Americans lag behind in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills

According to a recent study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), while pockets of adult populations across the world exhibit limited facility with literacy, numeracy, and ICT-based problem solving, American adults, on average, universally rank lower than their peers across all three categories.  A series of tests gauging career-specific and generic skills (such as “interpersonal communication, self management, and the ability to learn”) placed America’s mean scores in literacy and ICT-based problem solving below the international average, all the while ranking America twentieth out of twenty-two countries in numerical proficiency.

The authors of “OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills” draw attention to changing demands for various skill-sets, precipitated by the ever-rising presence of ICTs at home and in the workplace. Observing how in the workplace high-level cognitive tasks have gradually supplanted routine skills (which have, in turn, become increasingly automated), they identify an aptitude in information-processing as the primary index of functionality, endurance, and resilience in the modern career marketplace. With an eye to establish the correlation between desirable skills and socio-economic outcomes, as well as to evaluate how educational systems foster said desirable skills, researchers gathered a total of 166,000 people (ranging in age from 16 to 65 years) in twenty-two countries and subjected them to a series of tests measuring their competence in literacy, numeracy, and ICT-based problem solving, identified by the researchers as the core components of information-processing.

While America fared rather poorly in these trials, the Netherlands, Finland, and Japan constantly received high scores across all three categories.  Besides raw test scores, researchers assessed participants’ education levels and socio-economic standings, which allowed them to observe:

– a link between skill level and income;

– a link between skill level, on the one hand, and health and civil engagement, on the other;

– a wider spectrum of skill variation within, rather than between, countries;

– a minimum of 10% of adults lacking rudimentary computer skills across countries;

– a correlation between countries with high levels of socio-economic parity and high overall scoring averages;

– a correlation between educational attainment and information-processing skills; and

– the importance of spaces outside formal education in developing crucial skills.

The OECD hopes that its report will ultimately help policy-makers ascertain the conduits by which governments and educational institutes can promote parity and high achievement in crucial skills.  Against the dual backdrop of America’s lackluster performance and its shrinking talent pool (according to the report, Americans entering the workforce boast almost the same skills as Americans leaving the workforce, i.e. as the marketplace becomes more complex, newcomers are not necessarily better equipped to handle its challenges than their predecessors), it is important to underscore that the report’s authors view information-processing fluency as a learned, transmittable entity.  To quote the report itself, “countries can shape the level and distribution of [literacy, numeracy, and ICT-based problem solving] in their populations through the quality and equity of learning opportunities both in formal education and in the workplace.” What is crucial, then, is that policy-makers combine high-quality first-round education with opportunities for continued development both at and outside the workplace. That way, citizens will be able to leverage boosts in competence with boosts in upward mobility.