How the world reported the OECD skills survey

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“The French are useless.” Not our opinion, but the response of Le Monde (paywall) to the release on Tuesday of results from the OECD’s adult skills survey, which placed adults in France in the bottom half of around 20 countries in assessments of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving using digital devices.

The Paris newspaper wasn’t the only one wringing its hands: Media outlets and commentators around the world took time to weigh the results of the OECD survey, finding reasons to lament – or celebrate – the results.

Despite its own gloomy verdict, Le Monde took some comfort from the results, noting that younger adults in France had generally done better in the survey than their older counterparts: “That’s a sign that the country has made a big effort and is making progress,” it concluded.

The same can’t be said for the United Kingdom, according to Richard Lambert, a university chancellor. Writing in the Financial Times, he said rates of literacy and numeracy among younger adults in England and Wales are only around the same as those of older adults. That’s unusual: In most developed countries, young people today usually spend more time in education than their parents and grandparents did, so literacy and numeracy levels tend to rise over time. But not, it seems, in the U.K. The result, wrote Mr Lambert, is that “young adults are entering a much more demanding and competitive labour market no better prepared to cope than those who are retiring.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the mood was also downbeat. “U.S. Adults Fare Poorly in a Study of Skills,” reported The New York Times, which quoted education secretary Arne Duncan as saying that the findings “show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete …”.

But the Times noted a possible question mark over the U.S. showing: “If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich?” asked Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Centre on Education and the Workforce. Answering his own question, he argued that the U.S.’s economic advantage has traditionally come from having “high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labour.” But, he warned “that advantage is slipping.”

The results for the U.S. highlighted another puzzle: As there’s such a big gap in the U.S. between pay for low- and high-skilled workers, shouldn’t that encourage more people to develop their abilities and so raise their incomes? In theory, it should; in practice, it doesn’t appear to be happening. Why? According to Eduardo Porter, also in the Times, there aren’t enough opportunities for either children and adults to do some quality learning: “Schools do not appear to be adding much value,” he wrote. “Nor do employers, which do little to train workers.” There is also a substantial socioeconomic barrier: “Not only is inequality particularly steep, little is done to redress the opportunity deficit of poorer students.”

A number of European countries were also given pause for thought by the survey. From the land of Cervantes, Tele Cinco in Madrid reported that the findings suggested “the majority of Spanish adults would have difficulty reading Don Quijote”. And, in the same week the Nobel prizes were awarded, Ireland – home to four literature laureates – also found itself questioning its literary reputation: “The Republic has considered itself a country with a long literary tradition and highly literate population,” wrote Dick Ahlstrom  in The Irish Times. “This, however, was found to be incorrect on the basis of the OECD study.”

Still, it wasn’t all bad news. “Japanese adults excel at reading comprehension and handling mathematical information,” wrote The Japan Times. In Korea, The Korea Herald reported that adults there had also performed well, but, as in France, it noted a big generational gap: “Korea is ranked second only to Japan when comparing proficiency among 16 to 24-year-olds, but when comparing the proficiency of 55 to 65-year-olds, it is among the three lowest-performing countries.”

Canada’s media also reported some strong results, although The Globe and Mail noted “a gaping digital divide, with large swaths of the adult population scoring at both the highest and lowest levels” in the assessment of digital skills. According to Jeff Johnson, education minister in Alberta, the results show “we’ve got some work to do, particularly in the areas of numeracy, and we always want to do better in literacy as well. But we’re competitive.”

Useful links

Explore the results from skills survey.

OECD Skills Outlook

Follow the story on Twitter at #OECDSkills

Find out more about the Survey on Adults Skills (PIACC)

Brian Keeley

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