Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Boomer Solution To Our Intractable Reading And Math Proficiency Problems

The strategy is - put people back to work and teach young children to read well. Below are some tactics to get there, at least in part.

Last week NPR reported that the unemployment rate among the 55-and-older set hit 7.2%, the highest since the end of World War II. And while that may be lower than the overall rate, older workers tend to stay unemployed longer, with the average length of the job search more than 35 weeks.

A Pew survey shows that 1 in 3 unemployed older workers hasn't had a paycheck in more than a year. As a result, in 2009, 3 million older workers have simply given up and declared early retirement and have begun drawing Social Security benefits.

Yet this is the best-educated, most highly-skilled cadre in our society as of this moment and it is being pulled from service.

Meanwhile, disadvantaged students in the first grade have a vocabulary that is approximately half that of the average advantaged student (2,900 and 5,800 words respectively). The first grade! For the underprivileged, the race is essentially lost before the starter's pistol has been sounded.

And, if you can't read well, the chances you will do well in math are next to nil.

The marriage of Boomers and needy preschool children is of urgent importance.

Almost anyone with a few years of college and beyond, or even those with a solid high school education, are capable of reading aloud to and giving basic reading, writing and math instruction to a 4, 5 or 6 year-old.

The Boomers who want to retire because of difficulty in finding new employment should be entered into a new program dedicated to transmitting these basic skills to deprived and neglected youngsters.

The Boomers would receive a stipend that would not be taxable and that would not affect their Social Security payment levels. The reading and math sessions could easily be conducted in schools before or after hours, in community centers, in the halls of religious institutions, libraries, even outdoors. The sessions could be for two hours per day, four days per week.

Let's say there were 1,000,000 of these "into-the-breach" senior tutors. And let's say they received $1,000 per month. That would cost $12 billion per year. The extra money added to the average retiree's $1,170 per month in SS money would help immensely, raising their monthly income to $2,170 per month. One can fairly assune that the extra money, like unemployment benefits, would immediately be recirculated into the economy in the form of consumer spending.

By contrast, we are spending over $100 billion per year on the two wars in southwest Asia, plus another 700 billion on defense in general. Corn subsidies cost us about $10 billion per year. Tax and other incentives to the petroleum industry cost us about $105 billion per year.

The benefits to the children who would be affected by such programs are not immeasurable, although the following statistics would serve to astound even the most skeptical among us.
(Stats are from - there are plenty more at their site.)

It is estimated that the cost of illiteracy to business and the taxpayer is $20 billion per year.

It is estimated that more than $2 billion is spent each year on students who repeat a grade because they have reading problems. 

The educational careers of 25 to 40 percent of American children are imperiled because they don't read well enough, quickly enough, or easily enough.

Children who have not developed some basic literacy skills by the time they enter school are 3 - 4 times more likely to drop out in later years.

One-fifth of high school graduates cannot read their own diplomas.

Let's say of the 1,000,000 Boomers employed, they each affect 8 to 12 students per day. That is, obviously, 8 to 12 million students per day.

The children would receive the benefits of all the cumulative applied knowledge of the Boomers. They would stay in the school and learning environment for a longer amount of time each day. They would be sheltered from detrimental home situations, from excessive TV watching and video game playing.

The Boomers - with all their phenomenal skills coming back into play - would find a new sense of purpose plus a reasonable new source of income.

That income would help in a directly stimulative way to reinvigorate our struggling economy.

Volunteerism is all well and good, but the educational crisis is reaching high tide and it needs to be treated with early in a child's life. Volunteers are wonderful, but this is a different kind of predicament.

Maybe this is the new WPA or CCC. Spend money directly on things that are of dire importance to our future. And do something intrinsically good in the bargain.


  1. I love this idea--especially with the financial incentive. Here's something already in place.

  2. For $5,000/month, I'll read to the entire class. Hell, the entire SCHOOL for 2 hours a day.
    -Seattle Boomer-

  3. Great idea. i think everyone would agree that the concept makes sense and would employ or at least engage unemployed workers, young and old alike. why leave out younger unemployed? engaging young people in an effort to educate america as a whole is a good thing.

    my problem with your post is that you ahve politicized it by 1) raising the government spending on other things you find not worthy of government spending (thereby closing the ears of anyone who feels that spending as any value), 2) making it a macro solution instead of allowing or suggesting it be a grass roots effort (have you done anything in your own community to make such a program happen, even a volunteer one?), and 3) by focusing on the government to be the one to do something. we all have the opportunity to make the world better and the government will never have enough money to do everything everyone wants it to do -- unless of course it ONLY does those things we approve of personally.

    by the way i am against subsidies and against the wars half a world away and against the recent extension of unemployment benefits (i own a small business that is yet to earn a profit in two years yet i pay inflated unemployment insurance for my part time employees because they were laid off from previous jobs and did i mention neither my wife nor i qualify for unemployment because our former businesses simply failed because of the recession -- but don't get me started on that!)

    my point is that you have a good idea that makes sense regardless of all the other factors. why not simply push that and not feel you have to badmouth other stuff.

    michael abend

  4. Michael - we're sort of puzzled at what it is we're badmouthing in this post? Seems pretty constructive and direct.

    We focused on Boomers for a variety of reasons. First, this is not a career path. This would be something to augment Social Security. Can it somehow extend to younger people? Sure. But most young people are looking for a career, and probably can't make a go of it on a few hundred bucks a week.

    As to focusing on the government... public education by its definition is the province of the government. Volunteerism is a sweet idea, but it's clearly not working in this case. This is an epidemic.

    Our take is that volunteerism is good for small-scale problems and not for intractable, nationwide problems.

    Part of the idea behind this is to also get the economy going by putting more money into circulation.

    As to our personal involvement in community activities, people are involved in everything from tutoring to coaching to historic preservation to environmental issues.