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)

Have we the skills we need to succeed?

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Here’s a sobering statistic: In around 20 of the world’s wealthiest countries, at least one in 10 adults can make sense of only basic texts. Ask them a question based on a piece of writing, and they’ll be able to answer only if the text is short, uses simple vocabulary and provides clues by repeating words used in the question.

OK, you’re thinking, not great, but at least the other nine must be able to read pretty well, right? Not so: That figure of one in 10 is just a minimum. In some of the world’s richest countries, more than a third of adults struggle with anything other than basic texts.

These findings come from a new report, the OECD Skills Outlook, released this morning and which, we’re guessing, will be all over today’s news. It represents a first attempt by the OECD to gauge literacy, numeracy and problem-solving abilities among adults and extends the work of PISA, which assesses the knowledge and skills of high school students. If you’re familiar with PISA, you’ll know its results are closely watched around the world, especially the relative rankings of the 70 or so countries that take part. The new adult skills survey, PIACC, is likely to attract similar interest, although it covers a much smaller group of countries, around 24.

The results show substantial variations in skill levels between countries. In Japan and Finland, for example, roughly one in five adults score at the highest levels for literacy. In Italy and Spain, by contrast, that proportion falls to as low as one in 20.

Why do these findings matter? As the blog has noted before, demand for skilled workers is rising in today’s economies at the expense of less skilled workers. There’s further evidence of this phenomenon in today’s OECD report. Compared with people with high levels of literacy, those on the low end of the spectrum are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. The survey also shows that low-skilled people are more likely to suffer poor health. And it’s not just individuals who suffer: Low skill levels, or the failure to make the most of the available talent, holds back national economies, too.

Much of the media attention around today’s report is likely to focus on how countries rank compared to each other. On the main measure for literacy, for example, Japan, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands take the top four places while, among OECD countries, the other end of the scale is occupied by Ireland, France, Spain and Italy. The pattern is the same for numeracy, with the exception of France, which yields its place in the bottom four to the United States.

When it comes to using computers at least one in 10 adults lack basic skills but, again, there are big variations between countries. In Sweden, only around one in 50 adults who took part in the survey said they had never used a computer; in Italy, that proportion rose to just under one in four.

But country comparisons form only a small part of the findings. There’s also a wealth of data on how people develop their skills and abilities, how they put them to use and how factors like poverty and social background shape skills development. Some of the findings are, to put it mildly, surprising. For example, the survey suggests we need to rethink the assumption that more education automatically translates into higher skills. According to the Skills Outlook, young adults in Japan and the Netherlands with only a high school education “easily outperform Italian or Spanish university graduates of the same age”.

As the first in a planned series, this survey in some ways poses as many questions as it answers: why, for instance, is social background – family wealth, in other words – a major factor in shaping skill levels in some countries but not in others? And why are skill levels rising with each generation in some countries but apparently stagnating in others, such as the United States and United Kingdom? It will be interesting to see the answers and analysis that emerge in response to such questions in the years to come.

Useful links

Explore the data here

Follow the story on Twitter at #OECDSkills

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