When I recently interviewed a candidate for a communications position, the candidate sincerely asked, “Who can be against literacy?” I almost fell off my chair, as I’m convinced that the stigma associated with low literacy keeps this conversation silent.

I compare where we are with literacy to where we were with breast cancer 25 years ago. Simply put, if you were at a dinner party, you wouldn’t discuss that you or your mother or sister had breast cancer.

Today, that’s completely changed, and we have football players who wear pink in October and an array of “Save the ta-tas”messaging providing us with ongoing updates on the fight to eradicate breast cancer.

Advocates of ending illiteracy need to be equally loud. We have all around us mothers and fathers who have very limited educational skills. We know who in our family dropped out of school, but we don’t consider how large that pool is.

In Maine, one of every 10 people has dropped out of school. Perhaps it is the mom who cuts your hair, or the dad driving your child’s school bus. It’s people you talk to every day.

And here’s the real kicker: If you grow up in a family where your mom has a bachelor’s degree, there is a 98 percent chance you will graduate from high school. If your mom doesn’t have a high school diploma, your odds of finishing school are only slightly better than half. What’s more, 88 percent of dropouts were poor readers in the third grade. In a nutshell, ending illiteracy begins with reading.


The good news is that leaders in Maine are talking about some of the hardest aspects of literacy. Last week I had the opportunity to meet with Gov. Paul LePage, and we discussed literacy in some depth. One of his keen interests is why some children who are intelligent struggle with reading. We discussed the myriad of challenging issues related to learning to read, including dyslexia.

I shared with him that just a few weeks ago, I met with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and his wife, Deborah, who are passionate about this cause, and this year implemented a series of laws including dyslexia screening in the first grade, and the creation of a college scholarship for students who study dyslexia therapy.

The strategic efforts of Tony Cipollone and the Gorman Foundation to develop collaborative, community-driven plans in Portland, Waterville and Lewiston to improve third-grade reading proficiency is a specific example of communication going beyond the policy world and into the local community. As we all know, open conversations and thoughtful dialogues are the cornerstone of any movement.

In alignment with the Gorman Foundation’s work, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy opened 20 Teen Trendsetters programs across Maine this fall. These are programs where teens mentor first-, second- and third-graders who are at least six months behind in reading.

We provide lesson plans, and even take-home books to build a home library. We also provide free access to myOn, which is an online bookstore with thousands of titles to read.

The results have been amazing. Last year, half of the first-graders enrolled in the program ended the school year completely catching up and reading on grade level.


We have got to ensure that our children don’t drop out of school. In the interesting book “The New Geography of Jobs,” author Enrico Moretti notes that the average wage for a high school dropout in the U.S. has dropped by 14 percent since 1980 (the year I graduated from high school).

On the other hand, college graduates now earn 20 percent more than they did in 1980!

So, the long and short of it is this: We need to build a culture that values literacy from birth through adulthood, not only because reading is fun and interesting, but also because education is the heartbeat of our nation’s economy.

For 25 years, the Barbara Bush Foundation has been helping children and adults in need improve their literacy skills and bringing awareness to the illiteracy crisis in the United States.

Please join our national conversation on literacy at www.helpthemread.org.

Liza McFadden is president of the Tallahassee, Florida-based Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

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