Scaling Impact: How We Will Tackle Adult Low Literacy

Jun 22 2018

Shlomy Kattan

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Three years ago, we launched the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE with an audacious goal: transform the way we reach adult learners so that more of the 36 million people in the United States who struggle with literacy can learn anytime, anywhere. 

Today, we reached two significant milestones in that journey: announcing the five finalists of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE and launching the Communities Competition. These five finalists have each won $100,000 for their performance thus far in developing mobile literacy-learning tools for adults. The Communities Competition is our challenge to individuals and organizations throughout the United States to pick up the mantle and scale the impact the winning teams can have by getting these learning tools in the hands of the learners who need them most. Through the Communities Competition, we want to transform the lives of one million adult learners, and we are calling on you to help. 

Thirty six million. That number never ceases to astound me. That is one in six adults in the U.S. who struggle with the very skills that are critical to surviving in today’s society and economy. That’s 36 million workers who struggle to hold down a job, 36 million patients who struggle with prescription information, and 36 million parents who cannot read a bedtime story to their kids. 

The effects on society are profound. Adults with low literacy skills are twice as likely to be out of work and more likely to be in prison. Low literacy alone accounts for a full 8 percent of all U.S. healthcare costs. Low literacy is passed on from generation to generation. Indeed, children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. Addressing the grand challenge of adult literacy, then, has an impact for generations to come. 

Although it is incredibly effective, place-based tutoring simply does not scale. Traditional classrooms, at full capacity, can only serve the needs of no more than 5 percent of adult learners in the United States. Simply put, we cannot train 36 million tutors. That is why, for 30 years, the rate of adult low-literacy in the United States has not changed. We are leaving behind those learners who need the most help. 

To address this grand challenge we called on teams of educators, developers, and designers to create mobile learning tools that would significantly increase the literacy skills of adult learners. 109 teams from 15 countries answered that call and registered to compete. After 21 months of development, multiple submission rounds, and two months of reviews, our panel of independent judges selected eight semifinalists. These eight teams’ literacy apps were then deployed to 12,000 adults in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia—7,000 of whom tested at or below the equivalent of a third-grade reading level—for a 15 month-long field test to select the winners.

Five of these eight teams have now been named finalists. These five finalists come from diverse backgrounds and schools of thought about education, but they are united in their belief that mobile technology can empower millions of adult learners to improve their skills, obtain better work, or even read a bedtime story to their kids. 

These five finalists are also in unique and elite company. Only 15 XPRIZE competitions have ever reached this stage. Being a finalist means these five teams join a very small group of visionaries and revolutionaries who believe in the power of teamwork and human ingenuity to solve the world’s toughest challenges. I could not be more inspired and impressed by their accomplishments, their dedication, and their commitment. 

That belief in the power of a small group of people to change the world is core to the XPRIZE mission, and it is why we are turning to people like you to supercharge the impact these finalist teams can have. Through the Communities Competition, you can help revolutionize adult learning by putting free learning tools in the hands of those who need them most, so learning can happen anytime, anywhere. 

We are awarding $1 million to transform one million lives using these proven, effective apps. In Phase 1, competitors will tell us how they will revolutionize adult education in their community. We will award $10,000 each to the 50 best proposals. In Phase 2, the three competitors who recruit the most people to download and use these apps for free will win a share of an additional $500,000. We will provide the free educational apps—your job is to get them to your community members. 

We believe solutions to humanity’s greatest challenges can come from anyone. That is why the Communities Competition is open to any educational institution, non-profit, NGO, government agency, company, corporation, individual, person, or any other legal entity in the United States, regardless of size, locality, and whether or not the competitors have previously worked with or served adult learners. Communities can be virtual, local, regional, or national in scope and reach. Competing communities may recruit participants anywhere in the United States regardless of that community’s physical location. In short, we want to see what innovations you have to offer so that more learners everywhere receive these opportunities.

We remain committed to the audacious goal we set three years ago, and look forward to having you join us as we transform lives through literacy. 

Register to compete.

Shlomy Kattan