U.S. Adults Lag Behind Peers in Literacy Math, and Computer Skills

October 8, 2013

According to a new report released this week, adults in the U.S. are seriously lacking in literacy, math, and computer skills when compared to their international peers. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is comprised of mostly industrialized countries, created the report by measuring the aptitude of nearly 157,000 adults age 16-65 worldwide. For the United States portion of the study, nearly 5,000 adults were tested with mixed results.

According to the Washington Post, Americans proved to be especially weak in numeric and problem-solving skills. And, although Americans performed slightly better in literacy, the scores for all three subjects still came in below the international average. Furthermore, study findings showed a gap between white, black, and Hispanic test takers, adding additional reason for concern.

"These findings should concern us all," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a written statement. "They show our education system hasn't done enough to help Americans compete -- or position our country to lead -- in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills."

And, without improving adult education levels in the United States, many fear that American adults will be left behind as we transition from a labor-based economy. "Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them," Duncan said. "We need to find ways to challenge and reach more adults to upgrade their skills."

Overall, the U.S. ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency, 14th in problem-solving, and 21st in numeracy proficiency, notes Inside Higher Ed. Reportedly, adults in Japan, Finland, Canada, and Australia had the highest ratings over all categories combined.

The OECD study revealed more troubling news as well. For instance, researchers found that ten percent of participating adults didn't know any basic computer skills, including how to operate a mouse. This is especially troubling news considering the fact that many jobs of the future are expected to be technology-based. The report also showed that socioeconomic background had a profound impact on proficiency levels across the board, meaning that adults from poorer and less-educated backgrounds aren't necessarily achieving a higher level of education than their parents.

Education experts agree that something must be done about the country's adult education problems. Workforce education programs, along with colleges and universities, need to collaborate with schools in order to prepare adults to fill the job openings of the future. Without adequately preparing adults for the job market, we're likely to continue to lag behind in adult education, and thus the global economy.

In addition to a push for more schools to get involved in the cause, some educators believe that employers need to take on a greater role in adult education as well. "This isn't an adult education problem, a math education problem, a developmental education problem or a work place issue," said Joanne Kantner, dean of adult education and transition programs at Kishwaukee College in Illinois. "The math adults need is not determined by adult education. It's determined by the work place."

Compiled by Holly Johnson


"Adult Literacy in the U.S Below Other Nations," wfuv.org, October 8, 2013

"Troubling Stats on Adult Literacy," insidehighered.com, October 8, 2013, Megan Rogers

"U.S. adults lag most countries in literacy, math and computer skills," washingtonpost.com, October 8, 2013, Lyndsey Layton

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