I remember feeling stunned, just before Christmas, at a news story that said half the people in Houston, Texas were functionally illiterate. Apparently things are even worse Down Under.
"The statistics don't lie" declared Chris Thomson's headline on January 28 in WAtoday. "Seven out of 10 West Australians have insufficient skills to solve everyday problems."
Yikes! That place must be a real nightmare!
Can you imagine? Seventy percent of the people standing about, scratching their heads, staring at public doorways that say both "In" and "Pull" ... what to do, what to do? Cars piled up at 4-way stop signs. Nobody able to figure out them child-proof caps. Caped crime-fighters stumped at every turn.
Can it really be that bad in WA?
At first glance, maybe so. There's the WA news story about the man who "caught fire when he was tasered by police officers at a Forrestfield house," though a closer reading leaves open who's problem solving skills are in question here.
On the other hand, daycare workers were able to keep their charges safely away from harm when a high-speed chase came spilling into the yard, and the driver was chased atop the daycare rooftop. (Nobody caught fire - another good sign.)
A 14 year old girl from WA has been crowned "Australia's 'brainiest' student" based on her grasp of neuroscience. That's not nothing.
Consider the case of the union leadership who is meeting with managers of a $12 billion liquefied natural gas operation "to try to resolve an industrial dispute over workers' accommodation." Even if they don't reach an agreement, that suggests a whole lot of organizational and economic problem solving.
In other problem solving news, about "400,000 students returned to school across the state today, with just one teacher position vacant." This news story goes on to say there were "1266 new graduates registered as teachers this year in WA." I'm thinking they mean 2009, not 2010, but in any case, that's more evidence of WA competency in at least some things.
The one black mark in WA has to do with numeracy and real estate values. A news story says the RP Data-Rismark home value index for December marked "an increase of 7.1 per cent for all dwellings" while "data from Australian Property Monitors, published yesterday, pointed to the median house price rising 8.7 per cent." The story suggests the discrepancy may have to do with conflicting ways of collecting and measuring data. Anyway, given realtor's tendencies to, um... gloss things (anybody remember the mortgage meltdown, a.k.a. housing bubble bust?) this might be not be an "error" as such.
So, let's go back to where we started. "The statistics don't lie: we've got a problem" said Mr. Thomson's headline. And he leads with "Seven out of 10 West Australians have insufficient skills to solve everyday problems," adding "51 per cent of surveyed people could not conduct everyday calculations, and 44 per cent could not comprehend written stories or basic documents."
I dunno. Maybe the statistics do lie. Maybe they're like those housing price statistics. Maybe somebody's collecting data or using a measure that isn't quite the same as the common-sense one you and I would use.
I'm not saying there's isn't work to do, help to be offered. I spend lots of time with people who have problems with daily life (and who possess a range of literacy skills). I spend time with people challenged by text, or by math, or by spacial relations. I know people who could benefit from basic adult education. I could - though I won't - tell you about people who are dying of low literacy skills. But these people that I know, they don't take surveys. Seriously. They scarcely show up on StatCan head counts. IALS and it's counterparts don't know anything about them.
So what are these news stories really about?