot. Because if everybody's adults and you're the only guy that can't spell how do you, you know, ask for help? You know, you don't let nobody know.

  • 12:26:04

    NNAMDIAnd when he says nobody, he means nobody. Apparently even his wife didn't know he couldn't read.

  • 12:26:10

    CARDOZAThat’s the level, Kojo, of shame and embarrassment these adults carry around. And when I asked him, I said, well, why didn't you? Or, when I pushed him a bit, he's like, Kavitha, look at me. I'm this big, burly guy. How am I going to tell anyone I can't read? You don't show people your weakness. And I thought of the stress he carried around for so long. He said also, that once he learns to read, he said he was going to come to the library every Monday just to read a book because he can. And he said, one day I will be a tutor for someone else.

  • 12:26:46

    NNAMDILecester Johnson, I expect at the Academy Of Hope you hear stories like that all the time.

  • 12:26:50

    JOHNSONWe hear it all the time. And the top two reasons that folks do come back to get their high school credential, if there is an economic reason. But the second one, which goes up and down, is that they couldn't help their child with their homework. And we find many adults -- sometimes that's the catalyst that gets them out the door even more than the economic issue. They really want to be a good role model for their children. And it's when that fourth grade homework starts to come home that we start to see a number of people coming in.

  • 12:27:20

    NNAMDIAgain, the number 800-433-8850. Let's see if we can go to Scott, in Upper Marlborough. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. No? Scott, I don't think I can -- ah, Scott. I seem to be hearing you in the background. Scott, are you there? Go ahead, Scott.

  • 12:27:36

    SCOTTHi. Can you hear me?

  • 12:27:38

    NNAMDIYes, I can.

  • 12:27:40

    SCOTTGreat. Thanks for taking my question. I’m enjoying the show. I'm wondering if we're framing things historically correctly or not. If you go on the Department of Education's website for statistics, historically, the dropout rate has fallen profoundly. In 1960 it was 27 percent. And all races now are at about 9 percent. So are we framing things correctly?

  • 12:28:03

    NNAMDIIs the dropout rate falling, is what you're suggesting?

  • 12:28:07

    SCOTTI'm not suggesting it, Kojo. If you go to the Department of Education statistics, official federal statistics, the dropout rate has fallen dramatically since 1960 and we know why, you know, you had integration and you had the great society. And the argument that we have a dropout crisis, I think kind of goes a little too much with the current now that says all the schools are failing. We've got to privatize them, so and so. And in summary, I question whether we have a dropout crisis, looking at those federal statistics.

  • 12:28:43

    NNAMDIKavitha Cardoza?

  • 12:28:44

    CARDOZAI mean, I don't know what to say. The federal statistics. I mean, for this year it's gone down slightly, but otherwise it's on the increase. And when you were talking -- I mean compared to other countries, we are really not doing a good job. Last year when I did a series on high school graduation, I called up the guy internationally who tracks these numbers. And I said, we're number 20, right, when it comes to graduation rate among developed countries. And he said, no, no, that was last year. Now, you're 21.

  • 12:29:16

    NNAMDIWhat have you been seeing? How long has the Academy Of Hope been in existence? Tell us a little bit more about it.

  • 12:29:21

    JOHNSONWe’ve been in existence since 1985. It was actually founded by Marja Hilfiker and Gayle Boss in Columbia Heights area. And we were there for about 22 years and moved over to Ward 5 in 2007. So we've been serving thousands of adults.

  • 12:29:38

    NNAMDISo you've been around for 28 years. And in response to the point that our caller was making, that there is not a crises. I don't know the dividing line between when there is a crises and when there is not, but it seems to me as if there are waiting lists of more 1,000 people who are still trying to learn to read, when we're still seeing figures as high as 25 percent of young people not graduating high school, then if we don’t have a dropout crises, we have a huge dropout problem, at the very least.

  • 12:30:02

    JOHNSONAbsolutely. So I think any dropout is a crisis. And also there are all of those adults who are, you know, as Kavitha reported, that have been out for 10, 15, 20 years. They're still there. And we don't have an adequate adult education system that can help those folks get back on the path. So there are lots of folks who, you know, if we look at the current dropout rates, the number of people who are dropping out is going down, but that number continues to build of people who are out, who are not connected to any educational services.

  • 12:30:36

    NNAMDIOn now to Julie, in Arlington, Va. Julie, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:30:43

    JULIEYes. I understand that acquiring basic reading skills is important, but what about -- are there any parallel efforts going on to identify adults who supposedly have basic reading skills, but really don't, that have been passed through the system? For example, I have an adult staff that works for me. Some hold bachelor's degrees, even master's degrees, but don't, you know, read or write well. They're American born and raised, but I feel that they've been sort of passed through the system.

  • 12:31:15

    JULIEAnd I'm no spelling or grammar snob, by any means, but they really do lack some basic reading and writing skills.

  • 12:31:24


  • 12:31:25

    CARDOZAI don't know about the bachelor's and the master's degree level, but there are certainly many, many, many adults who have a high school diploma and they still -- in fact, I interviewed one who has a high school diploma and he's reading at the third grade level. And at some point, you know, life catches up with them and they have to go back to adult education classes, otherwise they can't make that next step.

  • 12:31:49

    JOHNSONWe serve both adults with and without a high school diploma. And the average reading level coming in -- 93 percent of the folks coming into our programs are reading around the sixth grade level and doing math at fourth. And that's with or without a high school credential.

  • 12:32:04

    NNAMDIYou haven't had any college students or college graduates, as our caller is referring to?

  • 12:32:09

    JOHNSONWe do have some college students who are coming back, particularly in math -- that's an area that needs strengthening -- and folks who are really struggling with writing. Writing is a really difficult skill for some folks. So we do have in our pathways program, which is preparing folks to go onto post secondary. Individuals with high school credentials and some, I would say, more of an associate's degree than bachelor's.

  • 12:32:34

    NNAMDIWhat are some of the challenges that these adult learners face in going back to school, sometimes decades after they dropped out?

  • 12:32:42

    JOHNSONLife is complicated. I mean, I think that's the only way to really describe it. You know, adults who are going back to school, they have children. You know, if they're in their 40s, they've got parents who are getting older. We have a significant number of adults how have children with special needs and require a lot of work. And there are adults who are working part-time jobs and low-skill jobs. Schedules change. So we tend to see a lot of this phenomenon called stopping out.

  • 12:33:13

    JOHNSONFolks will come and they will work with us for a year, but then they stop out to take care of children, job schedules change. So it's very difficult.

  • 12:33:23

    NNAMDIWhat kind of need is there for these kinds of adult education programs to help fill in the gaps? We've talked, more than once, about the long waiting lists, but exactly what is available right now?

  • 12:33:36

    JOHNSONCurrently we're only meeting 11 percent of the demand for these services. So between public charter schools that serve adults and OSSEs funded grantees, about 7,000 adults are served each year. You know, when we're looking at 64,000 without a high school credential. So we're not making a huge dent in those needs.

  • 12:33:57

    NNAMDIOSSE being the State Education office here in Washington. Kavitha, with the sequester and Congress debating big cuts to next year's budget, what are the prospects for funding adult education?

  • 12:34:09

    CARDOZADismal, I would say. You know, it's kind of really bad. I spoke with Congressman Chris Van Hollen from Maryland. And he said since 2002 there's been a 17 percent cut to adult education programs. He said the sequester will take another 5 percent away. And after that, he said, if you take the Republican House budget proposal, it's another 17 percent cut. So he said you're taking a system that's already inadequate and making it far worse.

  • 12:34:40

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Randy who says, "I've been an adult literacy tutor at the literacy connection in Hyattsville since April. I tutor in reading, writing and in math. And it's one of the most rewarding activities I have ever done. I'm an architect and I love math, but even more I have discovered that I love teaching it. My students are fantastic. And I've started teaching groups at a time because there is such a need. I really encourage anyone who can contribute a few hours a week to give this time to others. It's very discouraging that there's not funding for this, as far as I know." Underscoring the point you were just making.

  • 12:35:14

    CARDOZAYeah, and Randy is so right. I spoke to someone from the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and they said that they only can have as many spots as there are tutors. And so anyone who wants to be a tutor -- I mean, you speak to tutors and they say -- many have taught kids before, Kojo. And they say, oh, my God, when you see the gratitude and the motivation of adults, you know, you wouldn't want to teach children. You'd only want to teach adults. So…

  • 12:35:42

    NNAMDINow, here is Kelly Marie, in Washington, D.C. Kelly Marie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:35:47


  • 12:35:48

    NNAMDIHi, Kelly Marie.

  • 12:35:49

    MARIEHello, hello. Thank you so much for taking my call.

  • 12:35:52

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:35:53

    MARIEOkay. Thank you.

  • 12:35:58

    NNAMDITurn the radio down and just talk to me on the phone.

  • 12:36:01

    MARIEOkay. Hold on. Hold on.

  • 12:36:02

    NNAMDIKelly Marie is turning the radio down and coming -- are you back yet, Kelly Marie?

  • 12:36:09

    MARIEThank you.

  • 12:36:09

    NNAMDIThere you go.

  • 12:36:10

    MARIEAll right. My concern is that within the black community there are churches that could do so much to help with adult literacy, particularly with older people. I'm a senior citizen and I know firsthand that there are many, many seniors who do not read and who have low literacy rates. And so when you're thinking about agencies that can serve, that's the first thing that came to my mind.

  • 12:36:47

    NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up Kelly Marie because I've personally known seniors who shop in the supermarket on the basis of recognizing labels because they've seen them on television or some other place. Lecester?

  • 12:36:57

    JOHNSONI would say, yes, I think that's a great idea. I think the bigger question is how do we create a system that provides quality adult education? I've been in adult education for a number of years and there are a lot of well-meaning groups that start because they want to make a difference. They want to get involved. And we couldn't do the work that we do without volunteers. But I would say that, you know, once we start to accept the fact that about 3 million adults dropout every year in this country and that it's a real issue and that we need to make it a part of the continuum of education, then we'll fund it at the level that it needs to be funded.

  • 12:37:36

    JOHNSONAnd we can also have monitoring of quality of adult basic education or of adult education. Right now, anyone can really sort of decide they want to make a difference and start a program. And they may or may not be monitored. So the quality is sometimes…

  • 12:37:52


  • 12:37:53

    JOHNSON…uneven. Yes.

  • 12:37:54

    NNAMDIWe move on now to Mohammed in Germantown. Mohammed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:38:01

    MOHAMMED(unintelligible) Hello?

  • 12:38:02

    NNAMDIMohammed, turn your radio down and just speak into the phone. Mohammed, are you there?

  • 12:38:10

    MOHAMMEDHey, Kojo.

  • 12:38:10

    NNAMDIGo right ahead. You're on the air, Mohammed.

  • 12:38:14

    MOHAMMEDThank you for having me. This is my first time interacting with the show so I'm excited. I actually had two things I wanted to say. And the first one is simply that I know you guys were discussing earlier about this shame complex that these adults feel being illiterate. So I'm from a family that immigrated here so I wanted to touch up on that a little bit. There's this other thing that occurs as well. So my parents were both educated in Pakistan, however, they weren't proficient in English so reading was often very difficult, especially medications and doctors' prescriptions.

  • 12:38:46

    MOHAMMEDSo when we'd go to the doctor they'd often ask my brother and I to fill out the forms. And it created a rift in our family occasionally because we were young and naive so we were very embarrassed by this and felt some sort of resentment for not having completely educated parents. So I think it's very interesting that shame can not only affect the individual, the adult that's illiterate, but also those close to them.

  • 12:39:08

    MOHAMMEDAnd then the other thing I wanted to say is that it's intriguing that this isn't more of an issue, because, you know, there's one-tenth of the population that is currently not giving as much to the economy as could possibly be because if you buy the assumption knowledge is power, they're actually being missed out on. Although the argument for giving them a second chance can be made, it's very interesting that there's not much done because it truly is an investment if you invest in adult literacy classes, that is federal funding and state funding.

  • 12:39:39


  • 12:39:40

    CARDOZAI thought that was so interesting, Mohammed. You're absolutely right. What happens is it upsets the power dynamics in the family, where you usually parent know, you know, what their children should do and what's best. And suddenly when they need their child to be the translator, it totally upsets the family dynamics. One adult teacher was talking about a craft project. One of her students was asked to bring the inside of toilet rolls. You know, kids often do these projects.

  • 12:40:10


  • 12:40:11

    CARDOZASo the adult learner did not understand what rolls meant. She understood -- didn't understand the toilet, but she understood rolls. So she baked fresh bread and sent it to her child's school. Well, all the kids started laughing at this child. He burst into tears and was like, you know, "Mom, don't come to school anymore. I don't want you to come to school anymore. You don't know anything." And when that happens once or twice, parents start thinking, you know what? Actually, yes, I don't. Well, that is kind of half funny, sad story. But what happens with homework? What happens at PTA meetings?

  • 12:40:45

    CARDOZAWhat happens, you know, in all those other aspects when parents are not involved?

  • 12:40:50

    NNAMDII'm going to move on to Terry, in Silver Spring, Md. Terry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:57

    TERRYHi. My name's Terry. I just have a question. You know we are, you know, that learned how to read a long time ago, we know how to read, we know that and it is something that is ingrained in us. How is it that, you know, how does a person feel when they just really can't -- when they look at text they just can't read it, they don't understand it? Is it the same thing as if I know how to read English and I look at a page in French and I can't really understand it, is that the same level of frustration? Is it something a little bit different?

  • 12:41:31

    NNAMDIWell, Terry, can you remember long enough to when you learned how to read, before you learned how to read? I can remember back before I learned how to read and how it came a little bit at a time and how looking at pages were so confusing to me before I learned how to read. Do you remember that at all?

  • 12:41:47

    TERRYNot necessarily. I just…

  • 12:41:48

    NNAMDIOkay. Well, here's Lecester Johnson to refresh your memory. Lecester?

  • 12:41:52

    JOHNSONAnd it's very much like that. It's just symbols on a page or, you know, things on a page. It has no meaning. And once, you know, individuals are able to start to decode, you know, these letters, then it starts to have meaning and the whole world opens up. So it's a very much the way it was when I learned to read.

  • 12:42:13

    NNAMDIThere's this desire that you feel to understand what's going on.

  • 12:42:16


  • 12:42:16

    NNAMDIAnd if you're a kid you tug at your parents and say, what does that word mean? What does that…

  • 12:42:21


  • 12:42:21

    NNAMDIUntil you understand it.

  • 12:42:22

    CARDOZAHere, I think, when you're an adult it's slightly different because you know other people can and you can't, and suddenly you're having to hide it. So I would say it's kind of like not knowing French, if you lived in France, you know, and also if you know that you're going to live there forever. It's different being a visitor. I've visited different countries and I think, oh, I’m a visitor. Like I'm not expected to know the language or, you know. I will tell you, Kojo, I came to the U.S. 13 years ago. And I spoke English, but there were so many things I didn't know.

  • 12:42:54

    CARDOZAThe light switch flipped on the opposite way. Cars drove on the different side of the road. You know, instead of cookies you would say -- I mean, instead of biscuits, people here say cookies. You know, and I remember thinking, oh, my God, I feel so stupid here.

  • 12:43:08

    NNAMDISo incompetent.

  • 12:43:09

    CARDOZAI have to ask about everything. Right? And so I can only imagine what it feels like not to be able to ask the question.

  • 12:43:19

    NNAMDIThirteen years ago she was asking about everything, today Kavitha Cardoza is providing answers to the questions we have about adult literacy. She joins us in studio, along with Lecester Johnson. We're going to take a short break. When we come back -- if you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to join the conversation call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think prospects are in this country for someone with limited reading and math skills? Shoot us an email to or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:45:38

    NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a conversation about adult literacy with Kavitha Cardoza, education reporter for WAMU 88.5 News. Her new documentary series, "Breaking Ground" focuses on issues faced by the poor and disenfranchised. The first program in the series, "Yesterday's Dropouts" airs tonight here on WAMU 88.5. Joining her in studio is Lecester Johnson, executive director of Academy Of Hope, which is a non-profit dedicated to adult education and literacy. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Kavitha, as part of this documentary you looked into the GED, the General Education Development test.

  • 12:46:15

    NNAMDIIt's also known as America's largest high school. There are big changes ahead for the program, but can you start with the history of the GED?

  • 12:46:24

    CARDOZAIt was started for veterans, returning from WWII. And it was to help them when their education was interrupted by the war, to help them get a credential which would allow them to go on to college.

  • 12:46:36

    NNAMDIThere are big changes ahead for this program.

  • 12:46:39

    CARDOZAIt's basically becoming more difficult, it's becoming more expensive and it's becoming computerized. Those are the three big changes.

  • 12:46:46

    NNAMDIMany people think the GED is a high school diploma equivalency test, that it is the same as a high school diploma, but that's not exactly the case, is it?

  • 12:46:56

    CARDOZANo, it's not. In fact, there's more and more research. I spoke to Nobel Laureate, James Heckman, from the University of Chicago, who talked about it not being an equivalent at all. In fact, he said in many cases it's the same as being a dropout, so he did not think it was an equivalent at all. What happens, some federal studies have found, is that kids actually dropout thinking they can take the GED, it's so much easier.

  • 12:47:23

    NNAMDITalk a little bit about the military. The military recognized that. Talk about some of the studies done and what the military decided.

  • 12:47:30

    CARDOZAJanice Laurence is a professor from Temple University who studied this for the Pentagon in the '80s. They knew it earlier than that, but she started doing studies for them. And she found that, you know, basic training, you sign up for kind of a three-year term of enlistment, Kojo, on average. And she found that they were -- if you had a GED you were twice as likely to dropout compared to people with a high school diploma. And so now, if you've got a GED, you're hired sparingly. There's a tiny percentage of GED candidates that get in.

  • 12:48:04

    NNAMDILecester, on the other hand, the GED can make a difference for a lot of people. Can you talk about what a GED can do for you?

  • 12:48:11

    JOHNSONA GED can open initial doors. It was never intended to replace the high school diploma, and I think it needs to be clear, but it was the only other alternative that's out there. But it can open doors. We track our adults. Once they get their high school credential we see a spike in income. Now, that flattens out, you know, over time. You know, if adults don't continue on with additional training or additional education, you're not going to see the steady increase in income that you would see beyond that GED.

  • 12:48:42

    NNAMDIWe've got a clip from a graduation ceremony at Academy Of Hope. Let's hear from a few of those graduates.

  • 12:48:49

    UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1It just says that I’m not dumb.

  • 12:48:50

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1This is for my mother. She seen how hard a life I had and she going to cry more than anything.

  • 12:48:55

    UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2Tonight I feel whole. I feel like it completed me.

  • 12:49:06

    NNAMDIThat was from the documentary "Breaking Ground: Yesterday's Dropouts," by Kavitha Cardoza. It seems that earning a GED means more to many adult learners than just getting a credential. Can you talk about that?

  • 12:49:18

    CARDOZAIt does. I mean a lot of times it's perseverance, it's -- you know, they've had very difficult lives often, and this is a piece of paper that says, you know what, you persevered, you got through the struggles, they know the sacrifices they had to make and it just -- I don't know. They're so incredibly proud. It was so wonderful to be at that graduation and see people so proud and so filled with hope about their future, Kojo. They were like, I can do this and I can do that, and it was wonderful.

  • 12:49:52

    NNAMDIYou mentioned, briefly, the changes that are coming to the GED. Can you expand on that?

  • 12:49:57

    CARDOZASo much more difficult. It's going to be aligned with the common core. And so it is going to be more difficult. You know, researchers vary about where they say the kind of -- it's norm now. Some people say it's like middle school. Some people say it's like first year of high school, but now it's going to be much more rigorous. The second is it's going to be more expensive. So in D.C., for example, it's going from $50 to $120. And the third is it's going to be computerized. So you have to take it on the computer. All these three changes, Kojo, present immense challenges for adult educators.

  • 12:50:35

    CARDOZAI spoke to many adult educators across the country, and most are happy that it's becoming more difficult, but they say they just have not got the money or the resources or the professional development to help scale up. Wouldn't you say, Lecester?

  • 12:50:50

    JOHNSONAbsolutely. We're raising the bar on the requirements of the GED, and as Kavitha mentioned, it's not something that any adult educator would argue against. It's just the system is under-resourced. So the requirements are going up, but the adult ed providers who provide the services -- there's not an equal scale-up that's happening.

  • 12:51:12

    NNAMDIIf you would like to test yourself against these new GED standards, you can take a sample quiz on our website, See how you stand up for the new GED standards. I found them quite challenging. Lecester, the new GED will be much tougher. As an organization that prepares students for the tests, what worries you about raising these standards?

  • 12:51:35

    JOHNSONWhat worries me is our ability to make sure that we're able to scale-up to meet those needs. Curriculum changes need to happen. We are moving to bringing on paid teachers, one, to bring in the skilled professionals to teach those classes, but also for continuity. We use volunteers. We've had many long-term volunteers working with us, but we need to -- any changes that we do we want to make sure that there's continuity there. But there's a dollar associated with that.

  • 12:52:03

    NNAMDIOnto Maria, in Washington, D.C. Maria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:09

    MARIAHi. Good afternoon to you and your guests. Kavitha you're doing a great job.

  • 12:52:14

    CARDOZAThank you.

  • 12:52:14

    MARIAI followed your report about the high school dropouts. Kojo, you're doing a wonderful job. But my question is this, I've been a D.C. police officer for over 25 years, preparing to retire. And this question -- the questions are nothing new. There has always been this literacy problem in the District. I think that we should focus more on one day when we don't have to address this issue. My question to the Academy Of Hope, what is the average age for the person's there? Because I'm wondering, exactly what is the problem because we're no longer living in the age where education is denied.

  • 12:53:00

    MARIAIs it that people aren't taking advantage, at an early age there's no parental structure for education to lead them? Exactly what is the problem? Because the problem has persisted for, like I said, over 25 years. So the problem is nothing new. When do we get to the day that we no longer have to address it at this aspect and this issue?

  • 12:53:24

    NNAMDILecester Johnson, there's public schools, open access to education for people. Why are they not taking it?

  • 12:53:32

    JOHNSONIt is a complicated issue. To say that it is a school issue or it's the individual's issue, it's comfortable for us to blame the individual for dropping out. We generally sort of place this label of the person who left school as this person who didn't take it seriously. But when you really start to talk to adult learners and why they left school, it really does become social issues. People drop out to help their families bring in additional income.

  • 12:53:57

    JOHNSONIf you've got families where there are parents who are substance abusers, there are a number of factors that cause a person…

  • 12:54:02

    CARDOZALearning disabilities.

  • 12:54:03

    JOHNSONLearning disabilities, absolutely. About 30 percent of the adults in our program who disclose have a disability, but we think that number is much higher.

  • 12:54:13

    NNAMDIAnd to what extent public school policies have to do with this? That's what I think Linda, in Washington, D.C. wants to talk about. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:23

    LINDAYes. Thank you, Kojo. I do want to talk about that. I want to bring out the point that we had a school chancellor called Michelle Rhee, who really took on this problem of inadequate schools, inadequate education, children dropping out. And she -- by the end of Mayor Fenty's term, she was given so much grief from the community that she no longer stayed on. So I would like your guest to perhaps look at that and give us some comment. And also to tell us a little bit more about the school chancellor we have today. Thank you.

  • 12:55:02

    NNAMDIKavitha Cardoza has covered both the tenure of Michelle Rhee and the tenure of her successor in the D.C. Public Schools, Kaya Henderson.

  • 12:55:13

    CARDOZAI think the current chancellor has definitely continued with keeping, you know, getting kids graduating. There are a whole number of, you know -- I can't list them all, but a lot of interventions. Certainly they're looking very closely at the numbers, and the numbers are increasing, the graduation rate. We still have a way to go. And like Lecester said, that doesn't count, though, all the people who dropped out years ago. How do they get back into the workforce?

  • 12:55:44


  • 12:55:46

    JOHNSONAnd I would say, you know, sometimes we're attacking the problem at one end. It really takes a multi-pronged approach to deal with that. Absolutely we need to make the investments in K-12 and strengthen the education, but we need to look at it as a continuum. And I think when we finally decide that people do dropout. No matter how hard we try, there will be people dropping out, that we need to look at a continuum that includes adult education in that continuum.

  • 12:56:12

    NNAMDIWe talked about the fact that the GED exam will now only be given by way of computer. No more paper tests, which seemed like a sensible thing in the 21st century. It could save time, money and paperwork and students get their results right away, but there are issues. But that could be a big problem for a number of students, can't it?

  • 12:56:29

    JOHNSONIt is. We find even -- our average adult is 31. Even young adults struggle using technology in a way that would help them get through an exam. They use it in a very casual way. So we're starting to add more technology, again, doing lots of fundraising to do that. And I know a lot of other adult ed providers are adding the digital literacy into their programs. But to assume that people already have those skills is not a correct assumption.

  • 12:56:55

    NNAMDIKavitha, there are also alternatives to the GED that will likely become a bigger part of the picture. Can you talk about that in the minute or so we have left?

  • 12:57:03

    CARDOZASo for example, New York, New Hampshire, Montana, there are lots of states that have dropped the GED. There are many, many more states. I think 20 states that are looking at alternatives to the GED. So McGraw-Hill has come out with a high school equivalency exam, and ETS. So different states are saying -- they're usually cheaper and you have the pencil and paper option, Kojo. But the Nobel Laureate I spoke to, he said, "You know what? Whether a test is computerized or whatever it costs, does not solve the problem about do these adults, whatever test they take, can they get jobs? Is it working?"

  • 12:57:45

    NNAMDIAnd is it working is one of the questions that Kavitha Cardoza answers in her series, "Yesterday's Dropouts." The first program airs tonight, here on WAMU 88.5. Kavitha Cardoza is the education reporter for WAMU 88.5 News. Her documentary series, "Breaking Ground," focuses on issues faced by the poor and disenfranchised. Kavitha, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:06

    CARDOZAThank you for having me.

  • 12:58:07

    NNAMDILecester Johnson is the executive director of Academy Of Hope. It's a non-profit dedicated to adult education and literacy. Lecester Johnson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:15

    JOHNSONAnd thank you.

  • 12:58:16

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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