American adults have fallen behind their international peers in reading, math and problem-solving skills just as the economy demands more technologically adept workers, according to a November 2013 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report. A new issue brief from ACE examines those results in the context of the “learning economy” and what actions might be taken collectively by higher education institutions, policymakers, adult educators and others to address this challenge.
The OECD report, Survey of Adult Skills, measured the proficiency of individuals from 24 countries on their ability to prosper in the current economic environment. American adults lagged behind those in other nations on average, and the picture has not improved recently. Further, while U.S. adults had comparatively high levels of attainment—the strongest predictor of success—25- to 34-year-olds in the United States were less proficient on numeracy and literacy, suggesting that institutions could do more to match formal education to skills.
The importance of math, literacy and problem-solving skills is underscored by the current “learning economy,” according to the ACE issue brief, Readiness for then Learning Economy: Insights from OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills on Workforce Readiness and Preparation. Because of the rapid pace of change in technology and the workplace, workers must have strong problem-solving abilities and remain adaptable. The brief offers some ideas for how colleges, universities and others can focus on building these competencies.
“What we can take away from the OECD report is that while technology has advanced and our economy has changed dramatically, the skills of our workforce have not kept up,” said Louis Soares, ACE vice president for policy, research and strategy and the report’s co-author. “Addressing the problem is going to take a team effort, with policy and education leaders working together across traditional boundaries to reach adult learners in new, more effective ways.”
“Clearly the U.S. must improve the skills of its adult workers, if it is to be competitive in a global technologically driven economy,” added co-author Laura Perna, professor and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD) at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “The OECD report provides useful insights into the types of skills that adults have and are lacking, differences in skills across demographic groups, and the imperfect alignment of educational attainment and skills proficiency.”
Among the recommendations for colleges and universities and other stakeholders:
Develop a common framework for adult basic education. Too often stakeholders seek to provide education in a variety of different settings—a common framework based on the OECD measurements could provide an overarching approach.
Promote stackable credentials. Giving adult learners the ability to document what they know while moving in and out of educational opportunities will help them move incrementally toward credentials.
Offer flexible scheduling and delivery options that provide students with work, family and other responsibilities easier access to education.
Leverage technology, such as adaptive software that can that assess and target specific learning needs, and social media tools, which can help provide guidance and support.
Partner with employers to develop workforce training and educational programs, as well as funding, and provide learners release time for education.
The report is available for free on ACE’s website.
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