ED Launches Engagement Process Following Report on U.S. Adults’ Skills

Last month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the findings of the international Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The results showed that on the three domains (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in a technology-rich environment), the U.S. average performance is significantly lower than the international average and the U.S. has large percentages of low performers in each domain.

Statistics Graphic

Clearly, we need to be more strategic and systematic and create learning opportunities for all low-skilled adults, beyond the 2 million per year we can reach through the current adult education program.  To that end, the Department asked OECD to take a closer look at the backgrounds of the U.S. low-skilled population, identify policy implications, and offer a broad set of recommendations that could provide a framework to help this country build on our strengths and systemically address some of our skill weaknesses.

Today OECD released their report, Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says. This report is the first report in a decade that quantifies the population of low-skilled adults and takes a closer look at who these low-skilled adults are. The findings are alarming and should concern us all.  They shine a spotlight on a part of our population that’s historically been overlooked and underserved—the large number of adults with very low basic skills.  OECD identified in this report that there are about 36 million adults ages 16-65 performing below Level 2.

If adults have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology, they will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them.  And that will have severe consequences for all of us. That’s why all of us must find ways to help more adults upgrade their skills. Otherwise, no matter how hard they work, these Americans will fall short in the struggle to support themselves and their families, and contribute fully to our country.

PIAAC also identifies learning gaps among adults of different races and ethnicities; these indicate that the disadvantages and opportunity gaps of childhood often persist into adulthood. To combat and close these gaps, we must invest in our nation’s future workers from an early age. We must also do more to support today’s adults, who want and need to upgrade their skills to succeed.

The survey does affirm that the Obama administration’s overall reform priorities are the right ones— high-quality preschool for all children, college- and career-readiness standards, broadband access everywhere, high schools that engage students and introduce them to careers, commonsense immigration reform and affordable college degrees that lead to good jobs.

Another clear policy implication of these initial findings is that we must raise expectations for learners of all ages.

In short, the report provides ample evidence to support the Administration’s current reforms and investments, but calls for increased action in one area: significantly improving the preparedness of our low-skilled adult population, which has been overlooked and underserved for too long.

To better understand these challenges, inform the development of a national response, and gather input from a wide range of stakeholders, today I announced the launch of a national engagement process with the end goal of developing a national plan to improve the foundation skills of low-skilled adults in the United States. The Department wants feedback from individuals, state officials, education officials, businesses, industry, and labor leaders, researchers, data experts, education associations, philanthropies, policy leaders and others concerned with the health, well-being and democracy in America.

In particular, the Department wants the country’s best ideas and most creative thinking to addresses several key themes:

    • Expanding opportunities for adults to improve foundation skills by scaling up proven practices and using emerging technologies to personalize and accelerate learning for America’s low-skilled working population.
    • Building stronger partnerships among business, industry, labor, and state and local governments, and others, in order to sustain the nation’s workforce capacity, economic vitality, and democratic values.
    • Strengthening the connection between foundation skills and workforce readiness in ways that help adults gain basic skills, particularly in the STEM fields, and pursue specific occupations and credentials more rapidly.

Based on the results of PIAAC, it is clear that the U.S. needs a stronger, more comprehensive strategy to raise the skills of significant numbers of low-skilled adults.  This effort will require the sustained, systematic efforts – and the coordinated investments – of a wide range of partners from the public and private sectors, working at the national, state and local levels.

Our Department will use the feedback we receive to develop a national plan to improve the skills of low-skilled adults. And, we invite members of the general public to send their ideas and suggestions for the national plan that will be released this coming spring.  More information about the adult skills outreach initiative will be available on the Department’s website in the coming days.

Brenda Dann-Messier is Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education.


  1. Obviously, our society is over crowded with programs that don’t work because of low attendance and poor service delivery levels. Furthermore, there’s no cross pollination of original ideas so that interagency and interagency agreements of different missions can coordinate from a matrix point of view. In many cases, cultural competency is going to mean that certain programs decrease in Eurocentric and increase in Afrocentric approaches of course instruction. This radical but positive
    change of teaching would also include new paradigms of classroom behavior. Not to the point of student anarchy but spawned from the concept that there’s different types of civilization and world history on a scale of antiquity teaches that! Therefore, if enough young students that are part of TANF and dually monitored. Then, that means their files can be co-case managed so that a larger abundance of students and young adults can participate on a consistent basis. Candidly, the program structure will be reformed on the same track of the Obama’s Administration’s Blueprint for Education Reform. Certainly, Reauthorization efforts will concretely take place in 2014 with these programs of revolutionary design. And again … it’s a sign of the program designers … lacking in cultural competency skills. Resolution
    wise, poor people (weighted toward ethnic/minorities) with good public school education backgrounds need to be involved in the design and implementation of technical schools from the perspective of being from a family of very low to low-income income status, this recruitment or mobilization effort should also be inclusive
    of input from the local, regional, state, and national Faith Traditions. Finally, the product or objective goal should be about getting national unemployment down to
    6% across-the-board, with no hidden pockets of black unemployment or youth
    unemployment. All of this is just sheer foolishness!!! Vocational certification along with high school diplomas shall be received simultaneously.

    In closing, all Counselors should counsel around these dual objectives and again they as professionals and paraprofessionals must be culturally competent. And that means in some cases they will have to be of the same ethnicity and speak the family language of cultural origination, and this can also mean that Ebonics must and will have validation since it’s the womb of Hip Hop slang which has gone global!

  2. I think all would agree that it is unacceptable for U.S. adults to fall so far behind our peers from other developed countries in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving with technology. And most would support the Department of Education’s renewed commitment to help our workforce develop these skills and advance our standing on the international stage. Yet few would dispute the fact that the U.S. remains one of the strongest economies in the world and a foremost leader in innovation. There is vast room for improvement, to be sure, and I certainly encourage the Department to redouble its efforts to cultivate skillful workers, to close learning gaps, and to invest in students at the earliest possible age. But in the process, it should take care not to limit its focus to a few technical skills while neglecting other crucial professional competencies that might not show up on standardized tests. In the end, these more elusive skills may well be the very assets that keep America’s creators and innovators on the cutting edge.

    While we must address the problems exposed by the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills, we must not let the immediate shock of its findings distract us from our greater, far more difficult task: preparing every American for the twenty-first-century economy. In an increasingly networked, programmed, and automated world, a successful worker must have more than mere “foundation skills.” She must know how to apply those skills to new problems and adapt them to new contexts. And most importantly, she must know how to collaborate, integrating her particular skill set in a team of colleagues very different from herself.

    Neither vocational training nor a traditional STEM curriculum can nurture the creative, adaptable, collaborative mind that will find long-term success in the new economy. Those who will thrive will require a far broader skill base than simply literacy, numeracy, and technological proficiency. Ultimately, we need more than “foundation skills” to prepare Americans for competition in the global economy. To maintain our position as a front-runner in creativity and innovation, we must cultivate these higher-order skills that—though difficult to measure—are crucial for success in the twenty-first century.

  3. Teachers only want to teach those who do not need help! Teacher need to go back and learn that everyone has an ability to learn, it may not be the student ,look at the teacher, My niece had one of those teachers, I helped her do her math homework one afternoon, the problems were simple, so I had her double check them on her paper so she could see where she was making mistakes, know what her teacher said, don’t do that the paper is messy and not ever one is good at math. Math teachers I had 40 years earlier would have be glad to see the problems done , so they could see my mistakes and help me learn. Needless to say I told her teacher to find another job she was not a teacher. I had a math teacher tell me once math is very simple learn the basics and even if you do math standing on your head the answers will always be the same. She was a great teacher and everyone wanted to be in her class, math was fun .

  4. I am glad to see the Department of Education taking new action to address the basic skills needs of U.S. adults. “Based on the results of PIAAC, it is clear that the U.S. needs a stronger, more comprehensive strategy to raise the skills of significant numbers of low-skilled adults. This effort will require the sustained, systematic efforts – and the coordinated investments – of a wide range of partners from the public and private sectors, working at the national, state and local levels.” is a good initial analysis of what needs to be done. I hope that the forums that the Department convenes, and the national plan that results from them, will make an important difference. We will know that it has if: 1) We have a significant infusion of federal, state and local funding to significantly reduce — or eliminate — the long waiting lists for basic skills services; 2) We have new funding for innovation and research, and if it results in programs that can demonstrate through evidence that they are making a difference; and 3) We significantly increase the percentage of adult learners who go on to and complete at least two years of post-secondary education. Currently fewer than 4% of adults with the goals of completing a four-year college education are able to do so.
    The Survey of Adult Skills (PIACC) shows that the U.S. no longer has a competitive workforce, is no longer a leader in education. Our present and future well-being depend on our taking this seriously unless we are happy, as one colleague put it, to see other countries “eat our lunch”. It is now time to make a serious investment (the past decade and a half we have shamefully dis-invested) in the basic skills education of U.S. adults.

  5. After 27 years in Middle School and some High School classrooms, I need to add that being “created equal” does not mean equal in abilities or talents, but equal in value as a person. We don’t talk about it “officially” today, but I.Q. difference is still a reality. Everyone can’t do everything, no matter how many programs or studies are applied.

  6. The sad truth is that there isn’t a lack of jobs, just a shortage of qualified individuals. As a nation, we have unfortunately put investment in education on the backburner. Instead we have relied on political “quick fixes,” or what economist Raghuram Rajan terms “political palliatives,” that numb the sting of financial insecurity. These palliatives temporarily alleviate financial distress of constituents, but fail to address the underlying problem: a low-skill workforce. Making reforms to education is an arduous process that takes considerable time to implement and take effect before the reforms can even be evaluated for effectiveness.

    In terms of proposals, I am an admirer of Germany’s apprenticeship system. With apprenticeships, highly-skilled jobs are not sole privilege of college graduates. In fact, businesses take it upon themselves to thoroughly train and invest in their apprentices, resulting in a highly-skilled workforce. If anything, this sort of attitude and/or approach to education needs to become more prevalent in the U.S.

    • I agree. Businesses benefit from the highly skilled workforce and a partnership with educational/vocational institutions makes sense. I too appreciate the German approach to apprenticeship in secondary school; as long as students here in the U.S. keep the option to obtain higher level skills/education regardless of career.

      • I agree with Liam and Jessica. We need a complete redesign of high school, so that pupils who are unlikely to thrive in higher education (and too likely not to make it to high school graduation) can begin pursuing “specific occupations and credentials more rapidly”, that is, after the ninth grade, with those students with a predisposition towards STEM fields but without the academic preparation to succeed in credit-bearing, non-remedial courses in our four-year universities after just two more years of college prep veering off towards P-Tech style programs in junior colleges following their tenth grade, and with the remainder thereafter more effectiveily being able to pursue “affordable college degrees that lead to good jobs” in a new institution, a secondary college with a more serious and mature culture than anything in American secondary education today.

        • I agree. Most school districts will have at least one school that embeds practical career experience with classroom learning. In these technical schools students not only receive a high school diploma but have the opportunity to earn certifications and gain real world hand-on experience in the field of their chosen field. These types of schools also give students a head start and competitive edge after graduation. I believe this can be a key component. If we can capture these students before they enter the adult education phase of their lives. Technical schools should be more prevalent in school districts.

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