Saturday, October 26, 2013

Let's all watch the U.S. slip to the rear of the developed world in adult skills


Charts adapted by The New Yorker from the Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development's Survey of Adult Skills [Click to enlarge]

by Ken

Remember how The Newsroom's Will McEvoy caused that national shitstorm by refusing to play along with the bromide that America is No. 1? (With the helpful proviso from what he thought was a hallucination prompting him from the audience: "But we can be.") I think this is one of the fault lines that has the country so violently divided at the moment. The Right insists on enforcing this lie even as it has infected a large segment of the country with its hellish vision of America as a Land of Morons, Crackpots, and Liars -- being led by the nose, of course, by elite squadrons of slime-sucking predator-thugs.

As The New Yorker's John Cassidy points out in a new blogpost, "Measuring America's Decline, in Three Charts":
In recent years, a number of international surveys have raised alarms that the United States is falling behind other countries in terms of educational achievement. Now there is another one, and its findings represent a serious threat to the country's future prosperity. In basic literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills, the new study shows, younger Americans are at or near the bottom of the standings among advanced countries.
What has caught Cassidy's eye in the survey, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ("a Paris-based forum and research group, which counts thirty-three high- and middle-income countries among its members"), is "the data comparing young adults aged sixteen to twenty-four in different countries -- the folks who will be manning the global economy for the next thirty or forty years."

"Taken together," the three charts of Cassidy's post title, adapted from the statistical annex of the report of the OECD's Survey of Adult Skills ("a massive exercise in which researchers interviewed five thousand people in each participating country -- responding by computer, "in order to capture their ability to function in 'technology rich' environments' "), "vividly illustrate some of the challenges facing an economic hegemon that has for decades been plagued by wage stagnation and rising inequality, and which, as President Obama has pointed out, desperately needs to raise its game."

Cassidy points first to the fairly dismal showing of the U.S. in proficiency in literacy and numeracy among 16-24-year-olds:

[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge]

The third chart, says Cassidy, the one both he and I have put at the top of our posts,
shows proficiency in problem-solving. In this case, the researchers, rather than summarizing their findings in one number, categorized each subject according to his or her level of proficiency: level one, level two, or level three. For the purposes of constructing a single set of standings, I combined some figures, calculating the percentage of subjects who achieved the top two levels. In this case, the United States didn't do any better. With a score of 37.6 per cent, it came in last place out of nineteen (or out of twenty if you include Russia).
Cassidy offers three additional points:
There are some questions that should be asked about any multi-country survey like this one: Is the methodology consistent across the sample? Does it control for cultural and language differences? Can the results from various countries really be compared? As far as I know, nobody has suggested that this study particularly disadvantaged the U.S. subjects, or that the results were unreliable. (Of course, the survey is still new. Criticisms may yet emerge.)

The education and skill levels of a country’s population aren’t the only determinants of its economic fate. Other factors matter: resource endowments; investment in physical capital and R. & D.; political stability; competition; openness to new innovations, ideas, and people; a reliable legal system; and ready access to finance. In some of these areas, the United States still ranks very high. But as countries such as Japan and Korea have amply demonstrated, having a well-educated and well-trained labor force is an essential foundation of economic prosperity. And for the United States, where one of the greatest economic challenges is raising the living standards of the middle class, enhancing workers’ skill sets and productivity is simply essential.

This is, again, far from the first international comparison to make the United States look bad. It is well known, for example, that when it comes to test scores in math and science, American middle-school and high-school students lag behind their counterparts in Asia and Europe. At this stage, we don’t really need more evidence that there is a problem. We need a concerted national effort to address it.
And I would offer two additional points.

The first is one that both Howie and I have come back to repeatedly: The manufacture of functional morons in the U.S. isn't an accident; it's both an ideological agenda and an industry. What now passes for educational "reform" in this country fits harmoniously into the master plan for moron production.

The second point is that it's not exactly coincidence that Finland makes such a strong showing here. I've written a number of posts referencing recent writings by an advocate of what seems to me genuine educational reform, Diane Ravitch, including the February 2012 post "With such powerful forces for mis-education arrayed against actual learning, is there any hope for American education?," in which she focused on the seemingly radical educational reforms of . . . Finland. The Ravitch piece "Schools We Can Envy" was first posted on the New York Review of Books website and then appeared in the March 8, 2012, issue. I highlighted this quote from it:
[T]he central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition.

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At 11:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Textbooks at Houston charter schools use existence of Loch Ness Monster to disprove evolutionary theory."

At 12:17 AM, Blogger Mojo said...

What I would be curious about--and maybe I missed this--is how we've trended over time. Did we previously score higher on these tests? Have we always been at the bottom?

Seeing the trend over time would be very helpful as an analysis tool.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Good question, Mojo. I don't have numbers at hand, but it's certainly my understanding that yes, the U.S. used to rank much higher. This particular survey, remember, is an inaugural effort.



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