Gail Spangenberg, President,
Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy

On October 8th, despite our federal shutdown, PIAAC’s findings were released by OECD (PIAAC=Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies). The overall release included the U.S. ranking and performance variables. The results show that the U.S. continues to perform well in higher levels of education attainment, but our record at the lower levels is abysmal. In fact, it has worsened. Our overall international standing has declined even more than only a few years ago.

No sooner had the OECD report been released than I received a call from a national radio program asking for a brief interview about what I thought was needed to address our low-skills problem and reverse our trendline internationally. The result of that interview points to one of the big problems adult education has always faced when the nature and scale of ADULT education/literacy is suddenly in the news: lack of any sustained or in-depth coverage.

The starting question from the radio reporter was the right one: what do we need to do to address this problem?  But they weren’t prepared for the responses I gave.  They were no doubt well-intended young reporters just doing their job, but their handling of the material, and probably the short time they were given for this segment of their show, resulted in only the most superficial coverage, something now evident elsewhere in the media.

As it turned out, they wanted only a few sound bytes, not comments about the more difficult realities. Here is the sole quote they included from my remarks, rendered nearly meaningless because it had no context:  ”We’ve been starving our adult education system forever–and I underscore the word starving–and in the current economic climate it’s getting worse.”

This, in summary, is the ground I actually covered with them:  I said that we’ve had our heads in the sand in this country, that we’ve known how serious the adult education and literacy problem is for a long time and that the PIAAC report is not new in that regard, that the number of out-of-school adults needing help is huge, and that our network of services and programs is so grossly underfunded that programs can’t open the door to all the people in their communities that need help.

I also said that Congress has been sitting on its hands for years on WIA reform, that the size and make-up of our ESL populations, recent Americans and new immigrants who have both ESL and basic skills needs, are a large part of the challenge, and that it’ll take giving adult education/literacy a higher profile and higher priority attention in the claims for public and philanthropic funding.  I pointed out that we already know WHAT to do by way of programming.

I expressed the hope that, finally, the OECD report would be our wake-up call, not just because the U.S. should want to be be more internationally competitive but because the survival of our own country as we know it is at stake!

Immediately following the interview, before their show aired, I sent a follow-up note with one further observation, and I also urged them to look at the National Commission on Adult Literacy report, Reach Higher, America, to see that the PIAAC story is indeed not new, but just the latest call for action!

My additional message to them was this:  ”The First Look report from OECD can be too easily read as further endorsement of K-12 reform. But in fact the study says little about the school population. The U.S. tables strongly suggest that the problem is more manageable if we target resources to the populations most in need: low-skilled ADULTS, especially those with ESL/literacy problems and our low income minorities. The report indicates that the rest of the U.S. does pretty well.  It would be folly to think that we can or must solve this by No Child Left Behind. Of course, too many people don’t want to hear that….I can’t stress enough how much we need the Workforce Investment Act to be reauthorized and reformed in this Congress, and how important it is to enable with adequate funding the programs and services we have to meet the HUGE U.S.  need.  We are serving only about 1.8 million adults (16 and over) in our adult education programs today, and we need to be serving many more millions.”

The fact is:  Our current workforce–made up of adults 16 and older, many millions possessing very low basic skill levels–is a large part of the workforce we will have for years to come, and focusing on K-12 (important as that is) will not solve the problem.  The employability, the job- and college-readiness, the well-being of our adult population, all are closely linked to the well-being and democratic foundations of our nation.

Readers of Reach Higher, America will recall that the National Commission’s report, issued in 2008, five years ago, considered the problem of low skilled adults in America to be so serious and so large that they proposed a national response on the order of a Marshall Plan, challenging federal and state government and other players at every level to move toward the goal of serving 20 million low-skilled adults annually by the year 2020.

Notwithstanding our current economic and political climate, it is downright shameful that the federal adult education program has not had an increase in funding since the last Clinton budget 13 years ago! This despite the fact that we have been calling on Adult Education, the primary service provider of low-skilled adults, to do more and more to meet competitiveness and employability demands. This despite the best efforts of so many dedicated hard-working legislative aides in Congress, so many national and state planners, and so many state and local service providers who “get it.” This despite the mountain of research evidence that shows how important it is for Adult Education to have a higher profile and status in the competition for funding by public and private groups.

Of course strong action is needed from many sources, not just the federal government or the media.  But media coverage could have a big impact on public opinion and on legislative and philanthropic behavior if it would care enough to do the in-depth analysis needed, get the story right, and devote some real air time to the problem and the challenge we face.  Any number of people could speak with authority to the issues and solutions.

The degree of “inequality” in the U.S. is especially pronounced now, as it was in earlier assessments. People who suffer multiple disadvantages in our society (e.g., low  education, low income, the short-term incarcerated, minorities) are disproportionately among the lower-skilled and those lacking in readiness for either college or decent-paying jobs. The numbers are enormous.

Those of us who work this front appreciate that adult education and literacy is not in itself sexy enough to be a natural attraction to media.  It is an amorphous area of education that falls between K-12 and postsecondary education, both of which are more definable entities and easier to grasp.  But amorphous or not, it is a major component of our national education system in its own right and needs to be fully recognized as such. Adult education somehow always gets cast as a K-12 problem, the focus reverts to our in-school population, and the “story” is never really told and never important enough to warrant sustained attention. The PIAAC story is about ADULTS! And the solution will be more and better programs and services to serve THEM, through our Adult Education System!

We have before us another rare moment of golden opportunity.  The PIAAC report makes the case for establishing once and for all a vision of lifelong learning in the U.S., a laudable goal that we’ve been working in various ways to advance for decades. But of special importance right now, we need major new investments immediately in adult education and workforce skills development.  And many people and organizations are poised to make that happen.

Part of the key to getting the legislation and commitment we need is for media at all levels to pay more careful attention, not just in sound-byte news shows, or with false assumptions that K-12 is the answer, but in more thoughtful and widely viewed panels and other formats. And periodic follow-up checking with government agencies and national leadership groups wouldn’t hurt either. Report after report has shown how much in jeopardy our nation is if we don’t step up to the adult skills challenge and start giving adult education the priority attention it needs–nationally, at the state level, and in communities across the land.

What it’s all about is our people, our core values, our economic viability, our role in the world, our continued promise as a nation.  And it’s about the many millions of adults who struggle against nearly impossible odds to make a go of it in their communities every day, and the thousands of instructors and administrators so dedicated to helping them do this. A more thoughtful media would be an important part of the solution by lifting awareness and understanding. #


NOTES: (1) The First Look report of OECD (460 p.) is available from: . (2) Reach Higher, America (61 p.) is available from (3) Subsequent to this posting, on re-open of the federal government, the U.S. Report was released by the National Center for Educational Statistics. It is available at .


4 thoughts on “MEDIA MATTERS: PIAAC

  1. Thank you for this wonderful, straightforward, and honest look at the state of where Adult Education is in our country. I intend to pass this post along to my state and federal reps with several sections highlighted in bright yellow. With as much as adult educators have been tasked with over the years, advocacy and a louder public voice has to be even more a part of our job. If we don’t already, we must help our students become their own advocates as we help them build their work and life skills. This is an inspiring and powerful post.

  2. Your analysis of what needs to be done is excellent. Your assessment of the American media reaction (so far at least) to PIAAC is sadly accurate. The key question is how to shift the media’s understanding of the adult literacy need and solutions to the problem from their present overwhelming focus on pre-K-12 and higher education. We need an effort which has the scope and depth of Project Literacy U.S. (PLUS) campaign in the 80′s. We need to get the attention of the media at the highest levels to make this possible.

  3. It has been one of my great frustrations that any talk about the need for adult and English language literacy always leads back to “fixing” K12–which, even if it were possible, is irrelevant for the adults who need to build skills now.

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