Americans are ill prepared to compete in the global economy.
Our literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills rank below top competitor nations. If we hope to remain a nation of innovators that leads the world rather than one that hangs onto the coattails of other countries, we must prioritize education at all levels.
The depressing education and skill rankings come from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. The United States and two dozen industrialized nations surveyed their citizens aged 16 to 65 to measure abilities in three broad areas.
Americans fared best at literacy, though by “best at” we mean least badly. The average American’s ability to read, understand and evaluate a written passage was less than the international average. Sixteen countries scored better and only seven scored worse.
When it came to numeracy (the ability to use, interpret and communicate mathematical ideas) and problem solving in technology-rich environments, Americans finished third from the bottom.
The latter category is particularly troubling given that being able to adapt to challenges and research solutions using modern technology are essential skills to ensure success in 21st-century careers.
Japan and the Scandinavian countries dominated the top of the lists. Japan finished first in all three categories. Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands took other top spots.
The United States scored in the neighborhood of Ireland, France, Italy and Spain. China did not participate.
Unless we are content to wallow near the bottom while other countries better educate their people and enjoy the fruits of that investment, America must commit to change.
It will not happen quickly.
Work must start with the young. Turning out high school graduates who are prepared to go onto college and pursue successful careers without remedial training will ensure a workforce that can drive the economy and invent the technologies that will fuel progress.
Some positive changes already are underway.
Nearly all states have adopted the Common Core State Standards for K-12 education. They set goals for students to learn not just facts but also how to think critically.
Those sorts of skills are essential for a nation that wants to remain a global science, technology and culture leader. Efforts to thwart the phase-ins of the Common Core curriculum are destructive and based on misinformation.
Simply entering the workforce with the right skills is not enough. Learning and job training must be lifetime endeavors.
That will require a significant change in the way many people think about the relationship between education and career.
The former cannot stop when the latter begins. The survey found that America had some of the largest gaps between the most skilled and least in its population. Comprehensive adult education and workforce training can mitigate such disparities.
None of that education and training will come cheaply. The U.S. Department of Education’s budget has trended downward. Likewise, in states and localities, tight budgets have led to lean times for many schools.
Without public investment as well as community and family support for students, standards mean little. They become abstract markers rather than genuine measures of success.
The global economy plays out over decades and emerges from the individual decisions of millions of workers. One survey is not the end, but it must be a wake-up call for a nation that has not invested in education as it should.