March 25, 2012

What do you think is the most important problem facing this country?

A CBS News/ New York Times Poll from March 7-11, 2012 asked adults nationwide, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?”

51% responded Economy/Jobs. Only 2% responded Education.

Can we so significantly prioritize one over the other and expect to see positive change? Perhaps the two really go hand in hand?

Before you answer, here are some important statistics to consider:

  • One in seven adults cannot read a job application. (National Assessment of Adult Literacy)
  • 67% of the service industry’s jobs in 1983 required a high school diploma or less; this will shrink to NO jobs for high school dropouts in 2018 (Help Wanted, see Figure 4.17, pg. 86).
  • An estimated 80-90 million adults—nearly half the workforce—lack the basic education and skills to qualify for the jobs that are being created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. We cannot bridge that gap unless we invest in our nation’s adult basic education and literacy programs in tandem with job training and workforce development programs (National Coalition for Literacy). 
 In light of an economic downturn and daunting statistics such as those listed above, it would seem then that we as a nation would throw our focus onto educating the workforce. Yet, commitment to adequate federal education funding has been declining rapidly- at all levels!

Despite ongoing inconsistencies for federal dollars, and education program after program thrown on the chopping block, the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas has taken a stand for investment in education. LCCT has facilitated a collaborative planning process with adult literacy programs, Workforce Solutions Capital Area, and Austin Community College to create the new Workforce and Education Readiness Continuum (WERC).  By securing a 3-year contract with the City of Austin, the 13 partner agencies (Austin Adult Literacy Network) established a more coordinated system for adults to seamlessly transition through community-based educational programming, job training, and other support services. The WERC continuum launches in April of 2012, and will dramatically increase the number of adults receiving adult literacy instruction in Austin.

Stay tuned to our website More information about how WERC will shape the Central Texas Community is coming soon!

March 21, 2012

Help me to understand...

I had a professor in graduate school who told our class that he knew when his wife was REALLY angry when she would start a sentence with the words "Help me to understand..." I laughed at the time, yet over the years I have found myself actually using that phrase as a helpful tool when I'm angry and frustrated. And I find myself wanting to use it today... 1. Help me to understand how the federal recovery act dollars, meant to help adults improve their employment situations, completely side-stepped GED and ESL instruction programs? 2. Help me to understand why over half of the education-focused foundations in the Austin area that previously supported adult education have shifted their focus exclusively to children? 3. Help me to understand how so many people seem to want to ignore the immense needs of 25% of the parents in this community... Parents who cannot make ends meet and cannot help their kids with their schoolwork. Shouldn't this be a priority? Shouldn't the government care? Shouldn't philanthropists care? Am I missing something? Please excuse my rant... Sometimes harsh realities smack me in the face. I'm worried about the future of these families, and the future of our community if their needs continue to go unmet. Sincerely, if you can offer any thoughts or insight on this, post away!

March 15, 2012

What's the Deal with the Spelling Bee?

If you know the Literacy Coalition at all, you know that every year we put on a huge event called the Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee. It's a team competition that's known for getting pritt-ay rowdy: on-stage antics range from a humanoid robot hurtling insults at the competition to men in chaps, black leather dog collars and little else flirting with the judges (and each other), and everything in between. So obviously there's the entertainment value, but why do we do it? And more importantly, why do we keep doing it year after year, and why should you plan to come? For starters, it's great public awareness. Our community needs to know that fewer than 1 in 20 adults living in Central Texas who needs to improve their literacy has access to a program. And there are 70+ literacy programs in Central Texas, people! From Adult Basic Education (the nuts and bolts of grammar, language, and writing) to GED preparation, people need opportunities to better their situations - for themselves and often for their families. It's also our biggest fundraising venture of the year. Did you know that since 2010, the Literacy Coalition's budget has more than doubled? In the for-profit world, that would mean our stock price skyrocketed over the past 2 years! Fortunately we don't have to worry about the NASDAQ. Here in the nonprofit world, our investors are our community - the companies that sponsor teams, the friends who come together to sponsor a table, and the individuals who see the $50 entry ticket as a meaningful contribution to ending poor literacy in Central Texas (which is exactly how we see it, by the way!). Besides, we feed you lunch! What's better than dinner AND a show? So come be our date at the Great Grown Up Spelling Bee this year on May 9 at Austin Music Hall. The party starts at 11:30, so join us and take a stand for literacy in Central Texas! Click the logo above for more info, or send an email to Maegan Ellis, Literacy Coalition Operations Manager, to purchase your table or ticket today!

March 12, 2012

Rethinking the Food Label

Have you ever found yourself staring at the side of a cereal box or the back of a bag of chips trying to figure out what all those numbers and percent daily values mean? Or if you are trying to stick with a low-fat diet because of your heart disease or diabetes, whether it would be an approved item and if so, how much of it you could eat? Sometimes it feels as though trying to read a nutrition label is as challenging as deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, although those at least are sort of pictures so you can guess the meaning based on that.

Well, the government decided to redesign nutrition labels back in January 2011 to make it more user-friendly (bet you didn't even notice). The new label, called the Nutrition Key, is supposed to help consumers more easily determine how healthy a particular food is. Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to be easier about the new label is that it is located on the front of the package. It still relies on all those confusing numbers and percent daily values that most people struggle to make sense of. (In fact, because making sense of a nutrition label is so complicated, one way of standardized methods for evaluating a person's health literacy level is the Newest Vital Sign that asks folks to answer a set of questions based on a nutrition label).

With all the effort being made to improve health communication and make plain-language the standard, you would think government would want to transition away from a label full of numbers and crazy terms towards a more pictoral system like they use in Britain or Scandinavia. In response to the government's failed attempt at improving nutrition labels, GOOD magazine, in partnership News21, created Project: Redesign the Food Label. They asked designers, food policy experts and the average Joe to think about how they would redesign nutrition labels. Would they stick with a design that focused on calorie counts and percent daily values or would they completely re-imagine the label and evaluate a food based on some other criteria such as it's quality, carbon footprint or cultural significance? How would you redesign the food label? What information do you think is important for consumers to know? How would you present that information? You can check out the winning designs here.

March 8, 2012

What can a nonprofit learn from a food truck?

Well, I don’t really know but with our hundreds of food trucks, Austin seems like the perfect place to find out! Neck deep in nonprofit work myself, I’d like to know what sort of quips of enlightenment a food truck can offer to help sustain the work we do. Apparently, there’s not just one thing I can learn from a food truck but SIX. Yep, you read that right. It’s intriguing enough that I’m going to make the GREAT TREK NORTH Friday afternoon (I’m a die-hard South Austin gal) to the JJ Pickle Research Center. The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) is hosting a half-day event in conjunction with the very-great Austin 501 Tech Club (big supporters of Learner Web!), and it just so happens that one of their breakout sessions will reveal the answer to this most elusive of questions.

Also debuting at the event is the much-awaited Community Technology Map. I concede that probably only those of us who need to know where public computer labs and computer classes are in the city have been anxiously awaiting its release, but that doesn’t make it any less cool. It just means we’re the only ones that knew about its existence to date. Now YOU know, so spread the word. This interactive map is for all those programs with clients that need to learn how to use a computer, or heck, those of us whose parents desperately need to learn how to use one so that they stop calling us at all hours of the day asking, “Do I need to pay attention to the window-thingy that says something about a Java something?”

And if food trucks and cool maps aren’t enough to draw you there, I think I heard something about a happy hour…

March 2, 2012

What it feels like to have low health literacy

Imagine you’re naked. Ok well, I guess not fully naked, but pret'near (that's how my grandma says "pretty near") naked because all you’re wearing is a loose fitting hospital robe. You feel sick, stressed, and have been in the hospital for several hours. In rushes your doctor, speaking quickly and preparing to send you on your way. She hands you a piece of paper and says, “read this and let me know if you have any questions.”

The paper reads: 
Check the reppu and rewol rotaidar sesoh along with the smaller retemaid heater sesoh. Inspect each esoh along its entire htgnel, and ecalper any esoh that is dekcarc, nellows, or shows sngis of noitaroireted. If you ezeeuqs the esoh, skcarc may become more tnerappa. Make sure the esoh snoitcennoc are thgit. You may see etihw or tsur deroloc stisoped on the areas dnuora the kael.

Now, without cheating by looking back at what you've just read, try to answer these questions. 
  1. What is this passage about?
  2. What do you need to do first?
  3. Where are those hoses?
  4. For what are you inspecting the hoses? 
How did you do? Were you able to answer these questions?

How did you FEEL while reading the instructions?
I imagine you had a hard time reading this passage. Many of you may have given up, thinking, “This is stupid. These aren’t even real words.” Or maybe you got frustrated because it was difficult, and that’s why you gave up.

If you did crack the code, congratulations! It wasn’t actually Russian…the words are just spelled backwards! But for those of you who cracked the code and finished the paragraph, I imagine you still struggled to answer some of the questions.

This is how a low literate or low health literate individual feels when handed paperwork in the waiting or exam room. When we are required to concentrate on individual words – struggling to pronounce and understand their meaning or in this case, concentrating on reconfiguring the spelling of a word in our head – by the time they get the end of the sentence or passage, there is little hope for comprehension.

We use this exercise in our Effective Communication trainings for healthcare providers and I really like it because it’s a great way for us to better understand how it feels for so many of our learners and patients when they are handed consent forms, discharge instructions, or other written materials in the healthcare setting.

Want to learn more about our health literacy initiative? Check out our website and email me so we can discuss. You can also follow me on twitter for the most interesting 140 character updates you'll ever read.