OECD: Lack of Basic Skills in US is a 'Matter of Deep Concern'

By Barbara Hollingsworth | November 19, 2013 | 3:15 PM EST



(CNSNews.com) – At least a dozen developed Western nations are already outpacing the U.S. in teaching their workers the basic academic skills they need to compete in the 21st century global marketplace, according to a report released last week by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“Some degree of catch-up by previously less-developed countries is natural, but the speed at which the skills of comparable developed countries are now outpacing the U.S. must be a matter of deep concern.”

And unless the U.S. takes action to improve its faltering educational system, once the envy of the world, “US adults will fall further behind those of other countries."

“By international standards, despite a relatively high level of educational qualifications, the basic skills of adults in the United States are relatively weak,” according to the report, entitled "Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says.” (See OECD Skills Studies.pdf)

Americans' poor showing is not due to a lack of time they spend in the classroom. Although the U.S. population has one of the highest levels of formal education in the world, “about 36 million U.S. adults have low skills,” the report stated.

“The weaknesses in basic skills occur despite a relatively high level of education. Among comparison countries the U.S. had one of the smallest proportions of adults with less than high school education, and one of the largest with more than high school,” the report pointed out, adding that “unlike many other countries, there has been little sign of improvement in recent decades.”

The report was released Nov. 12 in response to a request by the U.S. Department of Education to “take a closer look at the background of the U.S. low-skilled population” after adult Americans scored below their counterparts in most OECD member countries on tests of basic academic skills, including math, reading and problem solving in a technology-rich environment.

One in three Americans aged 16 to 65 scored lower in math than their international peers in 18 countries, including the Republic of Korea and the Slovak Republic. One in six Americans also tested below the international average in reading, placing below their counterparts in 12 countries.

The low scores were not offset by higher scores at the other end of the achievement spectrum. Just one in 12 Americans scored at the highest level of mathematical achievement, while one in nine reached the highest level of literacy.

“The results at the top end of the ability range are not more impressive than those of other countries,” according to OECD, an organization of 34 Western nations established 50 years ago “to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.”

Total spending on education in the U.S. is 15 percent of all government expenditures, or $1 trillion annually. This is more than the U.S. spends on national defense (13 percent) and amounts to slightly less than 6 percent of the nation’s Gross National Product (GDP).

“Explanations for the relatively weak performance of the United States include failings in initial schooling, lack of improvement in educational attainment over time, and poor skills in some subpopulations including migrants,” OECD concluded.

Pointing out that the “average basic skills of young adults are not very different from older persons,” it found that “the performance of the initial schooling system is closely linked to adult skills,” adding that there are “few signs of improvement.”

Earlier this month, CNSNews.com reported that only a third of eighth graders in the U.S. can read and do math at grade level, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”