Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Report on Literacy Issues – December 1, 2013

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The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) based in Paris, France, has issued a report on the literacy skills of working age adults in the developed world.  A New York Times editorial contains an important assessment of this report. The OECD research focused on persons aged 16-65 in 24 countries.  It dealt with 3 crucial areas literacy – the ability to understand and respond to written material, numeracy – the ability to use numerical and mathematical concepts, and problem solving – the ability to interpret and analyze information using computers.  Alarmingly, Americans performed poorly in all three areas.  In literacy, for example, about 12% of American adults scored at the highest levels, a smaller proportion than in Finland and Japan (about 22%).  In addition, 1 in 6 Americans near the bottom in literacy, compared with 1 in 20 adults who scored at that level in Japan.

Americans hardly fared better in numeracy skills, their overall rating was “very poor.”  The United States outperformed only two comparison countries: Italy and Spain.  Nearly 1 in 3 Americans scored near the bottom in numeracy.  The New York Timesopines that the fact that “Americans were slightly below average in problem solving using computers was specially discouraging.”

Some countries are making progress in the above-mentioned skills.  But in the United States as in Britain, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people coming into the labor market are no better than those who are about to retire.  And quite tellingly, while Americans who are in the 55-65-age bracket perform above average in literacy skills, young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the 24 countries surveyed.  The New York Times analysis suggests that “the problem is not so much that the United States has gotten worse, but that it stood still on indicators like high school graduation rates while its foreign competitors rushed forward.  Beginning in the 1970s, other developed nations recognized that the new economy would produce few jobs for workers with mediocre skills.”

It has been further reported that a number of OECD countries most notably Finland, broadened access to education, improved teacher training, and took other steps as well.  Other countries utilize the OECD data to set policy goals and to gauge the pace of educational progress.

While researchers had been cautioning for more than a decade that the United States was losing ground to the its economic competitors and would fall behind them unless it improved the high level math, science and literacy skills of its citizens necessary for the new economy.  However, the policymakers were not adequately sensitized about this important issue.  The U.S. has yet to take on a sense of urgency about these yardsticks.  The New York Times concludes its analysis by suggesting “if that does not happen soon, the country will pay a long term price.”

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