How to Confront America's International Skills Gap

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Are we unwittingly headed toward an era of education disarmament?

As one school year ends and we look forward to a new year, the national news has been switching from coverage of education issues like testing and the common core to Iran and wars around the world. I suddenly had the thought that we might be risking unilateral education disarmament as we watch policymakers engage in endless debates about foreign policy, while not attending to a looming domestic crisis.

Uppermost in my mind is a report issued earlier this year by the Educational Testing Service, based on data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international think tank, ranking adult skills in 22 developed nations. The data should give us all pause as we consider the future course of education policy.

Using data from the recent Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, the OECD reports that in literacy the United States outscored only Spain and Italy among the 22 participating nations. That means that adults in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Australia, the Czech Republic, Canada, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and France all did better than adults in the United States.

“How will our students at least match the skill and knowledge levels of our economic competitors if we do not raise expectations and standards?”

In numeracy, we tied with Spain and Italy for last place, behind those same nations, plus England, Italy, and Spain, which all scored better than adults in the United States. Worse is that America’s young adults, ages 16 to 24, also scored at these terrible levels. And although one might assume that the younger populations would best older adults, that’s not the case.

For those who believe college-degree holders do well, U.S. graduates with bachelor’s degrees outscored their international peers only in Poland and Spain. At even higher educational levels, those with graduate degrees, the United States is in the bottom rank, with only Ireland, Poland, and Spain falling below our graduates.

All in all, this is really bad news, especially when coupled with the rising opposition to the adoption of standards that require U.S. students to learn at higher levels and have their knowledge and skills measured against those standards.

There are those who would say that none of this matters, that the U.S. education system need not be as good as those in other nations because our economy is doing just fine. The reality is far different. As those who have studied the issue point out and as people who fill job openings discover, U.S. companies are facing a shortage of high-skilled domestic talent. This has resulted in an ever-increasing flow of work going to developing nations, especially in high-tech fields.

Historians and economists cite, as a major factor in the United States’ becoming a world power in the 20th century, our education system moving from enrolling few students in high school to nearly universal enrollment. In fact, for decades the United States led the world in the percentage of high school graduates. Today, it ranks 21st among leading nations. Denmark, Portugal, Slovenia, and Germany, among others, far exceed us. Even more alarming is that minority students, students from poor households, English-language learners, and those with disabilities are almost always below the national averages in both academic achievement and graduation, yet collectively they represent what will become the major portion of the future U.S. labor force.

So, while we contemplate abandoning higher standards and eliminating assessments that provide valuable data showing us what our students are learning, we need to ask: How will we know which students and student groups need extra time, teaching, and resources? How will our students at least match the skill and knowledge levels of our economic competitors if we do not raise expectations and standards? How will we assure the continuation of our democracy if citizens are unable to analyze complex information and data when they vote and participate in civic affairs?

What does the outcry against standardized tests really mean? Each state demands that drivers pass a standardized test. Doctors, accountants, and lawyers cannot practice their professions without proving their competency. As Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado and a former Los Angeles superintendent, is fond of pointing out, he had to pass a standardized test to get a pilot’s license. Yes, we have relied too much on fill-in-the-bubble tests, but are we willing to invest in more-sophisticated exams?

“How will we assure the continuation of our democracy if citizens are unable to analyze complex information and data when they vote and participate in civic affairs?”

Parents must accept the fact that students today may well be taught math that is more advanced than what they learned in the past, and that helping with even middle school homework may be either impossible or a major struggle. Do we want to lower our expectations when we are far behind the international pack?

This is not to say that we may not have too much testing or are not collecting some data that is not essential. Individual states must consider the course they will follow on all these matters by asking tough questions.

Meanwhile, here are some ideas for how to avoid this potential calamity:

• Agree that education needs to change to keep up with the needs of our economy and workforce—just because it was done one way in the past does not mean that is the right way now.

• Accept that we need accountability throughout the system. What is the right balance of oversight and autonomy?

• Stick to the facts and rely on data rather than ideology and anecdotes when making decisions.

• Affirm that education is meant to be the great equalizer.

• Accept the fact that schools cannot go it alone. Communities are rich with resources that can help students prepare to learn and succeed. Schools should be seeking out their community partners.

While I will surely not be around when we reach the midcentury mark, I would hate for my grandchildren to read a headline that says the United States declared virtual education disarmament in 2015, and then to ask, “I wonder what Grandpa did during the war?”

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