Researchers have been warning for more than a decade that the United States was losing ground to its economic competitors abroad and would eventually fall behind them unless it provided more of its citizens with the high-level math, science and literacy skills necessary for the new economy.
Naysayers dismissed this as alarmist. But recent data showing American students and adults lagging behind their peers abroad in terms of important skills suggest that the long-predicted peril has arrived.
A particularly alarming report on working-age adults was published last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition of mainly developed nations. The research focused on people ages 16 to 65 in 24 countries. It dealt with three crucial areas: literacy — the ability to understand and respond to written material; numeracy — the ability to use numerical and mathematical concept; and problem solving — the ability to interpret and analyze information using computers.
Americans were comparatively weak-to-poor in all three areas. In literacy, for example, about 12 percent of American adults scored at the highest levels, a smaller proportion than in Finland and Japan (about 22 percent). In addition, one in six Americans scored near the bottom in literacy, compared with 1 in 20 adults who scored at that level in Japan.
American numeracy skills were termed “very poor.” The United States outperformed only two comparison countries: Italy and Spain. Nearly one in three Americans scored near the bottom in numeracy. That Americans were slightly below average in problem solving using computers was especially discouraging.
Some countries are making progress from generation to generation. But in the United States, as in Britain, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people coming into the labor market are no better than those who are about to retire. Americans who are 55 to 65 perform about average in literacy skills, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the 24 countries surveyed. The problem is not so much that the United States has gotten worse, but that it stood still on indicators like high school graduation rates while its foreign competitors rushed forward. Beginning in the 1970s, other developed nations recognized that the new economy would produce few jobs for workers with mediocre skills.
Those countries, most notably Finland, broadened access to education, improved teacher training and took other steps as well. Other countries take these international comparisons very seriously; some use the O.E.C.D. data to set policy goals and to gauge the pace of educational progress. The United States, by contrast, has yet to take on a sense of urgency about this issue. If that does not happen soon, the country will pay a long-term price.