Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
March 27, April 31, 2012
Amidst all of the pressing issues facing Detroit, it is understandable how the mainstream media missed a very important article about adult literacy published this week by Data Driven Detroit. The article challenges the oft repeated statistic that 47% of Detroit’s adult population is functionally illiterate. The statistic, and the so-called “new study” that produced it, is not neither “new” nor true.
The notion that half of the adults in Detroit cannot read swept through the media like a tornado. Local media outlets, CBS, Fox, NPR, and Huffington Post all reported some version of the “alarming new study” that said “nearly half of Detroiters can’t read.”
As schools are labeled failing, local government cast as incapable of governing, many Detroiters absorbed this new statistic with a weary sigh. This was just another sign of the inability of our city to produce capable, intelligent, thoughtful citizens. Emergency Managers were beginning to sound like a good idea, even to some Detroiters.
The statistic was released last spring in a report entitled “Addressing Detroit’s Basic Skills Crisis” published by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund (DRWF). Data Driven Detroit asked the critical question: Where did the statistic come from? How do we know this to be so? Here is what they found:
“Dissecting the origin of this statistic is more about the poor data literacy of some of our news agencies than it is about Detroit’s literacy rates. Many of them referred to the report as a “new study,” missing the important detail that the research is far from new. The 47% Detroit literacy rate is the result of a 1998 analysis by the National Institute for Literacy, performed on data from the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), published in 1993. That’s right: those “alarming new statistics” are based on data almost two decades old. Almost all of the media coverage neglected to communicate that fact.”
Data Driven Detroit also explored the limitations of the methodology used in developing the original figure. They noted:
“At the end of Appendix A, it states ‘there is no direct evidence available about the validity of the model’s predictions for the congressional district or city/town/place Census areas,’ e.g. the city of Detroit. The model’s validity was confirmed only for counties, not other geography levels.”
“In addition, the confidence interval for the city of Detroit is noted to be greater than plus or minus five percentage points, though the report didn’t specify how much greater. In other words, not only do we not know the exact literacy rate, we also don’t know how precise the estimate is!”
A central question for all of us to ask is why the mainstream media was willing to uncritically adopt a statistic that is so evidently false? This question strikes at the core of the current debate raging through our city. Because the answer is quite simple.
Most of the mainstream media believes its own narrative about Detroit: that we are incapable, unintelligent, and thoughtless. It is essential for the power elite to uphold this narrative. This is the story that provides the rationale for why we cannot run our own schools; elect our own city council, or mayor.
The mainstream media needs to take a long, hard look at itself and its own level of “data literacy.” It also needs to question how such a report could be produced so uncritically by the more than “200 funders who support DRFW.” These funders include Chase, Ford, Knight, Microsoft, One Boeing Fund, Annie E. Casey and the Corporation for National and Community Service. Presumably these foundations know something about valid research studies.
Of course we as a people need to address literacy. It is unacceptable that any adult or any child should be unable to read and explore the world. But it is also unacceptable for those who can read and are entrusted to establish the public record, to do so without critical reflection on their own limits.