Reading & Literacy

Study Shows U.S. Adult Workplace Skills Lag Internationally

By Catherine Gewertz — October 08, 2013 2 min read

A new international study shows that in key work-related skills, U.S. adults don’t stack up well against those in other countries.

Released today, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC, examines 16- to 65-year-olds for a set of skills deemed to be important for success in the working world, and finds U.S. adults’ literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills were below international averages. The study also showed deep skills disparities within the United States, corresponding to factors such as income, education, and health.

In a press release, Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which released the study, said that U.S. adults are “decidedly weaker in numeracy and problem-solving skills than in literacy,” and that scores for all three areas are “far behind the scores of top performers like Japan or Finland.”

Only 12 percent of U.S. adults scored at the highest level of proficiency in literacy, compared with 22 percent in Finland and 23 percent in Japan.

One age group stood out in the United States for a strong comparative performance in literacy, though: older Americans. Twelve percent of Americans ages 55 to 65 scored at the highest proficiency level, while internationally only 5 percent of adults in that age group did the same. In every other age group, the U.S. approximated or lagged behind the international average.

In numeracy, the United States outscored only two countries of the 23 in the study, Italy and Spain. Only 9 percent of adults scored at the highest proficiency level. And only 6 percent of U.S. adults scored at the highest proficiency level on the PIAAC’s scale for “problem-solving in technology-rich environments.”

The full report was scheduled to be available at //nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac, but that website is still not working because of the federal government shutdown. The study is available through PIAAC’s website.

The results drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, where Secretary Arne Duncan released a statement saying that the findings “should concern us all.”

“They show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete—or position our country to lead—in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills,” he said.

The U.S. education system must redouble its efforts to close skills gaps that begin developing as early as preschool, Duncan said. It must also reach adults with the weakest skills and “not be content with ‘islands of excellence.’ Otherwise, no matter how hard they work, these adults will be stuck, unable to support their families and contribute fully to our country.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.