According to the annual study of America's Most Literate Cities, Washington, D.C., has snatched the literacy crown away from perennial front runner, Seattle. Unfortunately, a closer look at the numbers reveals that nationally, key indicators of literacy are on the decline. The scores that earned D.C. the top spot in 2010 would, in 2004, only be enough to reach 7th place.
Since 2003, the study has measured not whether residents of large—250,000 or more people—cities can read, but if they actually put those literacy skills into practice. The study's author, Dr. John Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University, analyzed "six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and internet resources."
Miller says that literacy is a key indicator of a nation's social health, and although Americans are reading, we're reading less than ever before. He also raises a problematic question for our test score-happy educational environment: "What difference does it make how good your reading test score is if you never read anything?"
According to the rankings, the three most populous American cities—New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—don't even crack the top 20.
Both newspaper readership and book purchases also continue to decline—and it's not because everyone's reading online versions of the paper or downloading books to their e-reader.
Although online book purchases have grown an average of 83 percent since 2007, U.S. Census data show that book sales have declined. In 2003, purchases from traditional bookstores totaled $16.2 million. However, in 2009, all purchases from traditional bookstores—including the soy chai you bought in the cafe—and online retailers combined came to only $16.7 million.
Only 31 percent of city residents read a weekday paper and less than half read a Sunday paper, with some of the largest declines happening in Atlanta, Boston, Miami, and San Francisco. As for the impact of online versions of papers, a recent Pew report says that only 34 percent of Americans are viewing news online.
Dr. Miller also cites America's decline as the world's "college-educated leader." According to a recent College Board report, America ranks in 12 out of 36 developed nations in "the proportion of adults ages 25 to 34 with postsecondary credentials."
There is a bright spot in the data—the accessibility and usability of libraries. "Even in these economically embattled times, many cities appear to be providing their citizens with rich resources for developing and maintaining literate behaviors," says Miller.