Friday, November 22, 2013

Time for the United States to Re-Skill ?

Time for the United States to Reskill? The Survey of Adult Skills, shows that our highest-skilled adults remain on par with those in other leading nations, but that, on average, American students are behind other nations in every other measure. The international rankings show that in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in a technology-rich environment, the U.S. average performance is significantly lower than the international average. The data also show that the skill levels of U.S. adults have remained stable over two decades, and that our youngest learners are not improving their skill levels. In some other countries, young adults score well above older ones and also outpace their American peers. This shows that the disadvantages children face often persist into adulthood and learning gaps, fueled by opportunity gaps, exist among American adults.  

Importantly, the report findings shine a spotlight on a portion of our population that has historically been overlooked and underserved: the large numbers of adults with very low basic skills. Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems, and using technology will find the doors of the 21st-century workforce closed to them. The OECD report offers general recommendations as to how the U.S. can be more strategic in our reforms for the low-skilled adult learner population.  
The report offers seven broad policy recommendations for the U.S. to consider. The first is to “take concerted action to improve basic skills and tackle inequities affecting sub-populations with weak skills.” This recommendation addresses the fact that there are significant weaknesses in the skills of the U.S. population, particularly among identified subgroups, where the long-term consequences of the achievement gap can be seen in the adult population. For example, Hispanics and blacks are three-to-four times more likely to have low literacy skills than whites. While the achievement gap in K–12 schooling has been closing steadily, it is not erased and the adult population’s skill profiles still bear the signs of early inequities. The OECD calls on the United States to coordinate and align federal, state, private and philanthropic efforts to improve workforce development efforts and maximize the effectiveness with which efforts reach the scale and efficacy required to make real and lasting changes to the current skills profile.  
The second recommendation, to “strengthen initial schooling for all....” also derives from the long-term effects of poor K–12 schooling, which remain a drag on adults’ skill proficiencies. Current education reforms, such as attention to early learning, dropout prevention, and adoption of more rigorous standards, should be strengthened, accelerated, and evaluated for their continued effectiveness in preparing students with strong skills. The OECD points to the experiences of other countries, such as Korea and Finland, that leveraged early PISA findings (an international skills survey conducted among 15-year-olds) as a wake up call to marshal education reforms that have yielded lasting improvements. The reforms undertaken and the measures of their success are described in a previous OECD report: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States
“Ensure effective and accessible education opportunities for young adults” is the third recommendation. It echoes President Obama’s call for more Americans to complete at least one year of postsecondary education and training in order to succeed in the 21st century global economy. It also reflects the efforts that are underway to reform high schools by making career and technical pathways available to more students. The OECD recognizes that although the pipeline to education exists, many low-skilled and low-income youth and adults are not able to complete their degrees or training programs. Reforms to college access, cost, and developmental education are urgently needed.  
“Link efforts to improve basic skills to employability.” This fourth recommendation draws on previous OECD work in career and technical education, recognizing that the integration of basic skills and work-based learning can be a powerful accelerator for disengaged or low-skilled youth and adults. It opens what OECD calls a “virtuous cycle” of synergistic learning and motivation. This recommendation requires cooperation with employers and industry groups to embed work experiences of all kinds into education pathways and to keep job-specific skills updated in the curriculum.  
“Adapt to diversity,” the fifth recommendation, notes that within the U.S. adult profile is a range of distinct sub-populations with a variety of needs, including young immigrants with language barriers, disconnected youths, adults with learning disabilities, and dislocated workers facing digital literacy challenges. Accordingly, the adult low-skilled population is not homogenous. The OECD recommends developing a range of interventions specifically targeted to the needs and strengths of the various learners and their capacities to engage in education and training.  
The sixth recommendation, to “build awareness of the implications of weak basic skills among adults, their links with other social factors…” refers to those social factors linked to skills as revealed in this survey. These include positive civic behaviors such as voting and volunteering, as well as improving health status and prevention behaviors. In the U.S., the correlation between poor health status and low literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills is twice as strong as the international average. In fact, U.S. adults with low skills are four times more likely to report only “fair” or “poor” health. This combination presents great challenges to both the individual and the health providers to communicate and address the prevention, management, and treatment of disease and unhealthy behaviors.  
The final recommendation, to “support action with evidence,” recognizes that the U.S. capacity for research and evaluation is unsurpassed and calls on the research community to pay more attention to the education and training of low-skilled youths and adults to identify a repertoire of effective, replicable, and scalable practices. To jumpstart this focus, the OECD and the Educational Testing Service are co-sponsoring a researcher training on the dataset and analysis tools this week (registration is full). The Department has also committed to further training opportunities for researchers. Future issues of OVAE Connection will give information on how to participate in these opportunities.  
Stay up to date with all the PIAAC-related publications, briefings, and events at
The overview and main findings of the Survey of Adult Skills were released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This direct assessment, part of the Program of International Assessment of Adult Competencies, (PIAAC), was conducted with nationally representative samples in 23 countries, among adults aged 16 through 65. Based on the survey, OVAE requested OECD to prepare the report, Time for the United States to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says. This report analyzes data from the survey and details the status of American adult competencies within our economic, demographic, and social structures and makes policy recommendations to boost adult skill levels. 

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