by Gail Spangenberg
President, CAAL

The U.S. findings from OECD’s programme for international assessment of adult competencies (PIAAC) are beginning to roll out.  A first look report, titled “Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Among U.S. Adults” was issued October 8th.  Additional reports with deeper analysis will become available soon, starting with a new U.S. release on November 12th called,”Time for the U.S. to Reskill?: What the Survey of Adult Skills Says.”

Here is a small sampling of some of the most troublesome findings.  U. S. adults (16 to 65) are below average in international rankings of adult literacy and numeracy among the 24 OECD member countries assessed so far.  We have a huge low-skilled adult population.  Many millions have low literacy skills (levels 1 and 2 in the assessment).  We fare worse in numeracy, and even worse in problem-solving in technology rich environments.  We also continue to have one of the highest “inequality” rankings among the industrialized countries.  For example, Blacks and Hispanics are 3-4 more times likely to be low-skilled as other adults, and adults from families with low education are 10 times more likely to be under-skilled.  We also are doing a poor job meeting the ESL and basic skills needs of immigrants.  And, on the measure of health status, adults with low skills are 4 times as likely to have poor or fair health than other adults in the population, double the international average.

Some of the most alarming findings relate to employment status.  For example, 25 percent of adults who were out of the labor force were at the two lowest levels on the literacy scale; 43 percent were among the lowest skilled in numeracy.  A whopping 67 percent scored at the two lowest skill levels in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.  Correspondingly, unemployed adults were 23, 42, and 67 percent respectively.  Employed adults (the majority of test-takers were employed)) also scored surprisingly low, at 16, 25, and 60 percent respectively.

Even without deeper analysis, it isn’t hard to see that the PIAAC findings have broad policy implications in Congress and across programs and departments of the federal government, in state legislatures, and on other fronts.  There are profound implications for state and local planning and funding, philanthropic giving, and our national research and evaluation agenda.  All players at every level will have to reassess their programs and activities to be responsive to the adult education challenge PIAAC sets for us.

To respond to the enormity of the challenge, adult education will have to be given a much higher profile in our nation.  However, as we gear up for action, it is vitally important to be sure we’ve got the context right. The question is, what is the PIAAC story really about?  Here are the broad points I’d stress:

1.  PIAAC is a story about ADULTSFor anyone interested in literacy and the needs of low-skilled Americans, and for those who care about the employability of our working-age adults, PIAAC is about out-of-school adults aged 16 to 65.  They are the people served primarily by the Adult Education and Workforce Skills system, the very people PIAAC has assessed so far–and that we’ll soon be able to assess and customize on a local basis through the really exciting Online Resource Tool that OECD will make available for a nominal fee from its website.

2.  Discussions about our low-skilled adults and what we can do to help lift them up tend to revert mistakenly to what we can do to improve K-12.  I stress this point because historically and in most current media coverage, we fail over and over again to grasp the importance of differentiating adult education from K-12 or college.  We need to coalesce around the real and very urgent need to upgrade the basic foundational skills of our adults: our current and future workforce, the parents of our children, and to put it altruistically, the keepers of our freedom.

3.  We can’t meet this low-skills challenge by focusing on school reform, K-12, or community collegesThe adults we need to reach, as a top national priority, are beyond the reach of the school system as such.  And millions aren’t ready for college or jobs for lack of the basics.  An adult educator from Pittsburgh told me recently: 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.”

4.  We need to “get it” that those who make up our workforce currently will be the bulk of our workforce for a long time to come.   I’m speaking of adults who are not college- or job-ready, or incumbent workers not qualified to move on from jobs they have–because they have inadequate basic skills of reading, writing, math, ESL, and problem-solving.  They’re predominantly minorities.  They’re the low-skilled incarcerated who return daily to our communities without job skills.  They’re our out-of-school youth population, and the burgeoning low-literate ESL populations that have come to the U.S.  They’re high school dropouts, even high school graduates who leave school with low basic skills, and they’re the working poor.  All of these groups stand out in the PIAAC findings, just as they have in prior assessment studies.

5.  PIAAC’s message isn’t new.  The PIAAC assessment differs from all prior assessments in its comprehensiveness and depth, in the analysis of the findings being done by OECD and others, and in interactive resources that will become available to us all so that we can apply the PIAAC assessment measures to our local populations.  The PIAAC’s findings should shake us all into action.  They’re powerful!  But the PIAAC story is about the same as it has been for the past few decades.  Mostly we’ve looked the other way and just kept on slipping at home and in international comparisons.  So, again, I think it’s imperative that we focus our attention on accurate messaging and focus our action on the needs of adults, especially those who are disproportionately affected, giving us a such a high “inequality” ranking.  PIAAC assesses competence at all levels of adult learning.  So in a broad sense, it attests to the importance of lifelong learning.  But that depends on a strong foundation of basic skills!  PIAAC makes it clear that we haven’t any more time to lose. By the way, a recent report by UNESCO’s Lifelong Learning Institute conveyed a message similar to PIAAC’s.  And the report of our National Commission on Adult Literacy, Reach Higher, America, though it was issued five years ago, is still timely and right on target today.  The Commission considered the adult education challenge and the stakes so great that it called for a national response on the order of a Marshall Plan.  (You can download the Commission’s report from www.caalusa.org; it’s still one of CAAL’s most popular titles.)

6.   It’s not a question of either/or!   We shouldn’t pit K-12, the colleges, and adult education against each other.  All are a vital part of our overall education system, and we need to support and develop them all on parallel tracks.  We should be working harder to reduce our high school drop-out rate—to be sure our kids and teens graduate high school with basic literacy skills and readiness for jobs and/or college.  And we should strengthen the community college role—community colleges provide some adult education services now; they need to do more.  But we also need to strengthen adult education in its own right, by focusing on that system for adults, in all its parts.  Thus, we should understand better than we do what that basic skills system is.  It is a network of provider types: community-based organizations of all kinds, libraries, parents in family literacy programs. It’s GED and alternate diploma venues, ESL venues, workforce development programs, correctional education programs, and voluntary groups.  Unions, colleges, and workplace programs are service providers, too.  And more and more, it’s adult education services given in partnership with enlightened business interests, one-stops, and other stakeholders.  Also, technology and distance learning venues are an essential part of the mix, and need to be developed on a dramatically larger scale if we’re to really increase adult education access.

7.  Here’s the biggest problem of all:  Right now, we’re only reaching 1.8 million adults in the federally-funded adult education part of our system, and federal funding is the core support.  It is almost incomprehensible that funding hasn’t been increased since the last budget of the Clinton administration, 13 years ago.  We are literally starving our already under-nourished adult education system, even though we keep asking programs to do more and more.  We need to be reaching many millions more than we are, with much larger investments from both pubic and private sources.  If we don’t, and if we don’t raise the profile of adult education, we won’t meet the nation’s competitiveness or employability goals.  And, we should keep in mind that if we manage to get Immigration Reform passed in this Congress, our adult education and workforce skills programs can expect a huge influx of new immigrants in need of ESL and basic literacy services, on top of the community needs that programs are unable to meet now.

So, it’s about adults! It’s about Adult Education–on its own and in partnership with business and many others!  It’s about giving adult education a much higher profile in our overall education system.  It’s about getting all stakeholders to the table to engage continuously in effective comprehensive planning and evaluation!  It’s about making major new government and philanthropic investments in adult education and workforce skills development, which we’ve postponed for too long already!  This means we must be willing to make some trade-offs in deciding our funding priorities.  It’s also about the ability of our adults to function well as workers and parents, to earn a family-sustaining wage, and to function fully in other kinds of community roles.  It’s about preserving the very foundations of our democracy.

Some would say it’s too late, that the problem is now too overwhelming.  Daunting as the PIAAC challenge is, however, my CAAL colleagues and I believe it can be met.  We will have to think big!  We must find the resources needed and make the trade-offs required. We must also get the message right, state it clearly, take it seriously, and get moving.  #


[Note:  The OECD world report on PIAAC and individual member country reports are available from OECD at http://www.oecd.org/site/piaac. The U.S. "First Look" report and subsequent reports are available at www.piaacgateway.com, a website operated as a public service by the American Institutes for Research. As additional reports come out you can obtain them at the piaacgateway site.]

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