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ANOTHER FINE MESS: Mass Confusion on Literacy Rates in Detroit

By Danny Devries, Data Analyst & Louis Bach, Communications

It seems that if you spend enough time in Detroit, someone will, sooner or later, tell you that half of the city’s population is illiterate. It happened to us most recently on the December 1st episode of the Craig Fahle show when a caller rang in and recited the figure. There’s no doubt that Detroit suffers from many social ills, but how did the claim of a one-in-two literacy rate become so commonplace? Curious about the origins of this oft-quoted statistic, we started digging. What we found was appalling.

On May 4, 2011, The Detroit Regional Workforce Fund (DRWF) published a report titled Addressing Detroit’s Basic Skills Crisis, which featured the statistic that 47% of Detroit’s adult population is functionally illiterate. Predictably, this touched off a media firestorm. Major outlets including CBS, Fox, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Mail promptly covered the release, along with other heavyweights like Matt Yglesias.

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:

• On May 4, CBS Detroit reported “alarming new statistics” indicated that nearly half of Detroiters “can’t read.”

• On May 4, reported on a “new study” from DRWF indicating the 47% functional illiteracy rate.

• On May 5, Fox Nation rehashed the CBS Detroit story, as did My Fox Detroit.

• On the same day, Outside the Beltway also rehashed the CBS Detroit story.

• The same day, the Daily Mail quoted the “study” showing that nearly half of Detroiters “cannot read.”

• That day, Matt Yglesias at ThinkProgress commented on the report.

• On May 6, Good Magazine reported the figure and referred to DRWF’s work as both a “new report” and a “study.”

• The same day, the Root did the same.

• On May 7, the Huffington Post stated that of Detroit’s remaining population since 2000, half are functionally illiterate.

• On November 3, Bridge Magazine reported the figure, saying that “despite the best efforts of dozens of nonprofit tutoring agencies, the numbers have not been improving,” though there’s no way of knowing whether this is true.

Even in 1998, the NIL report underlines several limitations to its methodology, all of which have been ignored by the media. 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!

Literacy is an important issue in Detroit; to take action on it requires that we understand the magnitude of the problem. But to act based on outdated and methodologically limited data is hardly better than acting on no data at all. This is particularly true when uncritical reporting of those data dominates the dialogue, as has been the case with literacy in Detroit. In order to understand how to respond effectively to the issue of literacy, we must first honestly evaluate how much or little we know about it – and in present-day Detroit, there are significant gaps in our knowledge.

(Credit goes to blog Club de Cordeliers for the scoop. Hat tip to E.D. Kain at for linking to de Cordeliers.)

12 responses to “ANOTHER FINE MESS: Mass Confusion on Literacy Rates in Detroit”

  1. Kaity says:

    So what is the illiteracy/literacy rate?

    • louis says:

      As far as I know, there’s no recent data.

      There was a followup to the 1993 NALS in 2003, called the NAAL, but there appears to have been no NIL-style analysis on it. The NIL itself appears to be inactive; their website is kaput and the Federal Register doesn’t list any research published by them in the last decade.

  2. Sandra says:

    The national center for education statistics website says 12% lack basic literacy skills in wayne county (2003). For comparison, it was 6% in Washtenaw County.

    I remember wondering about this statistic, too, which I thought I recalled was bandied about in a local news column before the May 2011 report came out.

  3. Delphia says:

    We recently published this statistic in our December issue which focuses on literacy. I state in my column that I had a difficult time wrapping my head around a number that large. I pulled the info from the DRWF report. I am elated to hear that it’s no longer true. Our January issue will share the good news with our readers but still encourage them to identify those who live with this challenge and offer help.


  4. Luther Keith says:

    Thank for this piece. As a former Detroit Library Commissioner and a former professional journalist, it has always bothered me how this number is tossed around without much, if any, verification that the stats are current or even valid. However, this is not to say illiteracy is not a serious problem for Detroit. I just believe it should not be exxagerated with possibly outdated or flimsy data.

  5. P Becker says:

    Thanks for this. In my oft-stated opinion, there simply ARE NO DATA which document the level of illiteracy in the City of Detroit. This is not a measurable condition.

  6. Rick Smith says:

    You will be pleased to know that some of the readers of MLive pointed out the date and source of the literacy study on the comments. I hope that the editors of MLive and other news sources had published a retraction or correction.

  7. Shea Howell says:

    Thanks again for another important piece correcting the myths of Detroit. Your work is critical to all of us.

  8. Beverly Tran says:

    The one disturbing piece that was presented in this post was the “data illiteracy” of the media. I cringe how media skews and asymmetrically presents data. Great observation and I would like to see more discussion on it.

    I would also like to point out that Detroit has a extremely diverse population where English is a secondary language.

  9. Galen Hardy says:

    Another misconception about the people of Detroit down the drain!

  10. Suzanne Antisdel says:

    I’m glad you’re there.
    Something else we need more data on is how things get so contorted, skewed and totally mashed up by the media trail. I wish there were a way to measure that!