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International ‘Literacy Gap’ Documented

February 12, 1992 1 min read

The “literacy gap” among workers in industrialized nations is not due to falling educational standards but rather to the higher skill levels needed in the workplace, according to a new international report.

Producing smarter workers is a concern for developing and industrialized nations alike, according to the report by the Center for Educational Research and Innovation, an arm of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The 87-page report, “Adult Illiteracy and Economic Performance,” examines the increasing amount of attention paid in recent years to the connection between worker literacy rates and economic productivity. The report pays special attention to developments in Canada, Sweden, and the United States.

“A large and growing number of employers now recognize that deficient basic skills and functional illiteracy are a cost to their operations and that the problem is far more serious than they once believed,” says the report, which was written by Lauren Benton and Thierry Noyelle of the Eisenhower Center for the Conservation of Human Resources at Columbia University.

The report cites two trends that appear to make literacy programs more effective. The first is the growing development of workplace-based programs sponsored by employers or unions, which seem to be more effective than traditional programs offered by schools or community colleges.

Training programs sponsored by the United Auto Workers’ union and the three major U.S. auto manufacturers are cited as prime examples. The report notes that smaller employers face greater challenges in establishing such programs.

The second trend involves literacy curricula that are relevant to what workers deal with in their work places. “Traditional curricula of adult programs... consist of standard high-school equivalency or remedial training that takes very little account of the backgrounds or occupations of learners,” the report says.

The report calls for more research into what kinds of programs work best, and better assessments of “the costs of illiteracy to individual firms and to the aggregate economy.”

The report is available for $24 from the O.E.C.D. Information Center, 2001 L St. N.W., Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20036; telephone (202) 785-6323. --M.W.

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1992 edition of Education Week as International ‘Literacy Gap’ Documented