At the time of the American Revolution (1775-83), literacy levels in the thirteen colonies were about 90%. This was in an era before mass schooling. It has now been almost 100 years since mass schooling was introduced in North America, but our literacy levels seem to have decreased significantly, according to this CBC news article:
Literacy groups estimate that up to nine million Canadians face some difficulties with reading and writing.
I am sure that there are many factors influencing these statistics, but it seems obvious that our school systems have not done a great job. Less obvious is how literacy is defined, as the same news article states that only 1% of Canadians are actually illiterate. Literacy groups have their own self-preservation agenda as does the industrial school system, so statistics can be thrown about by various parties for their own purposes.
Anyone who wants to think about literacy and schooling today should ask if our enormous public education system is really meeting the needs of our children and our society. As Churchill said, “First we shape our structures, then our structures shape us” [thanks Jon]