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Where the USA ranks world-wide in literacy rates is a complex question. If you look at overall literacy, the USA ranks somewhere between 7th and 38th in the world, depending upon the source.

So why the disparity?

You can look at literacy from many different criteria: age, race, gender, family income, ethnicity, birth order, geographic location, etc. But no matter the criteria, the opportunity to learn to read has been a tool for either opportunity or oppression for centuries.

U.S. literacy facts:

  • 30 million adults in the USA cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third-grade level (ProLiteracy)
  • Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years, or drop out. (National Bureau of Economic Research [NBER].
  • 75 percent of prison inmates did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate. (Rand Report: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education)

For much of history, reading was something only privileged, upper class men were allowed to learn. School was not free like it is today. Education was for only a select few and this preserved a class system that kept the poor powerless and the rich powerful.

After the slave revolt of 1831, most slave states passed laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. “The Alabama Slave Code of 1833 included this following law: “Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.” That was a whole lot of money in 1833.

Why were they so concerned about slaves learning to read?

Because if slaves learned to read, they could access information. They could read newspapers. They could read books and understand their rights. They could organize and rise up against the institution of slavery. Slave owners wanted to keep their slaves uneducated and powerless because they understood that literacy was power.

Women, too, were largely left out of education.

Educating women simply was not a priority until the early 1900s and even then, women attending college was rare up until the 1960s. Early Americans often believed it was a waste to educate women past the basics since they would need to run a home and raise a family. Half the women born around 1730 were illiterate.

Fortunately, today girls have equal opportunity for education in the US – in fact girls have a higher literacy rate in the US than boys. However, in some countries, girls are still not allowed to go to school or learn to read.

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Valley literacy rates

We are fortunate to have excellent elementary schools in the Santa Ynez Valley. All our public schools rank far above the state and county averages for literacy. Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, a Silver Medal award winner, is ranked in the top 16 percent of California High Schools for literacy. Santa Ynez High has a total of 966 students, 47 percent of which are minority students and 23 percent are economically disadvantaged – yet it is still one of the higher achieving schools in the state.


Because the Valley supports its schools and Valley parents support their children’s education. As a former school board member and a retired university faculty member, I have witnessed first-hand how Valley immigrant families want the best for their children and they realize that means getting a good education.

Not only do we have excellent schools in the Valley, we have access to excellent colleges. Both Allan Hancock College and Santa Barbara City College rank among the best in not only California, but in the nation. These community colleges are affordable and open to all. Of course, UCSB is an outstanding university and is ranked in the top 10 for many majors.

What can you do to promote literacy?

Of course, if you are a parent, show you value education by encouraging your children to read and do well in school. If you do not have children or they are no longer at home, encourage children you know to read and do well in school. You can volunteer at your local school or library to help with literacy. Support your local library and help fund literacy programs for children and adults. If you have neighbors who are not proficient in English, volunteer to help them learn English. The rising tide raises all boats and there is nothing that raises the standard of living and quality of life for a community than a high literacy rate.

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Judith Dale can be reached at