Study Shows Deficits in U.S. Workers' Basic Skills

The U.S. Department of Education is using the findings of an international organization’s “skills study” of the United States to promote the Obama administration’s plan for universal preschool, the Common Core K-12 standards, and comprehensive immigration reform.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan requested that the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international economic group, “take a closer look at the background of the U.S. low-skilled population.”

Duncan reportedly requested that OECD perform a “skills study” of the U.S. based on a prior survey that showed adult Americans scoring below their counterparts in most of the OECD member countries in math, reading, and problem-solving. The international survey revealed that, among adults in 23 advanced economies, Americans rank 21st in “numeracy” skills, are tied at 15th in literacy skills, and scored below average for both numeracy and literacy. The countries that scored highest were Japan and Finland, while Italy and Spain scored lowest.

The results of the OECD Skills Study requested by Duncan were released on November 12th and incorporated into a report titled “Time for the U.S. To Reskill?” According to the study, the U.S. is behind at least a dozen Western nations in teaching workers basic skills needed to compete in a global marketplace.

“Some degree of catch-up by previously less-developed countries is natural,” the report states, “but the speed at which the skills of comparable developed countries are now outpacing the U.S. must be a matter of deep concern.”

The OECD also states, “Explanations for the relatively weak performance of the United States include failings in initial schooling, lack of improvement in educational attainment over time, and poor skills in some subpopulations including migrants.”

“Socio-economic background has a stronger influence on adult basic skills in the U.S. than in other countries,” the report states. “More positively, among young adults the link between socio-economic background and skills is much weaker.”

The OECD claims that, unless the United States improves its weak educational system, “U.S. adults will fall further behind those of other countries.”

Ironically, despite the weaknesses shown, the study acknowledges that Americans spend a significant time in the classroom.

“The weaknesses in basic skills occur despite a relatively high level of education,” the report states. “Among comparison countries the U.S. had one of the smallest proportions of adults with less than high school education, and one of the largest with more than high school.”

The OECD added that despite the length of time Americans typically spend in school, “unlike many other countries, there has been little sign of improvement in recent decades.”

“By international standards, despite a relatively high level of educational qualifications, the basic skills of adults in the United States are relatively weak,” states the OECD.

According to CNS News, total U.S. spending on education is about $1 trillion annually, approximately 15 percent of all government expenditures. This amount represents more than the U.S. spends on national defense, at 13 percent, and is slightly less than 6 percent of the nation’s GDP.

Regarding the results of the “skills study,” a post on the U.S. Education Department blog states:

The survey does affirm that the Obama administration’s overall reform priorities are the right ones— high-quality preschool for all children, college- and career-readiness standards, broadband access everywhere, high schools that engage students and introduce them to careers, commonsense immigration reform and affordable college degrees that lead to good jobs.

Another clear policy implication of these initial findings is that we must raise expectations for learners of all ages.

In short, the report provides ample evidence to support the Administration’s current reforms and investments, but calls for increased action in one area: significantly improving the preparedness of our low-skilled adult population, which has been overlooked and underserved for too long.

Though U.S. public school students may demonstrate decreased proficiency in skills despite increase taxpayer spending on education, homeschoolers, by contrast, have been shown to outrank their traditionally schooled counterparts on a variety of variables, without additional cost to taxpayers.

Recent research in the Journal of Educational Alternatives found that, in 10 independent studies, homeschoolers outranked students in traditional academic environments in collegiate grade point average, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

CBS News also cited 2009 research by Michael Cogan which found that homeschooled students earned a higher ACT score, more college credits prior to freshman year, and a higher grade point average compared with non-homeschooled students. Cogan also found that homeschooled students graduated from college at a higher rate (66.7%) than their peers (57.5%).


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