WASHINGTON – Donald Thornton can manage to read a bus schedule, but when it comes time to call the roll for the fourth- and fifth-graders he coaches in basketball, the Baltimore man has to ask one of the children to do it.
“I want to share with them my problem, but I’m scared to reach out to them. If they laugh, I’ll just let them laugh,” said Thornton, 43, who reads at a second-grade level.
“I would fake people out like I knew how to read,” he said.
While the number of illiterates in Maryland has dropped from 7 percent to just 1 percent over the century, as many as 20 percent of Marylanders are functionally illiterate like Thornton, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey.
The level of functional illiteracy has changed little over the years, educators say, but they predict that the problems associated with it will soon get worse, as an increasingly high-tech society demands even higher levels of literacy for people to get by.
“Today literacy means different things than it did 20 years ago. Society is more dependent on people being multiliterate,” said Nancy Shapiro, director of the K-16 Partnership for Teaching and Learning at the University System of Maryland.
The amount of education needed to function in today’s society has drastically increased, said James McKusick, chairman of the English Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“At the turn of the century a high school diploma was a rare accomplishment. Now most white- and pink-collar jobs require a bachelor’s degree,” he said.
Under the old definition of literacy, Maryland made tremendous gains in this century.
From 1910, when more than half of the counties in the state posted double- digit rates of illiteracy — including Charles County, which led the state with a reported 23 percent rate of illiteracy — the rate has dropped to 1 percent statewide. Only three counties reported rates higher than 1 percent in 1990: Kent and Prince George’s counties reported 2 percent rates and Montgomery County had a 4 percent rate.
But when functional illiteracy is measured, the picture is not so rosy. Twenty percent of Maryland adults could only read at a basic level in 1990, according to the Census Bureau, ranging from a low of 10 percent in Frederick and Carroll counties to 33 percent in Somerset and 38 percent in Baltimore City.
Baltimore’s situation is a sharp turnaround from the early part of the century, when it had one of the lowest rates of illiteracy in the state.
David Berney, director of the Ripken Learning Center in Baltimore, said that it is no coincidence that 38 percent of Baltimore City residents also do not have a high school diploma. He said the 38 percent in the city who can only read at a basic level are people whose “reading skills who are so low that they have problems functioning.”
But people need to know more than the alphabet now to be considered literate, said Shapiro. They now need to be literate in technology and to be analytical of what they read, she said. Students need to ask more probing questions about the sources of information because “you can’t trust anymore that something printed is true,” she said.
Kim Barroll, director of adult programs for Kent County public schools, said there are still many people who have trouble reading at all, much less mastering analytical reading skills.
Adults who want to learn to read face additional obstacles in rural areas like Kent County, said Barroll, such as transportation problems. Many do not have cars or telephones to call their tutors when they will be late, she said.
“Our problem is consistency of students showing up to class,” she said. Volunteer tutors sometimes get frustrated because many students can be late or not show up at all, she said.
Barroll said the she tries to “alleviate a lot of their obstacles” by teaching classes in various areas across the county, but it is not always enough.
“Lots of obstacles are so overwhelming that the way they deal with it is not to deal with it,” she said.
Barroll said she worries, because about two-thirds of her students have children. “They don’t have the skills and knowledge to help their children,” she said.
Barroll said she hoped the number of people in the county’s literacy programs would drop, since the economy is doing well, but she has noticed the same level of poverty and lack of education in younger generations as when she started 20 years ago.
“Illiteracy is definitely going to continue to happen,” she said.
Thornton is taking steps to see that it doesn’t happen for him any more. He is in his second year at the Ripken Learning Center, working toward a general equivalency degree so he can participate in activities that many literate people take for granted, he said.
He wishes now that he was encouraged to do well in school when he was a child. “If I was pushed I would’ve gotten myself together and learned to read,” said Thornton.
Thornton said teacher apathy might be part of the reason he made it to 10th grade before dropping out, and said he was surprised he made it that far without knowing how to read.
“They were passing me through school, but I was very sick as a child. I never did no studying when I was at home,” he said.
Thornton, who said he was a drug abuser until 1991, now works part-time as a cook at a drug and alcohol treatment center. He has a son in college and is expecting another child soon. He could never help his son with homework and wants to be able to help teach his second child, he said.
“I’ve always wanted to go into a store and buy a card for people,” he said. “I want to get a drivers license and read the Bible.
“I was mad with myself because I couldn’t help them,” he said of his children. “I waited so long, but I guess it’s never too late.”