U.S. lags in basic skills.

October 08, 2013

Today, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its inaugural edition of the OECD Skills Outlook dedicated reporting the results of the first round of the Survey of Adult Skills, produced by the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies(PIAAC). The survey assessed reading, numeracy and problem-solving skills of 16 to 65 year old adults in 24 developed nations. 

The release of the United States report has been postponed due to the government shutdown, but what has been released by the OECD is troubling. The survey shows that the U.S. lags behind several countries in literacy, math and technical skills, scoring below the international average and far below the top performers—Japan and Finland. U.S. test-takers with graduate and professional degrees scored above the international average in literacy but below in math and problem-solving. 

The survey also shows the U.S. has a high level of disparity between the highest and lowest proficiencies. In all three proficiencies, compared to other countries, the U.S. had more people in the highest and lowest levels. What this means is the U.S. is more unequal in its distribution of skills than most other countries, and as more jobs are created that require advanced skills there are many low skilled adults that are getting left behind. 

In a statement, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized that to overcome this challenge and lead the world in innovation, we must align our policies to ensure America’s workforce has the skills it needs. “Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them. We need to find ways to challenge and reach more adults to upgrade their skills.”

But to do this, we must make sure adults have access to the educational opportunities necessary to improve their literacy, math and problem-solving skills. The survey shows there is a strong positive correlation between a higher proficiency in basic skills and attending an adult education program. We must create pathways that allow all adults to improve their skills while learning more advanced technical skills in order to improve their employment outcomes.

To download the report and view other resources, visit OECD’s Skills Outlook website.