For Elaine Randall, the hardest part about learning to read as an adult was getting to that first class.
"I'd walk to the door, then back to the car, then to the door. I kept thinking, 'I had so much trouble in school, why should this be different?' " she says. "But I was tired of concentrating on how to cover up so other people wouldn't know I couldn't read well."
With the help of a tutor, she started to see progress. "It was good to set up benchmarks, where I am versus where I was a year ago," says Ms. Randall, who now works at a literacy center in Washington.
Adult literacy has long been the poor stepchild in American education, although more than 40 million American adults can barely locate the time or place of a meeting on a form. Most tutors are volunteers, working out of schools, churches, libraries, or homes. Funding is precarious, and students who most need help are often distracted by the demands of just making a living. Only about 10 percent of the people most in need of help are in literacy programs.
But there's a new push to sharpen the quality of services, and find new ways to get them to the people most in need.
"Throughout America, you'll find lots of volunteer and community-based organizations that provide literacy services to people, but that doesn't address the problem in a systematic way. They're difficult to rely on," says Marshall Smith, deputy secretary of the United States Department of Education.
In addition, many new immigrants have had limited schooling in their own countries. Outside the school system, they are especially hard to reach. "We don't know if they are literate in Spanish [or other native languages]. This population is important to work with - it's a forgotten population," he adds.
"People who receive our services represent the weakest political constituency in the United States," says Greg Hart, director of Pima County Adult Education in Tucson, Ariz.
Each year, American businesses lose some $60 billion in productivity because of employees' lack of basic skills, and the number of companies reporting skilled-worker shortages more than doubled between 1995 and 1998, from 27 percent to more than 47 percent, according to the National Institute for Literacy. "Literacy has become a bottom-line issue for employers. They're finding they need to upgrade skills; they can't just steal workers from someone else," says Patricia McNeil, assistant secretary in charge of adult education at the United States Department of Education.
Washington funds some $365 million of the $1 billion that the federal and state governments spend on efforts to improve literacy. Volunteer and community-based organizations raise additional funds on their own.
Since 1988, the Boston Adult Literacy Fund has raised $1.5 million for literacy programs and helped more than 15,000 adults. Boston has more than 110 community-based literacy programs, but at least 5,000 adults are still waiting for classrooms, says Laura Smolcha, program assistant at the fund.
Staffing is another challenge. "Our teachers are part time, they're working a couple of jobs because they like what they do, not making great pay, no benefits, and they could make more as a public school teacher," she adds.
Unlike previous literacy efforts, the new Bipartisan Workforce Investment Act, which President Clinton signed into law last month, targets work force preparedness. The law requires states to establish benchmarks and standards for their adult-literacy programs, including how many people in a literacy program actually get a job.
The new law also steps up partnerships with states to develop a national network of One-Stop Career Centers, including literacy training. In Traverse City, Mich., which pioneered One-Stops in that state, new immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, Mexico, and Asia, as well as migrant workers up for the cherry-picking season, can use a new literacy lab, where they are trained to read and use computers for free. The Learning Lab is down the hall from job-placement services and the unemployment office.
"Years ago, people used to bluff their way through reading problems. Now, with a little prodding from families, they are coming out of the closet," says Louise Kane-Feuerstein, president of the Traverse City Literacy Council.
In 1996, when the last major literacy bill was funded, the statistic used for the number of Americans in need was 27 million.
Activists say that the jump to 40 million doesn't just reflect more people in need, but also a change in the standard of what counts as literacy.
"The definition of literacy is changing constantly: It's not just reading and writing, but to really function on the job and in society in 1998. The bar is being raised," says Alice Johnson, a policy specialist with the Washington-based National Institute for Literacy.
One concern of literacy activists is that using jobs as a measure of the effectiveness of a literacy program will encourage "creaming," or focusing efforts on the least disadvantaged readers and writing off those most in need. States have until next spring to establish their own benchmarks.
"Many states say they wouldn't dream of doing that, but our concern is that as achievement benchmarks kick in, states will feel the pressure to compete against each other," says Jon Rendall, Washington director of government relations for Literacy Volunteers of America.
"Literacy activists worry that the new legislation is trying to change the scope of what they are doing and why they were doing it, such as helping people go to a PTA meeting for the first time, get a drivers license, or vote. The field wants to leave plenty of room for these advances," adds Ms. Johnson of the National Institute for Literacy.
Literacy groups are also launching their own drive toward higher standards in teaching and practice. Literacy Volunteers of America, one of two large national literacy groups, is sponsoring a new accreditation initiative.
"We hope to accredit every member of our network beginning in the year 2000," says Beverly Miller, spokesman for Literacy Volunteers of America, which has some 390 affiliates. "So when you go to a LVA program anywhere in the country, you will know that there are certain standards anywhere you go.
Their Web site (www.literacyvolunteers. org) is being overhauled and will be operational Oct. 1.
"Quite a few people in our program graduated from high school and couldn't read their diploma. Many are very clever people, but they feel they are fakes and will be found out. They may have been doing a job for years and know it so well that no one knows that they can't read. You don't have to be stupid to be illiterate," she adds.
Literacy activists say that new technologies will help adult education programs. The "Crossroads Caf" television series, for example, is used in local adult-education programs in 35 states.
The program, a "Sesame Street" for adults sponsored by the US Department of Education, includes workbooks and allows adults to work on literacy at home. Interactive home television opens more possibilities for adult learners.
"We're finding that parents and adults were likely to watch each episode of Crossroads Caf many times. Persisting has always been a big problem in adult education," says Ms. McNeil of the Department of Education. "As the technology gets cheaper, we'll be able to bring more literacy services into the home."