Improving Adult Education Will Help the U.S. Catch Up with Slovakia and Estonia

Conversations about education reform and America's global competitiveness are often hand-in-glove. National benchmarks, such as the Common Core State Standards, aim to lift learning from the basics to higher-order thinking such as creativity, problem-solving and synthesis. Increasingly, it is recognized that it is just not what you know that is important to securing a good job, it is also what you can do with what you know. Leadership skills, adaptability, wisdom and humility are paramount. This commentary, by Michael Holzman suggests the urgent need for improving how adults are prepared for the workplace and what is needed in terms of policy interventions. - Eric J. Cooper

By Michael Holzman

The U.S. Department of Education recently published the first results of the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) with rankings for 23 countries in the areas of literacy, numeracy, reading skills and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The results were disappointing for the United States as a whole and especially troubling for black and foreign-born Hispanic communities.

The overall English language literacy rates for U.S. adults (age 16 to 65) were not good - 12 countries had higher scores. Eighteen countries scored higher than the U.S. in numeracy and 14 scored higher in problem solving in a technology-rich environment. In numeracy, only Italy and Spain ranked below the United States, which finished dead last in problem solving in a technology-rich environment.

These results underscore the challenges that lie ahead for our nation, and especially for blacks and Hispanics. Adults at the lowest literacy levels are increasingly ill-equipped for employment, voting or participation in book clubs or other cultural activities. It's bad enough that more than one-third of black adults are in that category, but the news for black men may even be worse. Given that black women have higher levels of educational attainment than black men, it could be that 40 percent of black men - or more - may score at the bottom for literacy skills. This has profound implications for family and community income levels, involvement with the criminal justice system, and their children's futures.

While the percentage of American adults scoring highest in literacy proficiency was at the international average, the United States has a greater percentage of adults scoring in the lowest proficiency levels than all but three countries. The picture is similar or slightly worse for numeracy and problem solving in a technology-rich environment.

The results also compared data from those who were born outside of the U.S. with those who are native born, and show that you are much more likely to be able to read well if you were born in this country. Thirteen percent of adults born in this country scored at the highest level of literacy proficiency, as compared with just 6 percent of foreign-born adults. And 40 percent of foreign-born adults scored at the two lowest literacy levels, as compared with 14 percent of those born here.

Although the study did not break out data by birthplace within race/ethnicity, it is likely that a much higher percentage of Hispanic than white adults were foreign born, and that this had an effect on the English language literacy proficiency levels of Hispanic adults. Forty-three percent of them scored at the lowest levels, with only 3 percent at the highest. Relatively few black Americans are foreign born. Nonetheless, 35 percent of black adults scored at the lowest literacy levels and just 3 percent at the highest.

What can be done?

Data points to one obvious answer: adult education. High school completion cuts functional illiteracy levels in half; finishing an associate's degree eliminates it.

Unfortunately, adult education in this country is vastly underfunded. That must change. Simultaneously, equalization of education funding, as recently ordered by the Kansas state Supreme Court, also is a necessary step, as is distributing school funding according to student need, so every child has the opportunity to learn without regard to the education and income levels of his or her parents.

If we do all of this, then the United States might have a chance to forge ahead of Slovakia and Estonia in the next PIAAC rankings.

Michael Holzman is a researcher and author. He has served as consultant to numerous foundations and is the author of the Schott Foundation's series "Public Education and Black Male Students: A State Report Card."

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets @ECooper4556.