Decades of underinvestment in schools, culture battles over bilingual education, and dizzying levels of income inequality have pushed California to the bottom of the pile, making it the least literate state in the nation.
Nearly 1 in 4 people over the age of 15 lack the skills to decipher the words in this sentence. Only 77 percent of adults are considered mid to highly literate, according to the nonpartisan data crunchers at World Population Review.
In New Hampshire, the most literate state in the country, only about 5 out of 100 lack English reading and writing skills. Its literacy rate hovers near 95 percent.
The state has the most diverse population in the country, more than 200 languages are spoken here. California also has the biggest wealth chasm.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Niu Gao, a senior fellow who studies education issues at the Public Policy Institute of California. “California in general does not do very well, and you can see this throughout the entire education pipeline.”
“We really haven’t been investing” for decades, she said. “We’ve been underspending the entire time.”
California, currently sitting on a surplus bigger than many states’ entire budgets, has for years spent less – about 13 percent less – than the national average on K-12 schools. Recent research shows that even high-performing California students score lower on standard tests than their counterparts in better performing states.
School spending, of course, is only one factor shaping California’s dismal literacy rate. The state has the most diverse population in the country, more than 200 languages are spoken here. California also has the biggest wealth chasm.
And programs to teach English to children whose parents speak another language at home have shown little success. Only 10 percent of students in English acquisition programs display grade-level proficiency. That’s a significant problem in a state with 1 million English learners among a student population of about 6 million.
“There’s only so much schools can do,” said Gao.
That’s because academic success depends on a lot of things that schools don’t control. When you look at the things that predict success, some 70 percent have nothing to do with schools.
California has the most public libraries of any state, with 1,130, but because of its huge population, the state falls below the per-capita national average.
Parental education might be the biggest factor. But income disparity – which is linked to parental education – plays a role as well. A big role. States with large percentages of highly literate parents unsurprisingly had highly proficient 8th graders, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Those states also had, among other things, more libraries per capita than the national average.
California has the most public libraries of any state, with 1,130, said State Librarian Greg Lucas, but because of its huge population, the state falls below the per-capita national average. California has 4.5 libraries per 100,000, and the national average is 5.2.
Lucas said public libraries help school kids who speak one of California’s 200-plus languages to find reading material, while also helping adults whose hopes of a better job require some level of literacy.
“Libraries are more important than ever before,” he said.
“Why do kids chew on books? Because they equate them with something good, like food.” — Greg Lucas
They are especially potent, he said, in partnership with schools. During the pandemic, libraries have helped distribute school district meals, they’ve provided tutoring and they’ve sent kids home with free books.
“One of the cheapest ways to create stronger readers is for kids to have books at home,” Lucas said.
And the least expensive way of all might also be the simplest … and most powerful.
“Talk, read, sing,” said Lucas, echoing the First 5 message. “There are stacks of studies that show that caregivers who talk, read and sing help build an appetite for reading.”
“And there’s another big stack that says a kid succeeds better at a school with a teacher librarian,” he added.
California, unfortunately, trails the pack on that measure, too. The state has about 900 teacher-librarians (credentialed teachers with a library sciences degree) for its more than 6 million school kids. Texas has around 4,300 such specialists and a million fewer kids.
Lucas says it’s never too soon to put a book in young hands, and kids know it.
“Why do kids chew on books?” he said. “Because they equate them with something good, like food.”
Five best literacy rates:
1. New Hampshire, 94.2
2. Minnesota, 94
3. North Dakota, 93.7
4. Vermont, 93.4
5. South Dakota, 93
Five worst literacy rates:
1. California, 76.9
2. New York, 77.9
3. Florida, 80.3
4. Texas, 81
5. New Jersey, 83.1