The Washington Times—Advancing American Literacy

by Doro Bush Koch, The Washington Times

From the moment that my father began contemplating his first presidential run, my mother started thinking about how she could best serve our country as first lady. She wanted to devote her time and energy to a cause that would positively impact as many Americans as possible. During a jog around Houston’s Memorial Park, she pondered everything in society that worried her — issues like crime, homelessness, drugs and hunger. She came to a powerful conclusion: “If more people could read, write and comprehend, we would be that much closer to solving so many of the problems plaguing our society.”

Thankfully, Mom’s passion for literacy lasted much longer than her interest in jogging. Long after she traded her running shoes for mismatched Keds, she held on tightly to the belief that every American deserved the opportunity to secure a better life through literacy.

This month marks 30 years since Mom put her belief into action by establishing the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Since its launch on March 6, 1989, the foundation has provided more than $110 million in support for literacy programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, transforming countless lives in the process. Mom was proud and grateful for those programs, but she knew that there were still millions of American families in need. That knowledge weighed on her, and she challenged us to do more.

As the Barbara Bush Foundation looks toward its next 30 years, we are guided by this challenge and committed to fulfilling our founder’s legacy by shining a light on the millions of American adults who need and deserve more.

Adult literacy is a fundamental, yet often overlooked, component of family literacy. Today, 36 million adults in the United States are at the very lowest levels of literacy, and struggle with routine tasks such as completing a job application, reading a medicine bottle or helping their children with homework, according to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

Throughout her life, my mother maintained that “the parent is the child’s first and best teacher.” Research has proven her right. A 2010 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that a mother’s reading skill is the single greatest factor determining her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors such as neighborhood and family income.

We know that lack of opportunity — not lack of motivation — is most often what prevents adults from improving their literacy skills. Program funding is scarce and waiting lists for adult education programs are common in all 50 states. Even if would-be adult learners manage to overcome challenges like work schedules, child care needs and transportation issues, there are simply not enough resources to go around.

To overcome these challenges, the field of adult literacy needs more — more attention, more voices, more ideas, more funding and more research.

We took our first major step in that direction on Mom’s 90th birthday in 2015, when we launched the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. (Yes, even at the age of 90, she was not done yet.) Before the competition, there were only two app developers in the world focused on adult literacy. This $7 million competition challenged teams to develop groundbreaking mobile apps that would help adult learners improve their literacy skills anytime, anywhere. At its height, we had 109 teams from 22 countries working on solutions.

Last month, we awarded the competition’s grand prize to two teams whose apps helped adult learners achieve the most reading gains during field tests. Through the next phase of the competition, those apps will soon be in the hands of adults nationwide.

This is just the beginning. In the coming years, we will continue to work with educators, businesses, philanthropists, technology experts and anyone else who brings fresh ideas to the table. We will keep pushing to find new and innovative ways to make literacy a reality for every American.

It is an enormous challenge. But, having inherited my mother’s optimism along with her passion for literacy, I choose to focus on the incredible opportunity that lies within each of the 36 million adults who need our help. Their struggles — and their successes — stand to impact families, communities and our entire nation for generations to come.

Doro Bush Koch is the daughter of President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Pierce Bush, and serves as the honorary chair of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

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