Saturday 22 October 2016

Are poor reading skills the new black?

 Image result for being illiterate

It was a sunny Saturday morning today in my lovely home-town of Bendigo and I was out and about doing some errands, when my intrepid research assistant, Emina texted me, asking me if I had seen this piece on The Weekend Conversation touting the benefits of a Vocational Education and Training schemes for the nearly one-third of Australian 15 year-olds whose reading skills are below level 3 in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Having spent the better part of my morning reviewing Speech Pathology Australia's submission to the Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Northern Territory (far more than one third of youth offenders have poor reading skills, but that's another story) I was already behind on the weekend's social media, and was grateful for the alert. The research in question appears to have been published via an in-house university report, rather than a peer-reviewed journal, which does arouse some immediate concerns. However I have had a quick look at the report, and will delve further into it in due course. In all probability, though, most readers of this morning's piece won't get any further than the piece itself, so it is worth unpacking the authors' claims. In fact, I am just as interested in what they don't say, as I am in what they do.

What concerns me about this morning's piece:
  1. There is no critical commentary about the fact that one third of 15 year olds in Australia have low literacy levels. Doesn't this speak of some kind of system failure?
  2. There is no acknowledgement that industry bodies in this country are despairing about the low language, literacy, and numeracy levels of the Australian workforce, as per this Industry Skills Council of Australia report (2011): No More Excuses
  3. No evidence is provided to support the conclusion that "It seems that not every teenager with low reading proficiency necessarily becomes an adult with poor reading skills". This implies that the authors tested the reading skills of these young people at age 25 and found that a significant proportion no longer had scores below the expected range. Just because young people are employed in low or unskilled jobs (which may or may not have a longterm future), does not mean their reading skills have somehow improved post-school.
  4. It is stated that "Those from the low proficiency group compensate for studying below bachelor-level VET qualifications by choosing courses that have good labour market prospects". The problem here is that we live in a technology and IT-based society in which unskilled jobs are vanishing, being replaced by jobs that require university level training, and by definition, better than average literacy levels (see Levy & Murnane, 2004). 
  5. The authors completely overlook the fact that with better literacy skills, these young people would have a raft of educational and vocational training options. Poor literacy at age 15 should not, in Australia in 2016, see one's employment destiny set in stone. 
  6. "For schools and education departments, the message is to not only ensure access to VET, but also to support young people in making good course choices. Early career counselling is a step in this direction". Is there not a message here for schools too that more emphasis on evidence-based early and remedial literacy interventions might be a good idea?
  7. These counter-intuitive results are derived from a sample with 75% attrition, and have not been replicated (as far as I can see, they have also not been published in a peer-reviewed journal). The authors are getting ahead of themselves.

There's a popular TV show in Australia about the advertising industry, called Gruen Transfer (no, I didn't know where the name comes from either, but if you look below in the comments, you'll be enlightened). One of its most well-loved segments is "The Pitch" - in which ad agencies are asked to create a TV ad to "sell the unsellable". I reckon they should offer future contestants "leaving school semi-literate".

Surely this is the stuff of satire?

Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

(C) Pamela Snow (2016)