Greetings from PIAAC-istan

I haven’t written much about PIAAC (the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies)—the latest international survey of adult basic skills—because I don’t have much to say about it, at least until the first set of survey data is released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tomorrow. (A U.S.-specific report that was due to be released by NCES tomorrow as well is apparently going to be delayed due to the government shutdown.) There is plenty of information out there about the study itself, so it really doesn’t make sense for me to try to summarize it. If you’re interested, a good place to start is the OECD PIAAC site. Another resource is the AIR PIAAC Gateway.

The last survey/estimate of adult skills in the U.S., the NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy), didn’t do that much, in my opinion, to move federal adult literacy policy forward. Not that it wasn’t helpful: for better or for worse, the NAAL provided us with a commonly accepted figure for the estimated number of American adults who struggle, to some degree, with literacy (93 million)—a figure that we’ve been using for about a decade.

But there were critics of the NAAL methodology at the time, and some confusion in the field about what exactly it measured. (I think the fact sheet we put out at D.C. LEARNs about the NAAL was pretty good, but others, not so much.) In addition, some argued that the 93 million number was so huge that it proved too overwhelming for policymakers to wrap their heads around. With a few exceptions (like the Affordable Care Act), our political system hasn’t had a particularly good track record in recent years of addressing 93-million-people-sized problems. The release of the NAAL certainly didn’t persuade Congress to make a substantial new investment in adult education. In fact, 2003, the year the national NAAL data was released, marked the beginning of what has actually been a gradual decline (in real dollars) in federal adult education funding via Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, the largest source of federal funding for adult education. I’d argue that most of the public policy successes since the last survey have been on a small scale—usually at the state and local level—often involving the creation of new models of service delivery, such as integrated career pathway models.

We’ll get new national numbers from the PIAAC study—and we’ll be able to compare those numbers with other countries that participated in the study. The NAAL also gave us state estimates (eventually), which was unquestionably helpful for state and local advocates, and probably does more to get the attention of  members of Congress than the national numbers. (On domestic issues, members want to know what the issue looks like at the state or district level.) My understanding is that it is hoped that credible state estimates based on the PIAAC data will be produced at some point, but it’s not yet known whether or when that will happen. If we don’t get them, then we will be facing an unfortunate situation where advocates (and the media, surely) will continue to use the old 2003 state estimates when reporting on adult literacy locally, even thought we’ll have an updated national estimate. Which will likely result in more confusion, unless (and even if) states and localities perform their own estimates.

The government shutdown may slightly dull the excitement over the release of this data. As I mentioned above, the NCES First Look Report with specific results for the U.S. population has been delayed indefinitely. In fact, right now you can’t get any information at all from NCES—if go to, you’ll see that this page, like  most federal government Web sites, is down.

Thankfully, the OECD report—which will have some U.S. data—will be released and there are several events here in the U.S. where experts will discuss the findings, starting at 5:00AM EDT (!) when the OECD will officially release the PIAAC data in Brussels, along with two international PIAAC reports: OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills  and The Survey of Adult Skills: Reader’s Companion. A highlights report, Skilled for Life?, will also be available. These reports will be downloadable at The PIAAC Data Explorer and data files will be available at (I’m really pleased that you can access the raw data files—that should prove to be really useful.)

At 10:00AM EDT, a panel will discuss findings from PIAAC as part of the fourth annual NBC News Education Nation Summit. Panelists include Former Michigan Governor John Engler, (now President of the Business Roundtable); Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (and a cool guy); and Mary Isbister, President of GenMet Corporation and Vice Chair of the U.S. Manufacturing Council.  (NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley was also originally on the schedule, but he will not be attending, as he has been placed in cryogenic freeze due to the government shutdown, like most federal government employees.) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be interviewed.

At 2:30 PM EDT, Andreas Schleicher, OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills, will present results from the first round of PIAAC via webcast. You can register for the webcast at:

While the Obama administration’s response to PIAAC may be somewhat muted due to the shutdown, it will be worth watching how the findings are framed when administration folks do comment on it. Remember that they have several high-profile education priorities on the table right now—universal pre-K and a slew of higher education proposals. I suspect Secretary Duncan will want to use this opportunity to tie the PIAAC findings to these two administration priorities. What kind of message they will have about adult education and adult literacy (if any) remains to be seen.

3 thoughts on “Greetings from PIAAC-istan

  1. Pingback: PIAAC Survey Results Released | Literacy & Policy | Jeff Carter

  2. Pingback: U.K. Report: Millions of Children Held Back by Their Parents’ Poor Basic Skills | Literacy & Policy | Jeff Carter

  3. Slight correction, the last national adult literacy survey was included in the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) of 2003. Here is my analysis of that report:
    There were some technical changes between the NALS 1993 survey and the 2003 survey. What appears in the succession of these reports, however, is that the number of adults in the lowest group has remained stable in the U.S. in contrast to notable improvements in other countries. The sticking point seems to be the persistent nature of poverty in the U.S. as comments have pointed out.

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