As noted in a previous article, Stockton seems to have a penchant for having dubious titles bestowed upon it. However, as someone who does research for a living, I have noticed that these rankings and titles are usually not methodologically sound, which leads to misleading characterizations of cities. Today, I would like to tackle the “most illiterate city” title awarded to Stockton in 2005 and 2006.
This “literacy” research is done by Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), who puts out the annual “America’s Most Literate Cities” list. I put the term literacy in quotations because, when you examine the methodology behind these rankings, there is actually no measure of literacy. It seems foolish to measure and report literacy if you are not testing whether a city’s residents can read, as this is the definition of “literate”. Nevertheless, here are the reasons why Stocktonians should take these rankings with a grain of salt:
1. Lodi Unified Schools are omitted
Part of the literacy rankings looks at the availability of library personnel available to the city’s school children. According to the study’s methodology, only Stockton and Lincoln school districts are taken into account in the study’s library personnel criteria. This leaves out all of the Lodi Unified schools within Stockton. Without these schools, the study misses a significant number of school media personnel which probably takes a toll on Stockton’s literacy rank. It should be noted that private schools do not seem to be captured either, though this appears to be uniform throughout all cities.
2. Bookstore tabulation inconsistent across cities
It’s true: Stockton doesn’t have too many bookstores and the study uses number of bookstores per capita as part of its criteria. In particular, CCSU uses the American Booksellers Association (ABA) as a source for smaller, independent bookstores. In the ABA database, it appears that Stockton has zero ABA member bookstores, meaning that, according to the study, Stockton would rank dead last. However, this ranking is unfair because not all bookstores are ABA members. For example, San Francisco State’s bookstore is an ABA member and therefore counts towards San Francisco’s literacy score. But just because the University of the Pacific’s or Delta College’s bookstores are not listed by ABA doesn’t mean people in Stockton are illiterate.
Also, it is unclear how the study lists book retailers. The study’s methodology does not disseminate whether or not booksellers like Target or Toys R Us are taken into account. Stockton only has one Barnes and Noble (and had a Borders for a time), but that just means residents may buy their books at other non-book themed retailers. Bigger cities will generally have multiple corporate book retailers, disproportionately affecting cities whose residents buy their books at Wal-Mart or Target.
3. The ability to read is not a part of the study
If you are going to call something “America’s Most Literate Cities,” you had better actually measure literacy rates. If I did a study called “America’s Tallest Cities,” you can bet that I would have ranked cities by average height of residents, not by how many Big and Tall stores the city had or the number of basketball or volleyball courts per capita. I don’t dispute that CCSU’s work provides insight into the consumption of literature and the availability of resources, but this study in no way actually measures the ability of people to read. It is disingenuous to publish scholarly work with such a misleading title.
In the grand scheme of things, even with the discrepancies I have pointed out, Stockton is probably in the lower quarter of this study. I don’t pretend that by pointing out a few holes in some analysis, Stockton can clear its conscious of any issues with literacy. What I want people to take away from this analysis is that these kinds of rankings will never tell the whole story. There are very few categories that objectively take one city and compare it side by side with another. There will always be different sets of circumstances, and to compare and rank cities will almost never account for these variables. Saying a city is the worst at this or the best at that shouldn’t make or break a city’s image. And clearly, if you made it through this whole article, you are probably a resident of Stockton, and you are clearly literate.