American adults have generally come to believe that children in their country are bringing up the rear in international tests of student skills. Now it seems they should take a close look at themselves as well.
A new test from the OECD finds that American adults aged 16 to 65 are merely average in reading and well below average in math when compared with adults in 21 other developed countries. On some level, this finding shouldn’t surprise us. It stands to reason that children with low skills often grow up to be adults with low skills, but that doesn’t rob this study of its sting. It removes the refuge many American adults find in common language about the decline of U.S. schools: namely, the implication that, back when they were in school, education wasn’t as bad.
Yet if the OECD test is any indication, the education most adults received was in fact worse. Young Americans performed 9 percentage points higher than older Americans, which suggests that schools are getting better—albeit far too slowly. (In higher performing countries like Korea, young people outshine their elders by a much larger margin, a sign of much faster improvement in their school systems.)
The OECD test reveals a fundamental challenge for school reformers: When we try to convince the American public that their children are not performing well enough to succeed in a competitive world economy, we’re implicitly asking adults to own up to their own skill deficiencies as well. This problem is all the more acute for employers who say they can’t find the skilled people they need right now.
Of course there are still ways to evade the implications of all the tests that reveal our nation’s skills deficit. According to polls, parents commonly assume that the problem applies to other people’s children. Individual workers can point fingers at the rest of the workforce. Still, deep down many of us may sense that these tests are telling us about our own individual shortcomings. That is a powerful incentive to look away from them.
Yet as the demand for skills rises and youth in other countries pull ahead, we can't afford to look away. Our children are entering a much less forgiving world.