Daniel Doherty

What is a country left with when its education system fails to adequately prepare young people for life in a global market economy? Well, a growing and aging population of unlettered adults, it would seem. Welcome to 21st century America, my friends.

A new study out today, according to the Washington Post, shows that American adults trail their foreign counterparts in several key subjects, including literacy and mathematics, among others:

Policymakers and politicians who wring their hands about the mediocre performance of U.S. students on international math and reading tests have another worry: The nation’s grown-ups aren’t doing much better.

A first-ever comparison of adults in the United States and those in other democracies found that Americans were below average when it comes to skills needed to compete in the global economy.

The survey, released Tuesday, measured the literacy, math and computer skills of about 5,000 U.S. adults between ages 16 and 65, and compared them with similar samples of adults from 21 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OEDC).

The Americans are “decidedly weaker in numeracy and problem-solving skills than in literacy, and average U.S. scores for all three are below the international average and far behind the scores of top performers like Japan or Finland,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the data collection arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

A close look at the hard numbers is less encouraging:

When it comes to literacy, adults in the U.S. trailed those in 12 countries and only outperformed adults in five others. The top five countries in literacy were Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Sweden.

U.S. adults did worse in mathematics, where they trailed 18 countries and beat just two — Italy and Spain.

And in the category of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” or digital skills, U.S. adults lagged behind their counterparts in 14 countries.

Appallingly, there was a huge discrepancy between white and non-white test-takers:

The achievement gap between white test takers and black and Hispanic test takers, a stubborn problem in U.S. K-12 public education, showed up in the adult survey. There were significant differences in test scores between whites and minorities.

“These findings should concern us all,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a written statement. “They show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete — or position our country to lead — in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills.”

This was the first test of its kind ever conducted. And of course, the results are sobering. Surely when we trail most industrialized countries in virtually every academic subject it undermines our credibility as the “leader of the free world." But that doesn’t mean we can’t turn things around, right? We can. So perhaps this survey will finally serve as a major wake-up call to the nation. If it doesn't I don't know what will.


Daniel Doherty

Daniel Doherty is Townhall's Deputy News Editor. Follow him on Twitter @danpdoherty.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography