Let’s Stop Kidding Ourselves and Start Innovating in Education

A new study is out from the OECD about worker skills in many countries, and it ain’t pretty for the US.

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It examined literacy, numeracy, and problem solving skills among adults. Compared to other countries we’re not doing well in any of these, and as the New York Times summarizes:

Americans were comparatively weak-to-poor in all three areas. In literacy, for example, about 12 percent of American adults scored at the highest levels, a smaller proportion than in Finland and Japan (about 22 percent)…

American numeracy skills were termed “very poor.” The United States outperformed only two comparison countries: Italy and Spain… That Americans were slightly below average in problem solving using computers was especially discouraging.

Some countries are making progress from generation to generation. But in the United States, as in Britain, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people coming into the labor market are no better than those who are about to retire. Americans who are 55 to 65 perform about average in literacy skills, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the countries surveyed.

To which I can only add, yuck. As we head deeper into the second machine age, we clearly need a highly skilled workforce, one with exactly the skills the OECD report finds lacking. America has the best-managed companies and most vibrant startup scene, but this is largely despite our educational system, not because of it.

We can’t kid ourselves any more that what we’re doing at all levels — from primary to college education — is working. It’s past time to start trying experimenting with new approaches, from flipped classrooms and mastery learning to MOOCs, doing solid research to understand what works, then scaling up these better answers.

Doing so is going to upset the status quo and threaten some incumbents (perhaps a lot of them), but these are small and necessary prices to pay for a smarter workforce, to say nothing of the more vibrant economy and healthier society that such a workforce will foster.

So let’s stop being complacent, and start demanding more.