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Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as U.S. Seen Losing Edge On Education Measures

U.S. Seen Losing Edge On Education Measures

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Poor literacy skills among high school graduates and too few opportunities for adult education put the United States in danger of losing its competitive edge in a rapidly changing global market, according to a report from the Paris- based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The United States is now behind, or has lost ground, on several important education measures among countries in the OECD, an economic- and social-policy organization of 30 industrialized countries, OECD officials said late last week in releasing the group's annual education policy analysis.

The officials' comments came during a March 27 briefing at the organization's Washington headquarters. Paris-based officials of the OECD participated via videoconference.

OECD countries have made lifelong learning a priority over the last five years because of demands for citizens to continually improve their skills in a "knowledge economy." But the report suggests that member counties still have a long way to go before systemic changes take root.

The results of the study were scheduled to be the focus of discussion April 2-4 at a meeting of OECD education ministers in Paris.

For international comparison, the OECD analyzed results from an 18-nation literacy survey conducted between 1994 and 1998, which looked at scores from 16- to 25-year-old high school graduates. In the United States, excluding individuals who go on to acquire further education, nearly 60 percent of graduates performed below a literacy level international experts consider necessary to cope with "the complex demands of modern life."

That percentage was the highest among the 18 nations studied. Finland, with only 10 percent lacking those literacy skills, performed the best among the countries surveyed. The percentages for other countries ranged from 20 percent in Germany to 50 percent in Poland.

Once 'Undisputed Leader'

Thirty years ago, the United States was the "undisputed leader" in educating its population, said Gregory Wurzburg, the director for education, employment, labor, and social affairs for the OECD. But other countries are quickly catching up to or exceeding the United States.

The United States leads all other countries surveyed for high school completion rates and postsecondary education among 50- to 54-year-olds, showing that it once dominated the education scene. But the report says that the United States ranks fifth in that category for 25- to 29-year-olds. The countries that bested the United States in that category were Korea, the Czech Republic, Norway, and Switzerland, the report says.

Mr. Wurzburg suggested that unless policymakers in the United States reconsider some form of national academic standards, attempts at improving education across many levels would be difficult.

"It's important not to look for individual approaches when there is systemic failure," Mr. Wurzberg said. "In addition to school-level attention, there must be a push for some sort of national standards. It requires national remedies, not isolated remedies."

Alan Wagner, a senior analyst with the OECD, said that better alignment between the K-12 and higher education worlds also should be encouraged. And in a rapidly changing world, he said, education can't end after formal schooling. "Learning needs are exploding for adults," he said.

According to the National Alliance for Business, more than 40 million new jobs have been created in the United States economy since 1982, radically transforming the workplace.

Even though the United States has the world's strongest economy and has benefited greatly from the initial boom in technology, skills gaps are attracting attention from educators and policymakers concerned that high-tech jobs have gone begging because of an inadequate pool of skilled workers.

According to the Information Technology Association of America, about half the 1.6 million information-technology jobs available last year went unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers.

John Martin, the director of the education department for the OECD, said U.S. officials would have to ensure that education remains at the forefront of the national agenda in order for the United States to maintain its status as the world's technology leader.

"Investment in education is a vital necessity to reap the benefits from information technology," he said. "For the United States to continue to maintain a very high standard of living, its educational weaknesses must be remedied."

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Page 3

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